How to Turn a Bar Job Into a Cocktail Career

How to Turn a Bar Job Into a Cocktail Career

Swedish-born bartender Oskar Kinberg of London’s Oskar’s Bar tells me how he progressed from serving vodka Cokes to mixing cocktails for Michelin-starred chefs.
September 22, 2016, 12:00pm

I've always wondered how the hell you make a career out of bartending. Despite my efforts to progress from serving pints of ale in a pub-cum-Thai restaurant while studying at university, I never quite reached the kind of swanky bars or "mixologist" job title I aspired to.

As I descend the steps of Michelin-starred chef Ollie Dabbous' eponymous restaurant in London's fancy Fitzrovia neighbourhood, and on into Oskar's Bar, I'm determined to uncover the secret.

oksar-kinberg-pouring-gin

Oskar Kinberg of Oskar's Bar at chef Ollie Dabbous' London restaurant. All photos by the author.

Swedish-born Oskar Kinberg, head bartender at Oskar's, laughs at my earnestness when I ask how he worked his way up in the cocktail-making business.

"It was pure coincidence," he explains. "When I was 20, my friend asked if I wanted to go to London with him and work as a bartender before I went to uni. It sounded quite fun, so I went."

READ MORE: This Montreal Bartender Can't Make Cocktails But He's One Hell Of a Storyteller

Needless to say, Kinberg never ended up doing that university course.

"I decided to start to bartending in better places which is when I figured I could do this for longer than just a year," he says.

oskar-kinberg-sorrel-cocktail

Kinberg's pisco, melon liqueur, sorrel juice, and fresh lemon juice cocktail.

After working in a few bars around the capital, Kinberg opened up Oskar's Bar in 2012 with chef friend Dabbous, who launched the restaurant upstairs. Kinberg has now published his first book of recipes, Cocktail Cookbook.

"Making drinks is addictive," he says. "It's quite physical as well and becomes like a rehearsed routine after a while. You know where everything is. If one spirit is out of place here, I can tell straight away."

Looking around Oksar's Bar, which ticks all the style credentials (exposed brick walls, communal tables, piping overhanging), I admit to Kinberg that the most advanced I got in my bartending career was graduating from the old man pub to mixing Cosmos for slurring freshers at the student bar.

He laughs again.

oskar-kinberg-edible-flowers

Kinberg adds edible flowers to his sorrel cocktail.

"Don't worry, I served plenty of vodka Cokes before I moved on to more sophisticated drinks!"

As Kinberg lines up the ingredients for the first drink he's making me, he admits: "But to be honest, the longer I've been bartending, the simpler the drinks have got."

Though, of course, he's not talking about getting back to basics in a spirit-and-mixer kind of way. Into the shaker in front of me goes pisco, melon liqueur, sorrel juice, and fresh lemon juice.

Kinberg continues: "When I was putting together the book, I looked back at some recipes that I wrote ten years ago. Some of them contained about 30 ingredients. Now, my ideas are much more stripped back and condensed into fewer elements. You can't taste that many things at the same time, anyway."

oskar-kinberg-herbs

Herbs behind the bar at Oskar's.

I take a sip of the most healthy-looking cocktail I've ever laid my eyes on. It's bright green and refreshing—the right side of sweet—and I'm pleasantly surprised at how well the pisco and sorrel flavours match. This is the kind of juice I can get on board with.

Back at the bar, I quiz Kinberg about how he uses the variety of herbs, fruit, and vegetables at his disposal.

"When you're building a drink, you want to highlight one ingredient, whether that's really good whisky or a banana. Sometimes it's a herb," he says. "You then pick a few things that go with that."

oskar-kinberg-mixing

Kinberg continues: "For example, I got some pandan leaf in the other day and it smells quite buttery and nutty. So, I infused a rum with it and then added some coconut, a little bit of dry sherry, and lime. It's like a coconut daiquiri type thing but it's got a bit more length to it because of the sherry."

For my next drink, the star ingredient is shiso, a minty Japanese herb. Its supporting cast comes in the form of gin, violet liqueur, fresh lemon juice, sugar syrup, and lots of crushed ice.

I ask Kinberg how he goes about pairing ingredients that might be more commonly found in the kitchen.

"Cocktails tend to follow similar flavour patterns but it's always good to just mash them up with some sugar first because you get a lot more flavour out of things," Kinberg explains. "It's the same with a lot of alcohol. If it's 40 or 50 percent ABV, put a little drop of sugar in and suddenly everything just opens up."

oskar-kinberg-cocktail

He sums it up succinctly: "Sugar is a bit like the salt and pepper of the bar."

Kinberg pours the crushed ingredients into a stainless steel julep cup and wraps a napkin around ("It needs a jacket because it can get a bit cold to hold.") I'm not as much of a fan of this drink. It's a bit too sweet and gives me momentary brain freeze in my haste to take a sip.

READ MORE: Being a Sober Bartender Always Helps Me Remember You Being an Asshole

It's time to leave and Kinberg wipes down his waistcoat, telling me he wears it as much to catch stains while whipping up drinks as a fashion statement.

The mid-afternoon sunshine seems a little more blinding as I leave the dark bar a tad giddier than when I came in. Perhaps I could earn one of those waistcoats and stand behind a swanky copper bar one day after all.