Interview with Johan Ekelund - bartender and co-owner of Sharp & Dapper

During my latest London visit, my friends and I were enjoying our drinks at Happiness Forgets, one of my favourite bars in Shoreditch, while discussing (in Swedish) how and when to continue to our next destination. Suddenly, to our surprise, the bartender started talking to us in Swedish. It turned out to be Johan Ekelund, who besides working at Happiness Forgets also keeps himself occupied as co-owner of Sharp & Dapper - a company making and selling a "shirt companion" which keeps your shirt tucked in and your socks pulled up at the same time - perfect for bartenders who want to look great throughout every shift.

Photo © Victor Frankowski
What made you pursue a career in bartending?

I am an educated chef but in my last year in college I started to find cooking very boring so I started to work as a waiter. I have always looked up to my sister so when she became a bartender I felt that would be something I could do as well.

When and how did you get your first bartender job?

I started working as a bartender in a nightclub in Kalmar called Palace. My boss came up to me one day (approx. ten years ago) and asked if I knew how to bartend. I answered that I know how to make a Piggelin and I guess that was enough criteria.

Do you see yourself continue working as a bartender or just something to do until a "better" job turns up?

The dream has been to open my own bar but I have just started my own company called sharp&dapper but as the company is growing I am still working part-time in bars.

Where have you worked except for Happiness Forgets, and which place has been most important regarding your knowledge and skills?

In London working at Match bar taught me 90% of my knowledge and skills.When I London 2007 I had an interview with the person that I have most respect for in the bartending industry, the group head bartender of Match Bar Group at the time Kevin Armstrong. He took me on and I had the honor to start working in Match Bar W1. During my stint at Match Bar Group over three years I also worked in all the bars including The East Room, Harlem and Milk & Honey just to mention a few.

October 2010 I started working at Quo Vadis in Soho where I was working under Paul Mant. I worked there for 6 months and during that time I decided to start my current company sharp&dapper with a colleague Durham Atkinson (Former GM of Milk & Honey).

Working with sharp&dapper as much as I can at the moment. The sewing is keeping me very busy.

What is your favourite and least favourite drink to make and why?

I take great pride in all the drinks I make and I love to do all kinds of sours. Tom Collins is a big favourite together with Bourbon Sour. My least favourite drink really depends on the situation. I mean when I’m flat out behind the bar I hate to get a docket for a Bloody Mary.

Do you have a favourite kind of customer?

When I’m busy, a customer that looks through the menu and orders from it instead of some twat not even looking at the menu ordering some obscure cocktail to test my knowledge.

What do you like most about your job?

Putting my head down and make drinks and sometimes talking to people.

Do you have any special strengths or weaknesses as a bartender?

I like to think I’m quite efficient and fairly good at balancing cocktails. I also can’t stand trouble makers in the venue and can be a little sensitive in those situations.

What do you like to drink when off duty?

Highballs. It’s refreshing and is hard to get wrong unless you’re a bartender who thinks he’s being nice and pouring you half a glass full of spirit. Just 1 part spirit to 4 parts mixer and I’m a happy customer.

What upcoming cocktail trends do you think we can expect in the near future?

Don’t care for trends. I think the trends are driving too many bartenders that can’t even balance sweet and sour into trying new thing before they can master the classics. Something Gordon Ramsay said that I like; "Why cook all this elaborate food when you can’t even cook a fucking omelette!!! This is why your business is failing!!" Too many cowboys out there. What’s wrong with just making a nice drink, have some good chat and give the customer and smile and friendly goodbye when they leave?

Which are your favourite bars/bartenders and why?

My favourite bar must be Little branch and Milk & Honey in New York. Favourite bartenders I don’t feel comfortable saying in case I would miss naming someone but there is a lot of good friends out there who are amazing bartenders! If you twist my arm and make me say a few names one would be the man I have praised before, Kevin Armstrong, and another guy who just started at Happiness Forgets and he did a very good impression on me the first two shifts is former Experimental Cocktail Club bartender Geoff Robinson. He was amazing with the customers and was sending out very good drinks!

What do you think about the current cocktail scene in Sweden, and how does it compare with London?

I haven’t been in Stockholm/Sweden for a few years but what I heard it got some really good bars popping up all over the place. I have been following the competition with Denmark and I love these kinds of competitions where people get together and just have a fantastic time. The bad thing about Sweden is obviously the tax. I have several friends that been to Stockholm that says they love the bars but the thing that brings the experience down is the price on cocktails. That together with the limited selection of spirits (although it has improved since I worked in Sweden) is the main thing why i think London is a step ahead on the cocktail front.

What about spirits and cocktails inspire you?

I like most things but gin and bourbon has a little advantage in my book. I’m not the most creative bartender when it comes to new drinks but when I try I like to do simple drinks with products that’s not home made or difficult to get hold off. I think that less is definitely more. Making a drink that will cost you £15 because the stuff that goes into the drink is really expensive is not hard. Take Antica Formula for example. I’m not slating the product because it is delicious but it will make horseshit taste good and more important bump up the price.

I read blogs where the authors say that it was the best Manhattan they ever had and it used home made bitters, Van Winkle Rye and Antica Formula. WELL OF COURSE IT WAS, the only problem is that it would cost a customer £15 and unfortunately not everyone can afford that? What about just putting some care and attention into making the same drink with Martini Rosso, a decent Rye/Bourbon and Angostura Bitters and just making the best possible drink you can and charge £7-£9 for it?

What do you think about cocktail competitions and have you competed in any?

I was forced to enter a few but I hate it to be honest. 90 % of cocktail competitions are entered by bartenders who make the most outrageous concoctions they can come up with that never will be served after the competition is over. It’s all down to who you are as a person. I have no need in being the world’s most famous bartender. As long as I make drinks that people come back to the bar i work in for more, the bar I work in makes a profit and my colleagues and I get along I have no need to enter competitions.

Which of your signature drinks and what else in your career are you most proud of so far?

I’m most proud of my two wins in the amazing speed competition "It’s a Rematch Beeyatch". 2 Daiquiris, 1 Mojito, 1 Cuba Libre, 1 Caipirinha, 1 blended Pina Colada, 1 Mai Tai, 1 Planter's Punch, 1 Zombie and 1 can of Red Stripe in 2minutes 10 seconds and 2minutes 20seconds. This comp started by Paul Mant and Tim Stones is one of the best things that hit the bartending scene in a very long time. All you need to do is to man up, come down and have a great time!

What's the story behind sharp & dapper shirt companion, and what's the feedback so far?

I came across the product on eBay when I worked in The East Room about 3 years ago. We dressed like the guys at Milk and wanted to look good so I bought the product to try it. I really liked and wore it every time I wore a shirt it but didn’t think more of it at the time. Working as a bartender is as we all know not one of the most well paid jobs and wanting to open my own place in the future with my money I needed to make more cash. Lying in bed on a Sunday wondering how I could make more money I came to think about this product I was using that is amazing but forgotten about.

I started to do research to import it from the States where it still is made today but it would be too expensive and the product packaging is not very attractive so I looked at all the different things that it was made out of and found out that it was very easy to source. I told the idea to Durham who loved it and wondered if he could join me in this venture and I said yes. We ordered what we needed and went to Argos and bought the second cheapest sewing machine and got to work. We started off very simple but then found new better elastics, clips and even adjusters so the product evolved to something we know are very proud of. We got help with all creative input from a gent who works for Wallpaper magazine and we have now been up and running for just over 3 months.

We have received a lot of amazing press and we get a lot of laughs, but once our customers try it they think it’s an incredible product which is very useful. It provides more than functionality and makes you feel great when you wear it. Bartenders is one of our target markets however I strongly encourage every man that wears a shirt for work or just when he would like to dress up to put the laughs aside and give it a go. If they don’t – that’s fine, they’re just missing out.

Do you think bartenders get the recognition they deserve?

I think that bartenders that do the job because they think it is Rock & Roll to get boozy, party all night and constantly looking tired and scruffy gives bartenders that do take great pride in what they do and take it seriously a bad reputation. It is a very dangerous profession always being surrounded by alcohol and I don’t think a lot of young (and old) bartenders understand the risks involved because they think that bad things won't happen to them. I think it’s on the way up but it will take some more time to get bartending to be accepted as a serious career.

Would you like to share one of your own recipes?

Sure thing. I was asked by Charles Vexenat to come up with a drink including Pernod Absinthe reflecting my company so I came up with the:

Dapper Man Sour
25ml Pernod Absinthe
20ml fresh lime juice
20ml 1:1 homemade sugar syrup
35ml fresh Pink grapefruit juice
20 ml egg white
6-8 mint leaves

Double dry shake and then shake normally. I don’t believe in fine straining but if that is how you (the reader) like it I have no objections. We have it on the menu at Happiness Forgets and I’m very happy to say that it flies out.

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