Danil Nevsky on his global adventures in cocktails and bartending

danil nevsky horse milk

Danil Nevsky describes himself as a bartender, consultant and vagabond. After working at bars in Scotland such as Orchid in Aberdeen, he went on to Tales & Spirits in Amsterdam and now Two Schmucks in Barcelona. He is also co-owner of bartender social media platform Cocktails For You and travels the globe consulting, running workshops and speaking at industry events. Here he talks to Mark Ludmon about bartending and The Vagabond Project where, for 19 months, he went on a journey of discovery to experience different drinking cultures worldwide by taking a hands-on approach, stepping behind some of the world’s best bars, and documenting the expedition.

Q. What led you to come up with the idea for The Vagabond Project?

During my Tales & Spirits days, our cocktails were inspired by stories from all over the world. Obviously when you’re trying to run an intense bar like that with such a close team over many years, one of the biggest challenges is fatigue, stamina and trying to stay inspired as well as motivated. To put things into perspective the average staff turnover in Tales & Spirits was three to four years and the bar only been open for six. One of the many ideas thrown around was a one-month bartender exchange residency with other bars all over the world, to learn from each other and to share ideologies as methods of work. In the end, like many ideas, this one stayed on the drawing board but it planted a seed in my mind. How can I be the world’s best bartender if I haven’t even seen or travelled the world? How can I talk about ingredients, cultures and methods from countries I’ve never even travelled to? It’s the old “Good Will Hunting” quote about how you can know all about Michelangelo but “I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel”. So the idea was born: 12 countries, 12 months and 12 bars. I traded room and board for free work and tried to cash in as many favours as I could from friends all over the world.

Q. What did you get up to for The Vagabond Project?

So there were a whole bunch of things that happened. In the end I didn’t do this for PR purposes. I didn’t have the backing of a huge brand and all the support was completely grassroots. I spent over 14,000 euros of my own hard-earned cash in order to fund the entire thing. In no particular order:

  • I learned to blow my own glass in a speakeasy glass factory in Compton, Los Angeles.
  • I bartended in full drag for a tiki party in Norway (pictured below).
  • I served drinks to Jennifer Lawrence and Luke Evans in Budapest.
  • I made a Horse’s Neck on a horse in Kazakhstan. (Click here for the video.)
  • I milked a horse and made cocktails with it in Kazakhstan (pictured top). (Click here for more.)
  • I was thrown into the canals of Amsterdam. (Click here for the video.)
  • I spent a day training with other bartenders in the Olympic Training Centre in Paris, coached by the manager of the national basketball team of France.
  • I had my appendix almost blow on a plane trying to get Australia.

Q. You clearly like the extreme life. What are the most mind-blowing things you have done?

Q. What have you learned from The Vagabond Project?

Three truths:

1) Bartending is a unique profession unlike any other. For example, I’ve found myself sitting having a drink in a bar of a country where I don’t speak the language or know the culture yet I managed somehow to explain to the bartender that I did the same job and by the end of the night when he was slammed, I ended up helping him out doing a bit of barbacking. We shared a shot and bonded over our mutual profession. I don’t expect a baker from, say, Istanbul to turn up to a patisserie in Paris, proclaim he can make croissants, get thrown an apron and asked to jump straight in.

2) “They’re guests, not customers” is a wrong way of thinking. I understand the mentality behind this ideology and I know it leads to a more genuine style of service. However, guests who come to your house aren’t shown a bill at the door when they go to leave. So if they’re paying for a service you must be able to deliver. Sometimes I think bartenders forget that and I believe it is very selfish to do so.

3) People drink to celebrate, people drink to drown their sorrows, drink when they’re bored and drink when they’re stressed. There are as many reasons or ways of drinking as there are races, cultures and countries! There are as many styles of hospitality and types of service also but, regardless of all that, a genuine smile and laughter will take you further than any books, skill or knowledge ever could.

Q. How have you been sharing your Vagabond life and experiences?

To be honest it’s been mainly and loosely based around only my Facebook and Instagram but the whole point of the project was you actually experience things in real time. Sometimes by spending the time trying to record everything, you are distracted from actually living the thing you’re trying to record and share. Most of my experience has been shared through the people I meet who’ve been interested in the project although I was lucky enough to do a seminar halfway through my project at the Athens Bar Show in 2017 to explain how everything was funded and the trials and tribulations of what I faced. I’ve had the odd article here and there where some of the weirder things I’ve done were picked up by certain on-trade magazines. I hope to return this year to speak about the experience as a whole if possible!

I’m doing a series of 10 articles in collaboration with the Shackleton whisky and Cocktails For You. They heard about the trip and wanted to us to share our travels from around the globe on their website and with their media partners as it seems very similar to the “exploration”-based aspect of their whisky. I’m going into detail with 10 of the 12 locations and creating cocktails inspired by them alongside photography from Eddie Rudzinskas, my partner at Cocktails For You.

Q. Is The Vagabond Project over or do you have more plans?

Technically the idea is that The Vagabond Project must have a definitive end. It isn’t very sustainable to live the Vagabond life in a long term! That being said, due to my appendix operation I missed out working almost a month in PS40 in Sydney so I hope to go back there to officially finish it off. Also we had ideas about breaking it down and doing a more micro-travel-style Vagabond project based on specific regions of the world since it really is impossible to capture the beauty of the world around us in just 19 months. If I had all the money in the world I would create an internship in Cocktails For You where I would have a new Vagabond Ambassador every two years travelling the world on our behalf and reporting on what they would find.

<Q. How does the project match with what you are doing at Cocktails For You?

The Vagabond Project was always developed under the Cocktails For You umbrella as it met the three necessary criteria we have that drives all of our projects:
1) By bartenders for bartenders
2) To inspire, educate and entertain
3) Sharing in caring.

By travelling around the world as much as I did I was able to discover new techniques, ideas and, most importantly, people. Generally at most bar shows, you end up meeting the same group of travelling bartenders from country to country but by having the ability to stay in one place for longer than three days, I would be able to discover the heart of a place rather than just those with the PR budget.

Q. So, what are you up to these days?

At the moment I’ve got two main projects in the pipeline: Two Schmucks and Cocktails For You. I joined Moe Aljaff in Two Schmucks after moving to Barcelona after finishing the Vagabond Project in order to stay in the active bartending industry. I believe it is impossible to preach to bartenders how they should be doing their job if you’re unable to carry a tray, serve guests or pour a drink properly! We’ve gone from strength to strength in the bar with building the team, changing menus monthly, opening a kitchen and hosting some of the world’s best bartenders. The bar was refurbished on a shoestring budget of 2,000 euros and almost all profits go into trying to develop it further and improve the entire venue. Thanks to our silly videos we even managed to get a station donated by Behind Bars Agency from Norway worth 10,000 euros as long as we mention it in our media… *cough* SPONSORED POST *cough*

My main project remains Cocktails For You though, after I became a partner in the business with Eddie in 2017 who founded the platform. We’ve grown a lot in the last year or so. Our core principles guide the work we do using the tools that we have, one of those is “By bartenders for bartenders”, and that key message guides everything we do with our social media channels. Every year we release an “Industry Calendar” that syncs straight to your smartphone with the dates of all the major bar shows and links to their websites so that bartenders worldwide have easier access to this information. Last year, we also teamed up with Barometer Bar Show in Ukraine to broadcast seminars live on a TEDX level free of charge and we managed to get over 381,658 views on the live stream over the course of three days and we’ll be doing it all over again this year to match our second principle at Cocktails For You, “To inspire, educate and entertain”. Social media and the internet has given the power back to the bartender. Power to the people!

Q. How did a Russian-born Scotsman in Aberdeen come to be doing this?

To be honest I have no idea really, and it sort of just happened! The Aberdeen bartending community in my opinion is one of the most genuinely hospitable and tight bartending groups out there (obviously I’m biased). I’m honoured to have learned to bartend there and I think it really really shaped who I am as a bartender as a person. In a nutshell I took part in a cocktail competition in 2012 called Bols Around the World. It was a shock to probably the entire UK bartending community, and most of all myself included, that I somehow won both the UK leg of the preliminaries as well as my regional one too. The final was in Amsterdam where I met Boudewijn Mesritz, the Dutch champion, and we bonded over the course of the competition, so when it was time for him and his partner Lydia Soedadi to open the now infamous Tales & Spirits I got a call to move over to Amsterdam. A decision was made, flight tickets were bought and I learned the skill of biking while intoxicated very quickly.

Fast forward three years later, I was representing the Netherlands at the finals of the 2016 Martini Grand Prix where I met future partner-in-crime Eddie Rudzinskas. I told him all about my idea for The Vagabond Project and that I was leaving Tales & Spirits to travel the world trying to become a truly international bartender. He suggested partnering up, so a decision was made, flight tickets were bought and I learned the skill of flying while intoxicated very quickly.

Q. On your travels, including Brooklyn Bar Convent and Tales of the Cocktail, what insights do you have about where the bar industry is going?

This entire question probably needs an entire three articles separately to cover it properly but I’ll try to do my best to play Nostradamus and throw a few ideas/predictions into the mix. With all my answers I’d like to point out that patterns and trends can be spotted throughout drinking history and what is old may become new again.

The rise of populism in cocktails and bartending. Cocktails in many parts of the world are generally associated with the upper class and/or luxury. The biggest shift we’re seeing around the world in cocktail menus and communication between bars and the general public is the ability to explain what is on offer as simply as possible. For example, bars like Mace in New York where illustrations of the spices, drinking vessels and simple clear explanations of the major flavour components help guide the drinker to choosing the correct beverage in as simple way as possible.

Cultural appropriation in cocktails and bartending. Don’t get me wrong here, and take this in the direction of the commonly understood meaning of this phrase. What I mean here is how certain concepts and bars are culturally appropriate to the location of where they’re based. Two good examples I’d like to use here are The Cocktail Trading Co in London and Mootee Bar in Johannesburg. There are many colloquialisms in the drinks descriptions of the menu at The Cocktail Trading Co which would only make sense to someone raised in the UK regardless of their race. The same can be said of Mootee Bar in South Africa where some beverage names can only be pronounced using a local language of a specific peoples.

Industrialisation of bartending. Different companies all over the world are emerging as leaders in bar consultancy (The Compound Collective in Singapore), menu design (Drinksology in Belfast), bar station production (Check Behind Bars in Norway), uniform production (Mr Murka in Russia) and even more recently training (Ananas Academy in Australia). In theory, we should be able to churn out establishments of the highest quality like there’s no tomorrow. Only time will tell whether or not this is a good thing or not as machines generally evolve faster than people, so we’ll either be replaced by robots or expect a slow stagnation with a lot of copycat venues.

The burst of the bartending bubble. It is becoming harder and harder to justify the costs of certain individuals for guest shifts, takeovers and event work due to the perceived return on investment of those certain individuals meeting certain KPIs set by the brand. Bartenders have become self-indulgent, spoiled and lazy in many cases due to what I like to call the Wolf of Wall Street Generation. So either bartenders will have to evolve in learning how to become “influencers” in their specific fields or the money will simply dry up. A very good example of this is Bar Convent Brooklyn in New York City this year, a premier bar show that came to the US for the first time bringing with it a slew of speakers hand picked by Angus Winchester himself, and many of the topics were unique to the show. Yet only about 10 bars in the city actively participated in the show and there seemed to be little interaction/interest from the general bartending community of NYC. Yet they want us to be taken seriously as a profession…

The re-emergence of the brand ambassador. It is almost impossible to have a brand without a brand ambassador these days, and many chase the gig that they think comes with a corporate expense card of unlimited proportions and “easy” days. Cue the over-saturation of the brand ambassador role and a shift in the industry. I believe the brand ambassador is coming back now and coming back in force, re-trained to understand sales and where the money is coming from. They will re-emerge stronger than ever to spearhead brands all over the world. They will become the important mid-point of communication between the corporate office and the on-trade bartending community. Brands will understand that it’s not about how many number of venues you visit but rather what you stand for.

Q. With events and social media building a global bartending community, does the UK bar industry still have any distinctive characteristics compared to other countries?

The UK is undeniably the pioneer in creativity and trend-setter for many other markets around the world. London especially has raised the crème de la crème of the world’s bartending talent and/or has inspired/trained many of the leading figures of other markets around the world. The only situation is that the rest of the world doesn’t particularly care anymore. In days gone past, travelling to London for a bar tour was the best way to get inspired, to try new flavours and learn new techniques, except now everything the UK is becoming more and more available elsewhere. Books are being translated, equipment exported and not all flavours/trends that are popular in the UK are popular in other countries.

The only negative aspect is that the UK bartending community is generally cut off from the rest of Europe (don’t blame Brexit here). How many UK-based bartenders travel to other lesser markets on their own money and without brand sponsorship? That being said, the UK and London especially raises bartenders that have to be the wittiest, fastest and most precise. They are generally the most adaptive to other races, cultures and able to deal with a much broader variety of situations than other cities and this can be generally attributed to the multicultural society.

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