Philip Duff the Internationalist

This article was featured in the February edition of Bartender magazine.
By Philip Duff

Burned Out


Famously, no matter how beguiling a living goddess like Angelina Jolie might appear, there are a score of chaps (and quite a few ladies, from what we understand) who are tired of putting up with her shit. Nothing lasts forever; not love, freshly squeezed lemon juice – or passion.

About four years ago I got to a stage in my career where I really didn’t give a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut about cocktails any more. I was done. Finito. Burned out. RTU. It was my own fault. I had dived deeper than any man, even an Irishman, should dive into the enticingly deep blue pool that is cocktails, a pool revealed to the likes of us only in the mid-90s after a good-ish decade of Long Island Iced Teas and Chocolate Monkeys. Once the revolution came, I was first on the barricades. I read voraciously, travelled incessantly, spoke at every bar show that’d have me, haunted Drinkboy and wrote what felt like a seminar a week for half a decade.

I lived, breathed and exuded cocktails from every pore (that, and milk thistle extract). I have here in my office a complete archive of every single issue, ever, of Australian Bartender, CLASS, Mixology (Germany), Theme/Venuez (Holland and Belgium), BarLife (the Czech Republic and Netherlands editions), Nightclub and Bar (US) – and, shamefully, many, many more publications. I’ve read the lot, plus every book you can imagine and I’ve been to all the bars too. Then one day, I really didn’t give a shit about cocktails any more.

Not that I didn’t like cocktails; not that I didn’t enjoy them. But I had lost my cocktail mojo. I only wanted to drink Manhattans, Negronis, Old-Fashioneds (bit of a wanker drink now, though, eh?) and beer. Occasionally I’d find a drink that rekindled the spark – the Jasmine is one – but as the years passed and drinks got ever so much more up their own arse, I felt more and more isolated from what was going on. Surely these bartenders could see they’d just reworked an existing drink? That’s not a twist on the Last Word – it is a Last Word, just with rum instead of gin, you fool.

Do we need overwrought cocktails? I wasn’t sure, but I knew that I didn’t. Ingredients failed to fascinate me. I was baffled that people raved about cucumber; cucumber’s tasteless at the best of times when you eat the fucker, let alone when you distill or muddle it. I was cheered by the popularity of Fernet and Chartreuse; it paralleled the development of my own palate, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was people like me who were pushing it. Burn-outs.

Ironic really, because this co-incided with an increase in my knowledge and contacts that meant that I could reach out to virtually any city that had a decent bar, anywhere in the world, and I’d know someone. Because I still read feverishly, I knew more than ever before. But it left me cold. What to do?

My Cup Re-filled

In this time, I opened a poncy cocktail bar, quite a fine and successful one, door 74. I stocked it with the best brands, the nicest glasses and the best ice. It rocked. But I was happier as host than as bartender; partly because my idiot ex-business partner had designed The World’s Most Inefficient Bar®, but also because I realised the best way to make people’s drinks taste good was to make them feel welcome. It was like taking off my blinkers. I felt foolish for all the time I’d wasted seeking ‘the perfect drink’ when I could just have been nicer and more welcoming to my guests.

The drinks my bartenders did make matched my own preferences closely but a strange thing happened, what with all that time talking to guests I was beginning to like them – I never had before. I had never really thought about it and I bet you haven’t either. I mean, you assume you like people, because you’re a bartender. You look at your guests and think “stylish dude!”, or “I’d like to give her one”, or perhaps “three pints”. But I found myself really liking my guests, getting to know not just one or two in particular, but all of them in general. I wanted to make them happy, so I balanced my preferences against my convictions and got my groove back.

Little by little my mojo returned. It will never be the same as before however; I can never, I think, look upon a recipe again without some nagging part of my lizard brain whispering to me that it’s not new, it’s just a Hanky Panky with Zwack. Losing your passion is like breaking someone’s trust, which in turn is like breaking a glass table; you can fix it, but it will never be as strong afterwards as it was before. I can however now create cocktails and test out new recipes without loathing myself, and (for those of you struggling in the dark tunnel that is cocktail burn-out) confirm that there IS life after the Manhattan.

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