Having learned his craft in his native Australia, Robb Collins only began entering cocktail competitions earlier this year.
And in September, only a few months after he moved to Brighton to manage the newly-opened Waterhouse Bar And Terrace at Hilton Brighton Metropole, Collins was named the city’s best mixologist after winning the Brighton Mix Off Cocktail Competition at Sea Life Brighton.
The 28-year-old admits moving into bar management was a complete accident.
“I was studying for a masters in sports science and got to the point where I needed to make some money,” he says. “The only job I could get was in a bar on the Gold Coast where I lived.
“I was fortunate enough to get a job in a good bar, under a good bartender, and after a few months I realised I really enjoyed it. You can earn some good money and be creative, which really appealed to me.”
That creativity has held him in good stead both with competing in cocktail competitions and creating cocktail menus – his first full menu for the Waterhouse will be launched in January.
“I’m always thinking about flavours and coming up with new cocktail lists,” he says. “I’ll wake up at 2am with an idea for a new drink.”
His forthcoming cocktail list is set to feature drinks inspired by classic English dishes, such as an apple crumble-inspired cocktail with custard foam, and variations on the bar’s best- selling gin and tonics using different garnishes and tonic waters.
His first competition was earlier this year, for Dutch liquer Bols, where he straight away made the final against the best mixologists in Australia and New Zealand.
The Brighton And Hove Food And Drink Festival competition led to one of his hardest sessions behind the bar of his career.
He made the final after submitting a two-minute YouTube video of him making a cocktail with Kraken Black Spiced Rum. The video was both most viewed and most liked, putting him into the final four.
The finalists set up their own bars for 200 guests in the Sea Life Brighton aquarium, serving drinks for more than 90 minutes featuring a guest spirit – which for Collins turned out to be Jim Beam’s Devil Cut – a strong bourbon.
“It’s a pretty heavy but beautiful whiskey,” he says. “You can really taste the oakiness of the barrel.
“Not many people like whiskey so I thought out of the four spirits I could have had it was the hardest product to make drinks with.”
He created two cocktails – one a twist on the whisky sour, using lemon juice, almond syrup and punnets of blueberries and blackberries and the second a nod to the cosmopolitan, combining whisky with peach liqueur.
Adding to his woes was the fact he was on his own behind the bar – not realising he could have brought in assistants to help serve the crowd.
“It was my hardest two hours behind a bar,” he says. “I was shaking non-stop – at one point I thought I was going to pass out it was so hot in there!”
The extra work paid off though, as he came top in the audience vote.
When it comes to running a bar he believes the important thing is for a bartender to be friendly and approachable – and to use their knowledge wisely rather than trying to bawl someone out for asking for cola in a single malt.
“It’s not like being a heart surgeon,” he says. “At the end of the day everyone who goes out for a drink goes to have fun. Some bartenders can act too cool for school.”
He has insisted that all his bartenders – he hates the word mixologist – straw-taste every drink they prepare, and are on hand to help anyone not sure what to order.
“It’s about introducing people to new flavours and ways of drinking,” he says. “Most people have no idea what they want to order, or what they would like. A good bartender can open them up to new ideas, and make them comfortable. Most guys have always drunk beer, or they might drink vodka, and might order a vodka martini because that’s what James Bond has – they don’t realise how strong it is.
“I know from experience guys tend to like something harder – they don’t want to look like a joke drinking a Cosmopolitan. Girls are a lot easier to judge, but what we always ask anyone is whether they would like something sweet, sour or bitter.”
A safe bet is a mojito.
“They are so nice and refreshing and tasty, but you can play around with them,” says Collins, who has just created his own white chocolate version.
“The best advice for anyone making their own cocktails is to always start with less – you can always add more if it needs it.”
Now the bar is preparing for Christmas – which means a whole range of Cointreau and Grand Marnier style cocktails, as well as mulled wine, with Collins creating his own non-alcoholic version.
- The Waterhouse Bar And Terrace, is part of Hilton Brighton Metropole, King’s Road, Brighton. The bar is open Open daily from 8am to 1am. Visit www.brightonmet.hilton.com or call 01273 775432