That Extra Dash with Travis Kuhn

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As Angostura aromatic bitters continues to follow the journey of some of SA’s top barmen and explore what it takes to make it in the cocktail industry, we chat to industry stalwart – Travis Kuhn.

“Angostura remains a key ingredient behind the world’s top bars by investing in and supporting the new generation of drinks professionals, endlessly excited about what the future has in store for this spirited industry.”

During Travis’ twenty years in the bartending profession, he has taken a number of titles, including:

  • #1 SABA (SA Bartending Association) National Flair Champion 2007 – 2014
  • #1 SA Global Challenge Champion 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011
  • #1 Diageo World Class SA Bartender of the Year 2018 *current title
  • #5 Diageo International World Class Bartender of the Year 2018 *current title
  • #1 B.A.R (Bartending Accolades and Recognition) Awards Bartender of the Year 2018 & International Footprint Award 2018 *current title
SA B.A.R Awards Bartender of the Year 2019 Travis Kuhn. Image credit Loop Films That Extra Dash with Travis Kuhn

Travis, how did you get started in the industry?

I got a job at a small café in Greenpoint, which is now the site for Pigalle Restaurant. I then went onto to work for Long Street Café where I really learnt the most about the bar. After that, I moved to La Med in Clifton, which was an absolute institution at the time.

And, what are you up to now?

I’m owner of The Perfect Serve mobile bar service and founder of the industries B.A.R (Bar Accolades and Recognition) Awards. I also have a special surprise on the cards for Cape Town…

But, naturally, at this exact moment I’m making my wife a Margarita.

We’re going to go ahead and assume that throughout your career you’ve learnt from others… Who has been some of your biggest mentors?

From a flair bartending point of view specifically, I’ve always followed the creative force that was so embodied by the flamboyant Frenchman, Nicholas St. Jean. A bigger trailblazer in art of flair bartending you will never see. Love him or hate him, he was an undeniable talent; performing skills which would not be believed unless seen.

More than flair, Kurt Schlechter has played the biggest role of mentor in my bartending career. A gentleman of the bar, a scholar of the craft, a leading advocate for the advancement of SA bartending and a great human.

What are some of the biggest lessons they’ve taught you?
Nicholas taught me the importance of being unique, and that this is a way more important thing than winning championships.

In the more serious realms, Kurt taught me many things, including the notion that you should never stop learning. He taught me that there is always someone out there that is better than you and also worse than you, and that both of those things can change at any time depending on your dedication. He taught me loads more, but none more so than the fact that I am inferior to him in both knowledge about the bar and inability to drink Tequila.

With a hugely successful career in the trade, do you have any advice for rookie bartenders?

Yes.

Firstly, always remember we sell experiences, not liquor. Precision beats technique, passion beats talent and taste beats concept any day. Meaning, don’t sacrifice measuring your ingredients in favour of trying to look cool. Free pouring is for cowboys, measuring tools are for pharmacists.

Secondly, there is a substitution for talent, but there is no substitution for passion. 

And finally, never pursue a concept so hard that the drinks are negatively affected. Even the infamous floating tumbler cocktail, although very cool, will actually get you nowhere unless it tastes good.

On to your history with our favourite brand… what was your first encounter with bitters? And Angostura aromatic bitters specifically?

In my first post behind the bar I accidentally confused a Rock Shandy with a Beer Shandy, mistakenly adding Angostura to a lager beer instead of the official lemonade and soda mix. 

Shortly after that, I bought my first cocktail book, aptly named ‘Cocktail’. Not the novel of the same name that the movie was based on starring Tom Cruise, but rather the one published by Harrington and Moorhead. In this book, I remember reading the recipe for an Old Fashioned and seeing that the recipe specifically called for Angostura aromatic bitters. It took me back to the Rock Shandy incident.

 That Extra Dash with Travis Kuhn

Once you see the bottle for the first time you immediately notice the yellow cap and the size of the label, which prompts you to go and research the reason as to why the label is the way it is. And now that I’ve said that it’s your turn to go and find out why!

Complete the sentence: My extra dash would be…

reserved for my Moscow Mule, traditionally it doesn’t actually call for any spice other than what you get from the Ginger Beer, but I always put two dashes of Angostura in my Mule for extra depth in spice and flavour.

In life, my extra dash is the advice from The House of Machines, ‘Don’t be a Dick’… to the bartender. No one thinks it’s cool. If you got too much ice with your whisky just say so, we’re not mind-readers you know.

Travis says his perfect Angostura cocktail is the Martinez. The missing link between the Manhattan and the Martini…

Martinez Cocktail

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Mix your own Martinez Cocktail.

Cheers!