Mixologist raises the bar for cocktail and food pairings

Seasoned mixologist Julian Maarman is painting the town red with his Blu Table food and drink pairing evenings. Photo: Supplied

Seasoned mixologist Julian Maarman is painting the town red with his Blu Table food and drink pairing evenings. Photo: Supplied

Published Jul 21, 2023


Julian Maarman, a former George resident who now owns the Gqeberha-based The Oswald Bar Agency, has seen a few things in his time tending to the country’s punters.

It’s not surprising that humour is a strong part of his make-up – it has to be in an industry that serves up its fair share of characters.

“I am as old as your father’s favourite single scotch malt whiskey and as vibrant as your mother’s favourite glass of shiraz,” Maarman says cheekily when asked his age.

A former manager “smashing just about every piece of glass in the bar” after breaking up with his girlfriend and blaming it on colleagues, only to be outed by CCTV footage, is just one of the interesting tales he has gathered along the way.

Having seen and done it all, the York High School alumnus decided the time had come to go out on his own to offer events where food and drink pairings are the order of the day – or night – and so The Agency was born in 2014.

One of his more successful offerings is the Blu Table evenings at the Radisson Blu, Port Elizabeth, hotel.

Seasoned mixologist Julian Maarman is painting the town red with his Blu Table food and drink pairing evenings. Photo: Supplied

“My bartending journey all started at a venue called The Rust cocktail lounge back in Pretoria and was really my first taste of the bar-verse. I never considered it a career path until many years later,” he explains.

“I then spent a few years in a number of other roles in the hospitality industry, which I absolutely hated, so I decided to stick with bartending.”

Maarman believes his knack for hospitality comes from being raised in a home where there were constantly guests at the weekend and he was “forced to play waiter and bartender at a young age”.

By his estimation, he has clocked more than 10 000 hours serving punters their favourite drinks. The industry being what it is, he is thankful to have had several mentors along the way.

Storytelling is an important part of the cocktail experience, he says.

“My creation process starts with taste followed by a compelling story. I am a natural presenter, so my presentation adds to the anticipation and flavour of the drink.”

But it is also not uncommon for him to draw inspiration from the “strangest places”, as he puts it.

For example, a taste of salmon once spurred him to mix a gin infused with the popular dinner fish. Beetroot peels for bitters and mushroom soda as a lengthener have also found a way into his marvellous concoctions.

It is his love of food that ultimately put him on his current path.

“Pairing cocktails and food offers an opportunity to express yourself and your skillset through flavours. I have developed a reputation for weird combinations, so I am keen to keep this going and blow the flavour spectrum out the water.”

Maarman is particularly proud of what he has put together for the Blu Table evenings.

The drop-off point for guests is the Craft Republic restro-bar, where they are treated to a welcoming drink before being whisked away to the Radisson on the Gqeberha beachfront in a vehicle provided by the BMW dealership in the city.

Once at the hotel, they are escorted to the private dining area for a second drink before the cocktail and food evening begins. After dinner, they head back to Craft Republic to join in the festivities.

He believes such events are booming because of the hospitality sector commercialising activities to give locals and visitors more intimate experiences of cities.

“The first few paired dinners I did as a bartender was through the Airbnb platform from my private home. To end up hosting these dinners at the Radisson was not part of the plan, but most welcome.”

Maarman brushes off perceptions that cocktails are more a young person’s game, saying “there is drink for every stage of your life”.

The cocktail and food combination also helps to break stereotypes, and wine, coffee and non-alcoholic drinks are very much part of the experience.

“The mixed drinks are all from my personal catalogue I have developed over the years. The pairing is not just a play on flavours; we are looking at bouncing acidity, mouth feel, contrasting flavours and even strange ingredients in the drinks.”