Don’t worry, I have already anticipated your disapproval. It doesn’t matter how many 16-hour shifts I put in at kitchens around the world. Nor how many times I find myself in tough working circumstances. Whenever I take my foot off the gas and work a job bordering on a holiday, I’m accused of hypocrisy. Look, it’s not my fault that I had the opportunity to shake cocktails on some tropical Thai island. It’s not my fault they insisted on putting me up in a $500 a night luxury beachfront villa. Perhaps I should have worked one of those grimy jobs you sadistically take pleasure in reading about me suffering in? But in my situation you would have done the same…and you don’t even share my little guilty secret I’m about to confess to.
You see when ‘tropical island’, ‘cocktails’ and ‘bartending’ are ever mentioned, one thing springs to mind – Tom Cruise and the 80s movie Cocktail. You can stop sniggering, but for some time now I have had grand delusions of a Brian Flanagan based fantasy set in a bamboo hut, where I would find myself in a floral shirt, the fountain of youth, shaking drinks “so sweet and snazzy” to exotic women in leopard print bikinis. Maybe I would meet my Jordan Mooney? Maybe there was a nearby waterfall to live out another type of fantasy? Maybe…Maybe I’ve confessed too much.
So yes, no matter how odd your dreams are, it pays to follow them because there I found myself, at the Belmond Hotel in Koh Samui, ready to start my week of bar tending. Clearly all those stories of missed flights and general bad behaviour had not dissuaded the Belmond staff from giving me access to all areas to everything beverage related. Drinking was part of the experience I was told (although they did assure me that should I have one too many daiquiris then the groundsman had a suitably sized net to catch me in before I disturbed the other guests).
Factor 50 at the ready, there have been few easier commutes than a short walk along my private beach to the ‘chefs on wheels’ bar. There stood a small food truck affixed to a moped where I would spend my day hacking the tops off coconuts, and topping them up with enough local rum to help the many honeymooners turn the resort into a swingers party. Strictly in the interest of professionalism, I had to sample each concoction to make sure I knew what I was talking about and after all it was rather hot and I needed to keep hydrated. Trouble soon followed when the general manager caught the local barman and me conspiring how we could break out of the complex with our ‘booze on wheels’ truck to find some local night life. It was soon decided that it was perhaps for the best I spent the following day at a bar that I couldn’t take ‘on tour’.
The next day at the beach bar, the real challenge began with a long cocktail menu inspired by homegrown herbs, Thai flavours and local spirits to master in a short period for the day’s service. But I had a good incentive. If I did well, and learned the principles of cocktail making I could spend the evening creating cocktails of my own.
After some good behaviour, it wasn’t long before I had commandeered the bar to play around with a few ‘alternative cocktails’. Thankfully by this time, the Cocktail fantasy was making good progress having found my very own Jordan, who was a much more seasoned professional in the cocktail department than I was. Much to the confusion of the other bar staff a cocktail battle soon broke out between the two of us. Her take on an Manhattan, with smoked Chase vodka was a winner, as was my exceptionally camp rhubarb martini. A twist on a Mojito by muddling kaffir lime leaves, palm sugar, watermelon and tequila, proved successful but by the time a whisky, passion fruit and ginger thing made an appearance I was in a cocktail induced state of giggles and ready to ease off the experimenting in favour of an ice cold Chang. Surely not all bar tending is this much fun?
As you may imagine, the days at the Belmond continued in much the same manner but for all the cocktails consumed, it was another drink that caught my eye. But how could it not when at $100 a cup it is the world’s most expensive coffee? What makes it so expensive? The coffee cherries are fed to elephants who digest the fruit but excrete the bean. These beans are then washed, sorted, roasted and ground. The coffee is then brewed using an 18th-Century Austrian machine – somewhere between a French Press and a syphon.
At first I dismissed this as nothing but a gimmick, paying for the novelty over the quality of the coffee. After all, what coffee can really be worth $100 a cup? Having spent a week coffee farming in Brazil I was certain the experience wouldn’t compare. But on tasting the brew I was surprised. The ‘Black Ivory Coffee’ was not like any coffee I’ve tried before, an exceptional light body, slightly sweet, with hints of lemongrass and other such zesty notes. No caramel, chocolate or malt flavours here. If you have enough money, and drinking animal excrement is your thing then you know the place to go!
As the sun set on my last evening at the Belmond, my time in South-East Asia came to an end. With 5 jobs, in 4 weeks across 3 countries, I was pleased to have escaped my project for a short while and lose myself as a barman in a tropical paradise. So what if my attempts to emulate Mr Flanagan had actually resulted in a slightly sunburnt and tipsy Englishman dishing up ropey cocktails by the pool? I had a damn good time doing so in such a world of luxury… it really was the stuff of ‘Cocktails and Dreams’. I leave you with the words of the last (Thai) barman poet…