Raising the Bar with Nathan O’Neill
HRNI talks to the local bartenders making it big in the global cocktail scene. Featured this month is Nathan O’Neill, head bartender of the NoMad Bar, New York City.
HOW DID YOU START OUT IN THE BAR TRADE?
In 2007/2008, I had an amazing opportunity to intern in New York City, working on market research for some of the biggest airlines in the world. Around that time, the New York bar scene was really starting to take off and, while in the city, I would visit places like Pegu Club and Milk & Honey. Seeing the level of detail at these bars inspired me so much, I knew I wanted to pursue a different career path.
I came back to Belfast for my final year of university and began working as a glass collector at Rain nightclub as a way to make some extra income. Eventually, I worked my way up to bartender there, then joined the team at Botanic Inns. At that time, Botanic Inns was growing as a company and preparing to open Horatio Todd’s under the leadership of Morgan Watson, so it was a great experience learning everything from mixed drinks to wine, spirits, food and hospitality. Morgan Watson and John O’Reilly suggested I check out the bar at The Merchant Hotel which was pushing the boundaries of the cocktail scene internationally. I ended up joining The Merchant Hotel not long after and spent a fantastic three years continuing to hone my beverage and hospitality skills.
From there, I went on to work at Milk & Honey in London and then helped to open and manage Dandelyan at The Mondrian Hotel. In 2015, I returned to New York City to join the NoMad Bar team where I am currently the head bartender.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
I’m constantly inspired by the team I work with at Make It Nice (Eleven Madison Park, The NoMad & The NoMad Bar, Made Nice) with Will Guidara and Chef Daniel Humm at the helm. Every day I’m motivated, challenged and excited by my job and I’m constantly looking to improve and grow. Each day I try to exceed expectations and create unforgettable experiences for our guests.
WHO DO YOU ADMIRE IN THE NI BAR TRADE?
The Northern Ireland bar trade has developed immensely over the last few years. Every time I come back I’m impressed with the ways in which the scene has grown and improved – from The Merchant maintaining its high standards to APOC transforming into a stunning space with drinks to match. There is a huge pool of talent coming through Northern Ireland and that makes me incredibly proud and happy.
WHAT CHALLENGES HAVE YOU FACED IN YOUR CAREER?
I think one of the biggest challenges of my career was when I became a Cocktail Apprentice at Tales of the Cocktail five years ago. I was on stage for a week, helping to coordinate seminars, events and tastings for one of the largest trade shows in the industry. It was an incredible amount of pressure, not to mention I was one of the first Europeans to do it. Luckily, I’ve found that I thrive in challenging situations – when I’m pushed outside my comfort zone, I’m able to learn and grow the most. Through my experience as a Cocktail Apprentice, I was able to network with professionals from my industry on a global scale. I ended up meeting Leo Robitschek who, three years later, would ask me to join the Make It Nice team. In addition, I’m now the manager for Tales of the Cocktail Apprentice Program which has a network of over 400 bartenders – and growing.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE A BAR PERSON WITH ASPIRATIONS?
My best advice would be to slow down and take your time. Nowadays, it seems like a lot of young bartenders are in such a hurry to get the larger roles that they end up missing out on the fundamentals like knowing how to offer up great service and hospitality to guests. Keep reading, learning and striving, but make sure you learn every role – from bar back to bar manager – because the skills you develop in each position help you to grow into something great.
WHERE DO YOU HOPE TO GO FROM HERE?
I’ll probably stay here another year, and then move on to Hong Kong or Singapore. I’d like to stay with the Gordon Ramsay Group; they’re amazing to work for.
1oz Woodford Reserve Rye Whiskey
3/4 oz Cocchi Di Torino
1 dash Angostura Bitters
1 Dash Orange Bitters
Stir all ingredients over ice, strain into a rocks glass over block ice and garnish with three cherries on a cocktail stick
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