The best, bar none

“SOMETIMES people ask me if I model myself on Tom Cruise in Cocktail,” says Russell Ward, bartender at Sheffield’s TGI Friday’s.

“I always say ‘No - I’m better looking’.”

There’s no doubting the lad’s confidence - but, then, when you’ve just been named best barman in the north for the third year running, you’ve earned the right to some self-belief.

It was his juggling of bottles, balancing of glasses and ability to spike a mid-air cherry on a cocktail stick which impressed judges at a live heat.

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Now the 29-year-old, of Cross Allen Road, Beighton, is preparing to perform against six other servers at a UK final in front of 1,000 people (yup, 1,000 people - it seems bartending is a spectator sport) at London’s O2 Arena. If he wins that he’ll qualify for the European championship in Cyprus. If he wins that too he’ll be off to the world final in Dallas.

Not bad for someone who is paid to serve you a pint of Beck’s.

“Being a good bartender is about more than that,” he says. “It’s about entertaining and putting on a show. When people come into a cocktail bar, it’s because they want a bit of magic. They like to see someone make it with a bit of flare - throwing the bottles about, juggling, being creative. Sometimes on a Saturday night we’ll even shut the bar for 10 minutes and do a routine. There’s plenty of customers come back just to see us in action.”

Certainly you don’t get that kind of service at your average Red Lion. And there’s no doubt the judges at the northern final - held this year at the TGI Friday’s, in Sheffield Road, Tinsley, where Russell works - enjoyed it.

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They told him his eight- minute routine, in which the eight competitors had to prepare four drinks, was better than several of those in last year’s world final.

“That was amazing to hear,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for six years now and I love it. I worked at a bar in Greece for a couple of years and I’d go into the clubs there and watch these guys flaring - juggling and performing while serving drinks - and I’d wish I could do it. So getting the job at TGI in 2005 was perfect. I’d be working a full shift, then getting home and doing another four hours practice every day just so I could get better.”

There’s been the odd mishap, of course.

“You’re given plastic bottles to practise to start with and you don’t do it in front of people until you’re 100 per cent confident you’re not going to mess up,” he says.


“But when you’re dealing with wet bottles things can slip. There’s been a couple of times when something has dropped and smashed. It’s horrible but the funny thing is it always gets a massive cheer too. People like to see you cock up.”

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He’ll be hoping for no such slips, of course, when he goes to London next month.

The competition - which is held internally by TGI but which is the biggest of its kind in the world attracting some 400 bartenders globally - also tests knowledge of drinks and ability to free pour.

But, obviously, it’s the performing that is the exciting bit.

“When you’re on the bar,” says Russell, “it’s like being on stage. If I could win and make it to the world final, it would be a dream come true.”