I don’t do a lot of interviews on b&t, but when I do, I try to pick people who I think stand out from the crowd and bring something different to the drinks industry. So when I asked Andy Ives and Simon Webster if I could interview them, I got the reply I expected; “Ha, yes for sure, if you are happy for two idiots to grace your pages!” Well I certainly am happy to have them featured on b&t, not only are they two of the nicest guys in the drinks’ industry, they’re also humble enough that they were probably shaking their heads and wondering why on Earth anyone would want to interview them.
But I’m getting ahead of myself and forgetting the intros; for those of you who don’t already know, Andy and Simon are the brains behind BarLifeUK, the UK’s leading online drinks industry resource for bartenders, and one of the best bartender websites in the world. They are well known faces in the UK cocktail scene, as they probably judge more cocktail competitions than anyone else I know, not to mention their dedication to visiting as many bars as humanly possible in every city they visit.
I’ve known Si and Andy for several years now, and was lucky enough to get to know them even better last year during Tales of the Cocktail, where we avoided the usual industry activities together, shot guns, played poker on a river boat and helped Cuba Gooding Jr. on his way to getting in a drunken shoving match with a bartender (that resulted in a warrant being issued for his arrest); perhaps that’s a story for another time though!
Below you’ll find a short interview with the BarLifeUK guys, held over a Daiquiri, a Manhattan and a Dixie last week.
DP – So how did you two get started in the drinks’ industry?
SW – I worked in pubs from about the age of 17 in Taunton, places like the Cross Keys where we had scrumpy on tap and had to clean the lines every few hours because all the sediment clogged them up. From there I moved on to managing bars and night clubs while I was at Uni, but really these were just jobs to pay the bills I suppose.
After University I ended up working for The Publican on the exhibitions side of their business, and in 2004 I decided to take a chance and move to Australia. Over the six years I was there I worked on
Aussie Bartender and set up the Sydney Bar Show. In October 2009 I got a call from Andy asking if I was interested in coming back to the UK to set up BarLifeUK, and here we are four years on. God what a boring answer, I almost put myself to sleep then!
AI – As per usual. Not that my story is much more interesting, but here goes; I was doing an engineering apprenticeship for British Rail, and between it being privatised and me being bored senseless I found myself looking for a job. I saw an advert; you know the standard ‘looking for outgoing, self-motivated, friendly and professional types’ so I thought I’d try my luck. Imagine my joy when I landed a role selling advertising for Tunnels and Tunnelling Magazine and Farming News Magazine.
I guess that’s what set me off in publishing though, and before long I was working for Quantum on Flavr and The Publican, which is where I first met Simon. I was working on the sales side of things still, although I was doing a bit of writing for travel and snowboarding mags on the side. I remember I sold in an ‘advertorial’ piece and for some reason there were no journos available so I was asked to write it, and that was my first step into journalism really.
DP – So you guys met while working at the Publican?
SW – well we met at a pub actually.
AI – yeah there were a few people from Quantum meeting for drinks and I showed up with a bag and no place to stay, so Simon foolishly offered to let me crash on his sofa.
SW – I would never have offered if I’d known he was going to stay for 9 months!
DP – So how did you come to set up BarLifeUK?
AI – Well I had worked on CLASS magazine, back in the days when Tom Sandham was still at the helm, but was offered a role in Australia. Unfortunately my visa was tied to the publication I was working for so when they went bust I had to go back to the UK.
I arrived back to find that Flavr had closed down and CLASS was no longer a free publication and thought there was a gap in the market, so that’s when I called Si to see if he thought we could do something together.
DP – So what’s the philosophy behind BarLifeUK?
SW – It’s simple really, we wanted to set up a website with the sort of stuff on it that we would like to read. We wanted it to be written in the language that bartenders use when they talk to each other, not in a patronizing tone of voice. It was always meant to be a news portal where at any time you could get a snapshot of what’s happening in the industry, but it was important to us to make it accessible and interesting, and also we knew we wanted the website to be completely free.
AI – We also wanted to give a voice to smaller brands, that couldn’t afford to buy their way into other publications. It’s something that we hope we’ve managed to pull off quite well.
We didn’t want BarLifeUK to get completely caught up in London either, so we try to get out to smaller cities and towns around the UK as often as possible. There are great things happening all over the UK, but often it’s only London that grabs the headlines.
We’ve tried from day one never to preach or talk with too authoritative a tone of voice, the idea was always to offer our thoughts and let bartenders and the experts in our industry debate and discuss.
DP – I’ve known you guys for a while now, and have never seen you show up in a chauffeur driven car or tailored suits, so if you don’t mind me being cheeky I’m guessing you don’t do it for the money.
SW – This is definitely a lifestyle job, although we do hope to make some money out of it one of these days. For me though when, on rare occasions, I’m awake early enough to see people commuting to work looking miserable, I know that I couldn’t do that. I’d rather have a smaller income but love what I do, and I’ve managed to achieve both of those things with BarLifeUK.
Also it’s a chance to do something for myself; Andy and I aren’t making someone else rich, whatever we do it’s for our benefit and done our way.
I wish I could say we are in it for the money and loose women, but so far we haven’t made our fortune and BarLifeUK has never got us laid. Even if there was a chance, Andy is always too drunk to close the deal.
AI – Yeah and the girl is never drunk enough for Simon to close the deal!
This may sound a bit lame, but I think a good bar is the best place in the world and they’re a really important aspect of society. At this time they’re one of the last remaining gathering places we have, and that’s pretty important. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do that work in and around bars. Just as art exists for no other reason than to be beautiful, bars exist purely for pleasure. It’s pretty cool to be involved in an industry that’s sole purpose is (or at least should be) to bring pleasure to other people.
It’s important to both Simon and I that BarLifeUK gives something back to the industry, be it giving a voice to small brands, or giving bartenders the chance to be recognised and promote what they’re doing. We don’t want to be parasites in this industry, and we hope that we give back as much as we take.
DP – So what have been the highlights of your time running BarLifeUK?
AI – I suppose there are obvious ones like the moment I found myself in a helicopter for the 42 Below competition in New Zealand. Things like that are real life ‘moments’ that I’d never experience if I wasn’t doing this. For me though, the real highlight is when we walk into a bar and the bartender knows us and thanks us for what we do. You know it really makes me feel great that we’re giving something to the industry and people we may never have met appreciate it.
SW – For me a highlight was our first Tales of the Cocktail nomination, and having BarLifeUK recognised at such a global level. I remember at the time we were so broke we couldn’t afford to buy a drink to celebrate the nomination. We were working out of my flat, and Andy even tried to pawn his watch so we could buy some beers. In the end we had to borrow £10 to buy a few cans of beer (it was Fosters, because it was on special offer at the time!) so we could sit in the garden and congratulate each other.
DP – So I guess that was probably a ‘lowlight’ too? It sounds like it hasn’t been an easy journey.
AI – No, we’ve stretched our overdrafts to the limit and been down to our last pennies more times than I care to remember. It helps that we’re happy to live like scumbags if we need to and can quite happily live on beans and toast!
I remember once we had a really important Bacardi event to attend, and were down to our last £10. Somehow on the journey I lost my train ticket and had to buy a new one with our last few pounds. I remember just thinking ‘Christ, we can’t even buy a round of drinks or anything’.
SW – There have been lots of moments that could have been bad, but we have always managed to laugh and keep each other going through them. Honestly it’s our friendship that has kept us going through those tough moments. I don’t think I could have done this if I’d been working with anyone other than Andy.
Right from the start we knew it was going to be tough, and in fact it’s down to my Granny that we made it through the early days. Granny Nora passed away just after the launch of BarLifeUK and left a small inheritance, which all went to keeping us afloat between waiting for invoices to be paid and new work coming in.
DP – Thanks for taking the time to chat, and for being the most uncomfortable interviewees ever! I hope that BarLifeUK continues to grow and be a success for many years to come.
AI – Do you mind if I give a massive thanks to those who have helped over the years? So many people have written for us, helped promote what we’re doing and at times it has been overwhelming how generous people have been with their time. It means a lot when people help you out for no gain to themselves, but that’s one of the things that make our industry so great.
If you don’t check out BarLifeUK on regular basis, you need to; and if you don’t subscribe to the online magazine, then trust me you’re missing out! Keep up the good work boys!!