Cork Heads: Shane Nolan (Bartender)


In this installment of the aptly named Cork Heads -looking at some of the brightest sparks in Cork’s currently thriving scene- Brid O’Donovan meets with Shane Nolan, an experienced bartender with a background in art which informs his creative cocktails.

So what cocktail did you just make for me?

I was given the typical question of “Give me something limey/lemony” or a really bad description of how to make a drink for someone. This is what a lot of bartenders get but you learn from it. What I just made for you is what I would deem as the perfect drink. In it’s simplicity it’s just amazing. It’s the classic Bacardi daiquiri with just a slight twist with a slice of orange, just for some warmth on this nice evening. What you’re looking at is literally just a mixture of sweet and sour, of lime and caster sugar mixed in with just a perfectly made rum in Bacardi which you shake until unfortunately your arms start to hurt. When that happens you shake it for the exact the same length of time again until you are really in a lot of pain. It’s always a drink a bartender loves to make but then when it does start to kick off and everyone orders one or “The same as what he is having” that’s when it gets a bit painful. It’s perfection in a glass to me.

How did you get into the industry?

I got into bartending whilst I was very young. I was 16. I got a job in a restaurant in Cork called Scoozi’s and being honest about it, I still look back years on and realise how much that place taught me because it was about speed and perfection. The waiters got to like me because I was so fast and if I was working their area I got the section cleaned faster and they got home quicker. So after work they’d bring me along to the pub nearby, which I won’t mention the name of because I was 16 years of age! Since I worked in the trade, I got to know lots of bars and bartenders. I remember being two weeks away from my 18th birthday and I arrived in to a bar where I was a regular. It’s not good to say you’re a regular in a bar when you’re 17 but sure, I’m still in the trade. I remember the boss coming up to me on a Friday night and he stopped everyone I was with. These lads were 19,20,21,22. He knew this. They didn’t have their I.D.s but he allowed me in and caught me aside and said “The moment a cop walks in this bar, get behind the bar counter”. I was like “What? Won’t they check the roster? He showed me the roster and my name was on it. He had written my name on the roster so that if the cops came in I’d pretend to work there. Later on he turned around to me and said “Well, since you’re on the roster do you fancy working here?” I had never worked in a bar before and this was a busy city center, rock, biker bar which was fine and at least I knew the locals. But it was tough. I was taught the hard way. My first night he turned around to me and told me to I.D. a group. They were obviously 26/27 and regulars in the pub. I knew them! So I went down, meekly and asked them for I.D. They told me to fuck off so I went back to the boss who told me to kick them out. I tried to but they gave me a lot of abuse. Over comes the boss and boots them out. He said “Next time, learn to use your voice.” Straight away he taught me that the most powerful thing a bartender has is his voice. Learn to speak. You can diffuse a situation by speaking calmly and rationally. But also if something has really gone wrong, showing that you are confident enough in the bar so you can walk up to four or five lads and shout with authority, you’d be surprised how quickly everyone just stops and looks. The bartender is deemed as a god in some places because he is the maker and breaker of good nights. I went a bit far with that for a while and then I had to pull it back a bit. I became a bit over the top but again I was young, working in a bar at 18 and by myself most of the time. I had all the power and you still see it nowadays with young bartenders. I try to train them to slow down, take it easy and be nice.


[On Cocktails]

I got into cocktails very late. I’m thirty now and I think I was 24 when I first started doing cocktails here in Soho. I’m competitive by nature to put it mildly, at anything I do. I insist on being the best. I don’t see a reason to do otherwise. It’s not always the best trait to have but it’s also not the worst to have. I don’t like doing things half assed. At the time a mojito was the fanciest drink you could order in Ireland and now it’s one of the most popular drinks in the world. It was a three man job and would take 4 or 5 minutes to make. Now it’s down to 30-40 seconds. I work festivals, it can be done. I remember looking at the other bartenders at the time and thinking that I’d try it to see what it was like. I was moved up to the restaurant bar here where you would be left to your own devices a lot and you didn’t have someone to make drinks for you so you are just learning, learning learning. I was quickly moved back down to the main bar to do cocktails after the managers saw me busting out drinks. Then it was a case of people leaving until it was just me and I just took a hold of it. I met a guy called Alan Kavanagh. He’s a spirits ambassador and he was a major bartender not too long ago too. He was Ireland’s best bartender for years. He got me into competitions. I remember seeing guys at the competitions that had been doing this a lot longer and were much, much better than me in every possible way. It pissed me off so much. I started reading, practicing and from that first competition you’ll always see me, walking down the street with at least one or two cocktail books in my bag. I just read everything and my job turned into my hobby. Which is not a bad thing. I started getting more into it and reading more about the job and the history of it. The old school way of thinking. How things were done. It’s not just about being a bartender. You are the host and you are someone’s best friend a lot of times. I’ve moved up to management here which is great but I still keep a very close eye on spirits and cocktails. Training would be a big thing for me now. It’s been a very fast progression in five years of going from never doing it to getting to a high enough standard. It’s nowhere near where I want. Until I’m on the international stage on a regular basis, it won’t be good enough for me.

What’s the difference between you now and someone on an international level?

A bit of luck. There’s always those people around the world. Actually, from Ireland alone, very simply up in Belfast there’s Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon. They worked in the Merchant Hotel in Belfast which was and still is one of the best hotels in the country if not in the world. They put Ireland on the map with their menus with an event called Tales of the Cocktail which was the biggest thing in the cocktail world. It’s not a case of I’m saying it. To get nominated in this is just the biggest thing. The two boys walked over to New York and opened a bar. It opened in December or January and by October Tales of the Cocktail came around and it won Best International Bar and Best International Bartender. Jack McGarry. Twenty five year old. This was against every bartender in the world. The lads open a pub 7 months. In one of the drinks later on I’ll be using the lads own personal bitters. They had their own bitters made to use in their drinks. To get to that stage it takes a lot of luck and a lot of persistence. These lads live it and you kind of have to. There is no such thing as showing up to work and getting lucky. Some guys have got lucky. You win a competition, you win like some of the bigger brand competitions and you are put on a world scale but then you really have to go ahead and prove to everyone there and then you can really move on to be an international bartender.

So what happens in a competition?

They all take a big twist. The basic format is a company will tell you use their spirit and make a drink. So some would be very specific and say we want a martini or we want a long drink but a lot of them will say make any style drink you want using our product. That unfortunately sounds easier than it is because you’re leaving a bartender open and you have to be someway creative but being a small bit constricting isn’t a bad thing. It’s when they say do whatever you want you think “Oh crap”. There’s a vodka world cup and that’s ridiculous. The last time I entered I just made an ass of myself completely. I had like 23 different ingredients going in to it with champagne foams and salt and smoke and dry ice. My mind was so messed. I’ve no problem admitting this because I will say it to every young bartender. I ended up turning around and calling a 42 below a Finlandia vodka on stage in front of all my peers. All of them. I looked, realised and just dropped to my knees behind the bar. Alright I’m done. I was the last person up. Everyone was done and everyone was watching. Friends, family, other bars. I remember just going “Oh fuck.” Since that day I learned. I learned that simplicity is probably the toughest thing for any bartender. That’s why I love the daiquiri. It’s simple, lovely, amazing drink. Just a perfect balance. So that’s what I’m trying to bring myself back to now. One of my last competitions was the Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender. I’ll be making you that drink in a while. But the lads had a surprise for us. We all showed up and there was a big pile of cash on the table. We thought we were going to win some money but no. They handed us 50 quid each and told us that we had one hour, pick a botanical, one of the flavours of the gin and buy something from that country of origin to put into your already made and finished perfect product. So I got very lucky. I got almonds from Spain but some of the lads got countries I’ve never even heard of. We had one hour in Dublin to find something that would suit this, that would go into your drink, make it, fix it and voila. I was unbelievably lucky that for some reason I brought my laptop with me so when I went to run I just stopped myself and went no, just sit down, do a small bit of research for five minutes while some of the other lads had a think, some went running like headless chickens. Two other competitors were friends of mine and they both make me look like a very small man and I’m not the smallest man in the world. You just had the three of us run into Fallon and Byrne’s in Dublin and the staff didn’t have a clue what was going on. We were just running around grabbing stuff. It was like Supermarket Sweep. It’s things like that that they do to really screw you up. It’s just to see if you can think on your feet because the whole idea is that you will have to somehow find a drink for a customer that maybe comes in and says oh I like this drink but I’d rather it with a nutty flavour. So you have to think about how you are going to balance it out in very little time using just your head.

I’m very lucky with the guys here that if I have something coming up I can come in here and practice within reason. You can’t just come in here and start throwing random spirits together. It’s like throwing shit at a wall and seeing what happens. I’m more of a sit down for a couple of hours and more and go through notebooks after notebooks that I have and I’ll try to see flavours. The English Market here in Cork is just the best place in the world. Just to walk through and see everything. There are so many flavours in there. “Will this work with this?” You would be surprised what word could go in your head. I’ve seen smoked bacon and gone “Oh wait, a smoked drink. I could use a smoking gun and smoke this flavour.” Then I’ll see hazelnuts on top of a raspberry chocolate cake and I’ll think “Raspberry and hazelnuts with a smoked thing. Alright.” It’s kind of cheating but it’s a great way of getting out the flavours in your head or things you can’t think of when you are just sitting down. You notoriously just look at things that are around you.
When I was in art college, most of my ideas came to me on the train when I was commuting up and down. In the most tired state in the world I’d see something and it wouldn’t even make sense to what I was thinking of but it would trigger something in your head and you go “Oh that would work.” It’s good to get away from what you’re doing and have a little think for yourself. Walk out of the situation and read random books, watch the cooking channel. I watch Gordon Ramsey actually. I love seeing him give out to people. At some stage I want to get that big that I could tell a customer to fuck off. There are a few bars around Ireland where people go in specifically just to get given out to by the bartender or the owners. The Hi-B in Cork is a great example. I’ve never had a problem there but I remember being there with a couple of friends and then walked in two of the girls with us. They were just finished work. We were loud enough and in walk the two girls and ordered two bottles of budweiser. They got the drinks and sat down. The bartender piped up “Actually I’ve decided that I don’t want to serve you. Please leave.” “Why? We’ve done nothing wrong.” “No. But, you look like the type of girls that might be loud later on. Get out.” I can remember coming down and there was a bartender safari. All the Dublin lads came down to Cork. Down to the Sticks as they put it and all they wanted to do was go to the Hi-B. They all were in there ringing each other, trying to get the owner to throw them out. Nah. They were doing everything wrong. They were laughing, screaming, shouting, whistling at each other. He wouldn’t do it to them. I eventually went up and asked “Would you mind throwing them out because they really want to be thrown out and I want to leave and go somewhere else I like.” “No. You’re all lovely lads.”


[Your time in the National College of Art and Design]

Best experience of my life. Easily. It was very much a work hard play hard atmosphere for some of us. Being down in Cork and going to school in Cork there wasn’t that mix, that diversity that I saw up in Dublin. I quickly became involved in the Entertainments team and that tied in well with the media part of it, the organising of, even like the job I’m doing now, projections, bands, setting up, advertising getting it out there. That followed on, not intentionally, to the trade I’m doing now. Confidence build up. I’m the prime example of someone who was a bit quiet going to college, I was still out for a laugh but I was meek and I wasn’t sure of myself. NCAD was one of those places were everyone was treated the same and it was fantastic. It’s what you’d see in movies, in college it doesn’t matter what you were in secondary school. In college you’re a different person. Damn straight. I lived that dream. I had four years of non stop fun and working hard. The teachers are still to this day huge inspirations to me. The moment I left college I walked away. The way I saw my four years was the amount of people that finished but they didn’t know where to go. It was that type of place where everyone knew everyone. First, second, third, fourth, it didn’t matter what you were, once you were a decent person. Everyone got on but then I decided to up and leave and I haven’t stepped back in the college since. That last day I knew I was done. I didn’t want to ruin it for myself by hanging on. The facilities were amazing. The teachers were amazing. I was in the union when they were they were trying to move us out to Belfield. We were fighting that because it would have ruined it. It was the history of Thomas street. The history of us in the area, what’s going on, it being the old Powers building. Everywhere you look there was inspiration around. The local people were fantastic no matter what anyone has to say. It is a bit of a dodgy area but they don’t mess with students. We were the ones bringing the money. God, I learned so much, about life more than anything. To reiterate it was a growing up time of living the dream of college. It could not have gone better for me. I know a lot of people who absolutely hated the place too but not for me. I was working here the whole time at the weekends to keep myself going up there. So when I finished I decided to go bartending for a while, work out what I’m going to do with my life and then I realised that this is what I want to do with my life! My parents look back and say well, thanks for spending four years in college to do what you could have done without that. Cheers. We appreciate you spending that money. Thanks. I still apologise every now and then.

Art college has influenced my creative process, how I speak, how to see different people, how to be criticized without being offended. Before a competition the amount of drinks I make that I get told are shite off the owners. They have different taste buds, they are all looking for different things. My head chef Jonathan Walsh is fantastic. He just can’t help me enough. But the amount of people I have to sit down, make a drink for and take it on the chin. One person will say that they think it’s amazing and the other will say that it’s just wrong. I’ve learned at this stage to just trust your own judgement because you can be a bit blind to it. In art college sitting down for a critique is one of the toughest things in the world. All your peers and all your teachers. At that point the creative process did transfer straight over. Even how I talk, how everything is written down beforehand because obviously in art college you can’t just turn around and start making things for the laugh because it’s too expensive. You really have to have your idea down and worked out because you are going to get it wrong the first time. No matter how much it drove you mad to make little models before out of cardboard. God I hated that so much. But it did help me to get that way of thinking back. College really did help line me up for what I’m doing now. From dealing with people to organising to dealing with very little sleep for very long extended periods of time. How to read people because you have to constantly be on your toes. In college you want to impress everyone, even if you don’t care, you do secretly care, you care so much that you are actually putting on such a facade that you don’t care.



The best and worst thing about Cork. Sometimes you just want to get away from people. Other times the one joy about Cork is that you can literally just ring no one and walk to four different bars which would take you three or four minutes and you’re gonna find some friends somewhere. It is the one joy. You could finish work at twelve o’clock and you never have to go far and you don’t have waste a text message. In the trade we’re in it is nice to go somewhere and not talk to anyone. I’m a fan of going somewhere and getting a pint and a newspaper and you know what, I probably won’t even be reading the newspaper. I’ll just be flicking the pages. There is a local pub near here where the lads are very cute. I’ll walk in and I don’t pick up a newspaper and they’ll chat away to me. But if I walk in and pick up the paper it’ll be a case of there’s your pint and not another word. They are well aware of the times when they need to leave me alone for a while.

[The ‘scene’ in Cork]

Cork is really starting to build up again. Cork goes in phases and I’ll speak from a cocktail point of view. In Cork, the guys who get good, run to Dublin because there’s a bit more of a buzz up there. Some say it’s better and some have regretted it. A lot more bars are starting to get into cocktails, some restaurants have started hiring in some decent staff that really have a passion for it. A lot of the companies, Jameson for example are doing a huge push on just drinks and spirits and what not and really just making people have fun with it. The bartenders can only go so far without backing from the companies and it is happening again. The companies are starting to do more training with staff because you can only show so many people what to do. Every bar doesn’t have a cocktail bartender in there. They have someone that can make a few drinks but they don’t have someone who has the history and knowledge and that last push. A small bit of knowledge goes along way so it is fantastic to see the likes of Bacardi and Jameson really starting to give back and Heineken too have started doing a lot of training again. They are really trying to get bartending back to what it is. They are really trying to educate people. There’s more to it than just pouring a pint and wiping a bar counter.

[The ‘scene’ in Ireland]

As an Irish scene, Ireland has just taken leaps and bounds in the last five or six years. In Mayo, Westport now there are some fantastic bartenders there and that are doing some amazing drinks, international level drinks and they have gone to international competitions. Kerry has a few great guys, Limerick has a thriving scene. Waterford has a lot going on. Kilkenny is getting big into whiskey and cocktails and flair bartending. Flair bartending is really kicking off. I’m not the biggest fan of flair. Flair is throwing bottles. Think Tom Cruise but think 25 times better. What they do there is a bit of working flair, a bit of fun but if you can see what the boys can do nowadays it is ridiculous. I couldn’t even attempt it. I can catch bottles and throw them around but these guys are ridiculous. The national champion is up in Kilkenny. That flair is coming along and it’s another side to things. So Kilkenny is building up big time. There’s no where in Ireland where you can’t find a cocktail bar where you can find a decent drink. In the north, north Belfast is still booming. I absolutely love going up there for a few drinks. The Merchant obviously just for the shear perfection of everything. It’s just amazing what they do. They are absolute perfection. I’m such a huge fan of Belfast. And then Dublin is Dublin. If you look at what the lads in 37 Dawson are doing, the Exchequer are putting together a great menu, the lads up at House who have an extensive gin menu, what Raph and Anna are doing is just unbelievable. VCC is still the top dog, just a pure and utter classic. I can remember competing against Gareth Lambe in my second or third competition and looking at this guy and thinking right you’re the guy I want to be. Everything is just flawless. The lads in the Liquor Rooms, which is owned by the same company, were the first guys ever in the Republic of Ireland to be nominated for Best New International Cocktail Bar in the Tales of the Cocktail and they are only open a year and a half. It’s now fun to go to Dublin, you can still get lovely drinks in a lot of the bars. Some of the bars are complete shite! Down here, our neighbours The Long Island have been doing it a long time and they started it all off for Cork. We’ve now picked up in a huge way. Cocktail sales are a huge part of our business and our pull. We would never call ourselves a cocktail bar because we’re not. We could call ourselves a lot of things but we are a bar that happens to do cocktails. We’ve been very lucky that they guys we’ve hired have developed a huge passion for it. Nowadays the big thing we are hearing from new bartenders is that they want to learn how to make cocktails. Half the reason they wanted to come here is because they have heard about our reputation and they have decided that they want to come to Soho, work there and learn how to make drinks which obviously Padraig, the bar manager has been working on this since day one. I just love talking about cocktails. This interview has gone on for very long time, I will talk all day and all night about it. I’m looking forward to the next couple of years in Cork, there are a lot of bars doing a lot of work. There’s a lot more training happening down here, a lot more guys getting into it. There are some fantastic bartenders here already. We just need the younger guys to come through because a younger guy will learn more from a book than I would and I’m only thirty. It’s easier when you’re younger. I’ve picked up a lot of bad habits over the years so I do have to remind myself to listen to someone that’s better every now and then. It’s very easy to be stubborn and to think that you are right.


is the co-editor / photo editor. She also contributes photos and illustrations to The Thin Air print magazine.