Four top bartenders on how you can improve your bartending memory

Jenna Hemsworth is the 2018 Bartender of the Year. Photo: Christopher Pearce

What can you do to improve your bartending memory? Online today and in the January issue, we looked at the possibility that your phone, and the increasingly present tech in our lives, might be making us dumber — or at least affecting a bartender’s ability to remember recipes.

And despite having a computer in one’s pocket these days, the fact remains that remembering recipes is a key part of being a good bartender: if you’ve got to stop and search the Google every round, then maybe you should be doing something else.

With that in mind, though, we spoke to four bartenders who know their specs to get their tips: Alex Boon from Mjolner Melbourne (and the reigning Australian Diageo World Class champ); 2018 Bartender of the Year Jenna Hemsworth; the reigning Speed Rack Australia champ, Millie Tang from The Gresham in Brisbane; and owner-bartender of the award-winning Melbourne cocktail bar, Above Board, Hayden Lambert.

Alex Boon is the reigning Australian World Class champ. Photo: Supplied

Can you describe any techniques or tricks you have used to remember recipes?

“When I first started at the Merchant Hotel way back in 2006. I used to use the time I waited for the laundry at the local laundromat to learn recipes. I would write the recipe out until I thought I would have it. Then my wife Erin would test me on the recipes at random. I learned all the drinks in a week. I used the same technique at Bar Americano and now at Above Board.” Hayden Lambert

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“It helps understanding the drink families as most always follow a pattern but for me remembering recipes is all about how frequently I make the drink. If it’s a cocktail that almost never gets ordered even by the most savvy bartenders usually there is a reason it has been forgotten.” Alex Boon

“When I go to learn a new recipe, I usually write them down and read them over. I associate them with a classic cocktail I already know, and usually make one if I’m in the bar. I measure in order of largest volume down, so it’s a bit unorthodox that I usually put the booze in first instead of the cheapest ingredient but it’s a habit I’ve not been able to break.

“If I’m working with multiple cocktails in the same round, I usually put all the base spirits in first, then all the citrus and sweeteners and then any modifiers last.

“You only really need to remember the basic skeleton of drinks making, and most cocktails follow that basic recipe with a substitution or addition and if you can associate one with the other it helps to group them into one category and remember more of them.” Jenna Hemsworth

“To be honest the only fail proof way of remembering recipes I’ve found is by physically making the drink. Personally I learn best visually and through practice. However when it comes to your bloody Bartender of the Year exam, flash cards are key to remembering notes. Physically written, it ingrains better.”  Millie Tang

Hayden Lambert is co-owner and bartender at Above Board, Melbourne. Photo: Sam Bygrave

When you come across new recipes, are you a write it down in a notebook type or a type it up on a computer type?

“Always a notebook and pen. I keep one in the bar, at home and travel with one. Furthermore: Technology is good for organisation but a physical form of writing is there to aid creativity and brainstorming/forming concepts.” Alex Boon

“Over the last few months I have been playing with different ways of recording recipes. I used to use Moleskine books and I recently received a great book from my bartender friend Robert Wood created a note book called ‘The New and Improved Cocktail Journal’ which is a great notebook for recording ideas and recipes. But honestly I have been putting drinks ideas and recipes into an online database. I currently use Airtable. Using Airtable also allows me to share the recipes in a simple format with my team and with other bartenders. I have used Excel but I don’t like the layout. With Airtable I can easliy create forms that allow my team to upload recipes.” Hayden Lambert

Brisbane bartender Millie Tang won Speed Rack Australia in 2019.
Have you ever used any apps etc to remember recipes?

“I rely on my phone a lot (as we all do) to get me out of a bind with a drink I don’t know or remember. I keep all my recipes on my phone so I can flip through them instead of using apps.”  Alex Boon

“I used an app for a little while for recording recipes, but it wasn’t great for learning recipes.”  Hayden Lambert

And remember, you can always work it out

“If I’m in a situation where someone asks me on the spot for a certain drink I don’t know, I can either ask them what their preferred spec is to get out of that situation, but I’m at the point where if I don’t know a recipe I just politely ask them how they make that drink. We can’t know every single cocktail ever, and trust me, when someone tells you in that situation you’re unlikely to forget it any time soon — it’s a learning experience for both people involved.”  Jenna Hemsworth