Hazel Davis chats to competitive bartender Nicole Sykes about 3am finishes, wax on her clothes and women in the mix.
Edinburgh-based Nicole Sykes has been a bartender since 2014. Since then she’s reached the Glasgow final of the Southern Comfort UK Southern Showdown cocktail competition and is now in the running for the Diplomatico World Tournament.
She’s also been chosen as one of eight bartenders from the UK and Ireland appearing as part of the international Tales of the Cocktail – Tales on Tour, which will see her working with some of the world’s greatest bartenders.
How did you get involved in bar work in the first place?
By accident. I moved to Edinburgh in search of a job with the local council doing admin, like I had previously. I needed work to keep me going until a position became available so a friend of mine got me a job in my first bar, EH2 Tempus on George Street, now known as The Printing Press. I fell in love with the work and haven’t left the bar since.
What’s it like doing competitive bar work?
It’s hard work, it’s not as easy as we make it look but it’s exciting. There’s always a competition to work on or a tasting to attend to try new and interesting things.
It really brings the small bartending community in Edinburgh together. It gives me a chance to meet other bartenders from different cities and countries. This allows me to share ideas and learn from different cultures.
Can you describe the atmosphere at competitions?
It’s great. Although everyone is there to compete against one another, we are also there to observe everyone’s creativity and ideas.
Cocktail competitions are fun. I always get nervous before competing but the friendly atmosphere from the judges, brand ambassadors and fellow competitors always puts me at ease. We are there to support one another.
How male dominated is it?
Any competition I have done has been fairly male dominated. Edinburgh’s bartending community is small and only a handful of females compete from Edinburgh, but we are judged and respected just as equally as the boys. It’s nice to see more girls coming into the industry.
What’s the most sexist thing (if anything) that’s happened to you in your career?
To be honest, I get sexist comments thrown at me fairly regularly. Mainly by the older generation and delivery drivers but I think it’s harmless.
I’ve worked with males in the past who assumed that just because I was a girl working in bars I was ‘the floor girl’ and had to wait tables and clean up after them whenever they were on shift.
What exactly is Tales of the Cocktail?
It is the premier cocktail festival where international spirits professionals and industry workers spend a week in New Orleans attending seminars, tastings and networking events, and is the world’s annual meeting place for the exchanging of new ideas, products and techniques. It’s the chance for industry folks all over the word to meet and share ideas.
“As a bartender, two shifts should never be the same. Different people coming into my bar means different conversations, different styles of drinks, completely different experiences for each person. It keeps me on my toes.”
This is the first time the touring event has ever come to Europe so to have it in Scotland, in Edinburgh, is really exciting. It’s a pretty big deal.
Who are your bartending heroes and why?
My late friend, John Crosby and first bar manager, Paul Grant. While I was working in my first bar Crosby took me under his wing and shared his knowledge with me. On my first Saturday night on George Street, close to tears he told me, “You’re awesome. You’re gonna go far in this industry.”
Paul was hard on me; he watched over me and made sure my technique, taste and presentation was perfect. The tough love made me the bartender I am today and I can’t thank these two boys enough.
Where are you usually based?
The Voyage of Buck, an independent cocktail bar in Edinburgh.
What’s a typical day for you?
A lie-in usually, then coffee. I’ll then check my emails. I get emails with event and spirit information quite regularly. Even on days off, it’s not really a day off. I’ll attend tastings if any are on in the area or read books. I’m re-reading The Joy of Mixology now.
If I’m not working in my bar, I’ll visit other bars in the city to see friends. Bartending is a lifestyle really and it’s a lifestyle I’m happy with.
What do you love about bartending?
It’s something different every day. As a bartender, two shifts should never be the same. Different people coming into my bar means different conversations, different styles of drinks, completely different experiences for each person. It keeps me on my toes.
I love making my customers happy; that makes me happy. It’s a very rewarding job. It’s also a great way to make friends. I have so many friends in Edinburgh just through the industry. I have friends that have previously been my customers and I have colleagues that are now my friends. It’s a full-time job but it’s fun, exciting and challenging.
Is there anything you hate about it?
Having nowhere to eat after a Saturday close, the cold walk home through the centre at 3am and the sugar syrup/coffee/candle wax stains on my clothes. Oh and anyone who doesn’t see this industry as a career. It’s my career.
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Hazel Davis is a freelance writer from West Yorkshire. She has two tiny children but the majority of her hours are taken up with thinking about Alec Baldwin singing sea shanties and the time someone once called her "moreishly interesting".