South Africa’s current BAR Awards Bartender of the Year and Best Pop Up Bar title holder, Travis Kuhn. Picture by Warren Rasmussen.

The fourth annual Bartending Accolades and Recognition (BAR) Awards took place last month to celebrate the best in South Africa’s cocktail industry. 

We had chatted with South Africa’s current BAR Awards Bartender of the Year and Best Pop Up Bar title holder, Travis Kuhn about his journey in the industry.

Q: How long have you been a bartender? 

A: I started my career in a little bar in Greenpoint in 1998. So I’m in my 21st year of Bartending now.

Q: What do you love most about your job?

A: I suppose I love the creative expression the most, both in service and in competition. Meeting people is a great element too, but essentially I love to compete, and creatively engaging in competition against other super talented people is the most fun and challenging element of bartending.

Q: What qualities make a good bartender?

A: I see a great bartender as someone who is firstly a student of the trade. He has a great foundation forged in the history of bartending and a locker room filled with the knowledge of how to mix classic cocktails and drinks. Above this, a great bartender must have the creative wherewithal to be able to create new drinks and methods of which he writes cheques which his flamboyant skill set and technique must be able to cash.

Q: What can't you drink anymore after being a bartender for so long, and why? 

A: Overly sweetened drinks! The more your pallet explores unique taste sensations, the less time it has for sweet things. As you grow as a bartender, you explore the flavours of bitter, sour, smoke and salt more than the flavour of sweet.

Q: Current drink of choice?

A: Normally I would say an Old Fashioned, but I’m going through a bit of Margarita revival at the moment. Try it with Agave nectar as a game changer, this is known as a Tommy’s Margarita

Q: Favourite place to drink?

A: I don’t have a favourite place really. Any place, and any given situation can yield a great drinking occasion and it usually depends on the company more.

Q: Since you started working in bars, how has the cocktail culture changed?

A: The industry has changed loads. The focus in those days (early 2000’s) was all about flair bartending. Placing more focus on the show and the delivery of the drink as opposed to how it is now, where everything is about the taste, the history and technique. Everything is better now, the types of ice we get, the equipment, the bars we work in, all of it screams professionalism where the bartender is the ultimate professional himself.

Q: How do you feel about the win?

A: To be recognised for a special contribution of any kind in this industry feels amazing. As I said before, bartending is a pretty noble profession which has largely been under celebrated and the skills of highly trained and specialised people have been overlooked for over a century. We are only now starting to gain respect for what we are doing as professionals in the culinary realms and to receive this kind of recognition from your peers is what we all do this for.