For the boundary-pushing Joe Schofield, great drinks begin with classic cocktail bones
How the award-winning bartender approaches classic and contemporary drinks.
Joe Schofield is busy when we talk to him; we interview him while he’s setting up his bar for the day. “It’s not ideal but time’s a bit of a luxury at the moment,” he says.
It’s not surprising, really. SCHOFIELD’S Bar, which he owns with his brother, is doing a humming trade having opened earlier this year; the brothers also opened the all day affair Atomeca in May; in addition to all that Schofield also serves as creative director for English vermouth brand Asterley Bros.
He’s a busy guy. He’s also a creative and talented bartender, one who has worked both in the rarified air of the American Bar at The Savoy in London, and in the rather more humid surrounds of Singapore at the groundbreaking and boundary-pushing Tippling Club — a place which saw Schofield rack up the accolades.
Not for nothing, he’s also the guy behind the in-depth online virtual masterclass for The Blends of the World, Bartender Admin with Joe Schofield.
What we wanted to know from Joe was how that big creative brain works, and how he approaches the two distinct strands of his bartending career: the classic cocktails and style of SCHOFIELD’S Bar, and the innovative and forward thinking approach he employed at Tippling Club.
What’s the big idea behind Schofield’s Bar?
SCHOFIELD’S Bar is essentially a classic bar. And I guess you can argue that it champions classic cocktails. The reality is we never wanted to be pigeonholed as just a cocktail bar...
A lot of people might go to a cocktail bar if somebody wants cocktails, or a wine bar if somebody wants a glass of wine, or even a pub if they want a beer. Why can’t one venue have exceptional quality of everything across the board?
Our focus point is serving what we hope is the best version of a particular classic cocktail that our guest has ever tried. We champion 12 drinks on the menu that will never change [like] the Bloody Mary, Bellini, Gin Fizz, Martini, Old Fashioned, Negroni, Sazerac. Also we’ve got 12 drinks on the menu that change every three months, six of which are lesser known classic cocktails, like a Tattletale or a Gold Rush; and then six of our own drinks that read like they could be a classic cocktail even if there is a bit of technique to them or a production process.
What’s the reason behind choosing that classic road, instead of having a menu full of signature cocktails?
We just thought, if you look globally there’s perhaps only a handful of bars [which do that] that are operating to a certain level where they’re caring about frozen glassware in the freezer, or the block ice etc, and thought that actually, and in a way it could be perceived as, perhaps a little bit less innovative than it actually it is but in a way we thought it was quite innovative to start championing classic cocktails again.
We’ve been very fortunate to do a lot of seminars and presentations all over the world, even in the run up to SCHOFIELD’S Bar in that two and a half year interim (pre-Covid of course), we managed to do about 100 to 120 different events in 60, 70 different countries. We found, when we asked in the on-trade or consumers what they actually prefer, 90 percent of people would actually prefer classic cocktails and regularly order classic cocktails in bars. Which I always found very interesting, considering [this is] an industry that prides itself on innovation, but at the same time the majority of people working in these industries who are pushing the boundaries or creating their own drinks or own signatures, their own cocktails, they would rather just have a Negroni, or a Manhattan.
Of all the work I’ve done over the years in different venues, Tippling Club was about innovation and pushing the boundaries, all the drinks still have the DNA of a classic cocktail, but at the same time they were seen to be a little more innovative and experimental.
We’re also very aware that we were going into a new market. We always wanted to be an extremely consumer-friendly venue, hence the wide range of offering. We’re actually quite a large venue, we can do 70 covers inside and up to 60 covers on the terrace, so 130 in total. Our long term aspirations for the project are to be a venue that stands the test of time. We drew a lot of inspiration from classic bars of the past, like Harry’s Bar [in Venice] and the American Bar at the Savoy, where I was fortunate enough to work. And we’d love one day for SCHOFIELD’S Bar to be considered that.
With these innovative venues, you need a costly refurb every five to 10 years; why don’t we just create a very classic venue that will hopefully be around in 50 years’ time, hopefully with me and Daniel still having a hand in service.
Thinking of your time at Tippling Club, how would you describe that style of drinks? Some would call it avant grade, some would call it contemporary drinks, how do you describe them?
For in-house and during presentations we’d describe them as Sensorium drinks. It’s basically something where we’re trying to approach as many senses as possible, and in an emotive sense as well in terms of the some of the garnishes being a bit fun or tongue in cheek. I guess we defined them as contemporary cocktail.
What attracts you about that contemporary style and what attracts you about the classic style? Are they similar things, or do they tick different boxes for you, scratch different itches?
Absolutely. First and foremost, whenever I’ve been working in a venue or running a venue, for me it’s always been important to make sure that every single piece of the puzzle is part of that overall picture. So for Tippling Club, obviously working alongside chef Ryan Clift, an amazing chef, an extremely creative mind — that was the embodiment of what Tippling Club was about. And we created a beverage project to match the concept at Tippling Club. And one of the greatest things about creating your own signature serves is your guests have an opportunity to try something that they’ve never had before.
On the other side of that coin, I still think that there are plenty of ways you can innovate, and elevate classic cocktails — that what we try to achieve here at SCHOFIELD’S Bar. And I think for me, going out to a bar, you know sometimes I want to be pushed a little bit or have an experience, the same way if I go to a fine dining restaurant, but 99 percent of the time when I’m going to a bar it’s because I want to relax and I want to enjoy myself. I guess you could draw parallels to classic cocktails being a little like pizzas or burgers in our industry — everybody loves them, everybody eats them — that’s what I guess — in your words — scratches that itch.
What does the creative process look like when you’re approaching these two different drink styles?
To be honest, the majority of the drinks that I’ve always created have been based on the DNA of the classic cocktail anyway. So I always take a classic or a lesser known classic, and remove ingredients, add ingredients in, mix things around a little bit. Because I find that not only does it help you create a really sort of balanced drink, not only in terms of acidity and flavour but also in terms of texture on the palate. It’s very easy for you to be able to take a guest on that journey. If they are willing to try something, you can say, oh, this is a little bit like a Tom Collins. It helps guests feel comfortable in ordering that drink, and I think ultimately at the end of the day you want to be making sure that your beverage program is a) delicious but b) guests have that confidence to come and order something.