‘1,000 cocktails on a busy night.’ Dandelyan’s James Wheeler on the award-winning bar (and their tour Down Under)

Will Meredith and James Wheeler of UK bar Dandelyan.

The Blends of the World is bringing the award-winning UK bar, Dandelyan, to Australia this August (take a look at the dates in the image below) and so as a preview of the tour, we’ve got a great Q&A with their general manager, James Wheeler. He talks about what it’s like working at the bar — named as the World’s Best Cocktail Bar in 2017 — and gives us an idea of what to expect when they tour our shores.

Register your place now — visit www.the-blend.com.au.

What can we expect to see when Dandelyan arrives and tours Australia?
The idea is that will collaborate with some of the best bars in Australia to come up with some really unique and interesting drinks. We have already started work on prep and ideas using some cool Aussie ingredients and it’s all looking super exciting.

What first comes to mind when you think of Australia?
Lot’s of sun, surf, a really long journey, koala bears and kangaroos (I’ll be gutted if I don’t get to see both).

How long have you been in the industry and briefly give us an insight onto how your journey started?
Getting on for 10 years now (that’s the first time I’ve ever said that, that is terrifying!). I started working behind a bar straight from studying and fell in love with it. I moved to Bournemouth when I was 20 and worked my way up through a few managerial roles within restaurants and bars before making the move to London. Got involved with Sweet and Chilli as well as managing a club in Covent Garden before finding myself with the opportunity to join the Dandelyan team.

How has London evolved over the last few years?
I’d say that bars in general have become more open to the idea of making their lives easier with the likes of batching and prepping more. You see way more bars now that are batching in a sensible way in order to benefit their service. I also think the bars that are doing well now have taken a step away from the ridiculous garnishes and showing off with how a drink looks and started focusing again on making drinks taste great.

What excites you about working at Dandelyan?
Dandelyan has become a beast. We now employ 30 people and make over 1,000 cocktails on a busy night. Keeping on top of that and still maintaining the standards that we set out to achieve three and a half years ago, that excites me. Working with such an incredible group of talented and creative rock stars is pretty sweet too.

Sustainability and minimal waste is something the trade is really taking on board as an everyday practice now – how important is this to you and can you share some methods you use an Dandelyan?
We have always tried to be as sustainable as we can be whilst operating this very large and busy bar, we have to be creative with it. We practice some super simple bits like using all off cuts and left over’s from juicing but we are also very conscious of the S word when creating new menu drinks. ‘How can we incorporate a flavour without creating more waste’ is something that we are always asking ourselves, and it’s crazy how many options there are. We used pineapple four different ways in four different drinks, quite literally wasting nothing.

What do you think makes a great team?
A group of people that have common goals of making people happy and delivering a product that they are proud of. This team here are truly remarkable and inspiring, they put such a huge amount of effort and love into what they do here and it certainly doesn’t go unnoticed when it comes to guest experience. It’s definitely more of a family than it is a team.

What has been your most memorable moment you can share with us, working in the industry?
Well I was lucky enough to be in New Orleans last summer and I’ll never in my life forget the moment that we collected an award that said we were the world’s best cocktail bar.

What has been your most embarrassing moment behind the bar?
I was bar in Bournemouth and I was making two lovely girls a couple of French Martini’s (delicious) and my shaker opened as I was shaking in front of them. They were both drenched from head to toe and I literally had no idea what to do. They were surprisingly ok about it, I would lose my shit if that happened to me!

Why do you love coming to work every day?
The team here are so special it is an absolute pleasure to come and work along side them. I am so immensely proud to be a part of Dandelyan, I simply love being here.

How long does it take to create a Dandelyan menu?
We put roughly six months of ground work into our menus. It is a pretty intense process and it involves the entire team from start to finish. We base our menus around stories that the team have created, we then build drinks around those stories. It’s such a brilliant way of having the whole team truly believe in the menu and it really brings us all together in a unique way.

Cocktails are pretty subjective – whether or not you like them is up to the individuals taste. How do you decide which one is a winning one for menu inclusion?
Well another advantage of having the entire team involved is that you have creative and experienced feedback from 30 people. We can very quickly find out if a drink is to the taste of the majority or the minority. We will all give feedback on each stage of the creation process and it will then be a work in progress from there.

Who inspires you in the trade?
Iain and Ryan have been such huge inspiration for me over the last three and a bit years. I wish I could understand how their brains worked! The team inspires me day in day out too. If I ever have a down day that I’m just not really feeling it, I’ll have a walk around the bar and watch the team do their thing, I always leave with a big smile on my face.