We often hear the same names of Vancouver hospitality titans in local media. They do very well to represent and have done so for years. We work up thirsts and appetites following their exploits and look forward to trying whatever it is they come up with next, but we seldom consider the individuals who toil in relative anonymity alongside them, and we’re often late in introducing those destined to join them in their starry pantheon. This series of short interviews looks to introduce our readers to this New Breed, one blossoming talent at a time.
British import Max Curzon-Price can be found helping to lead the bar team at Botanist, where he gets to rub shoulders with local industry giants like Grant Sceney and Jeff Savage on the daily. This year he was a top six finalist at Bombay Sapphire’s Global Most Imaginative Bartender competition. His reward not only entailed a trip back to the UK but also a feature in GQ magazine. Say hello to Max…
Where are you from?
I’m from the south of England originally. A small coastal city called Brighton. I started and honed my bartending career there, including a year spent opening a new space in central London.
Why did you become a Bartender?
Predominantly out of uncertainty of which direction I wanted my life to take. I wasn’t ready to commit to the financial burden or time commitment of university. I was having a drink and talking about my future with my Mum one day and she advises I find a job in the hospitality industry. “It makes salt-of-the-earth people”, she told me. She wasn’t wrong.
Did you ever have ambitions to do anything else?
Much to my mother’s dismay, I wanted to be a tattoo artist for years. I still do a lot of design work in my spare time these days. I know that she’s very pleased that that’s not the route I chose to follow.
Where did you learn? Do you have any formal training?
My first position was in a bar owned by a bar school. I was extremely fortunate to have the owner and lead trainer of this bar show me the ropes and give real, honest, hard work ethics to me from day one. I believe those early months were really pivotal.
What was your first restaurant/bar job and how long did it last?
It was a three-storey craft beer bar with a cocktail lounge in the basement. I gained my passion slinging beer from the 32 rotating taps upstairs during the week, while I manned the shakers downstairs on the weekend. I was thrown in the deep end from the get go, but I had a fantastic support network. I was fortunate enough to work at that space for a year and a half.
Ok, now name every restaurant/bar you’ve ever worked in.
Brewery Tap & Under The Tap (Brighton, England), Hotel du Vin (Brighton, England), Clarendon Cocktail Cellar (London, England), Cocktail Shack (Brighton, England), L’Abattoir (Vancouver) and Botanist (Vancouver).
Have you competed in any cocktail competitions?
I’ve done my fair share. I’ve managed to win a few regionals. I picked up the win for Berry Bros & Rudd’s No.3 Gin back in 2015 which was a treat. Most recently, I placed in the top six of Bombay Sapphire’s 2018 ‘Most Imaginative Bartender’. I was lucky enough to have won one of the final challenges which was pretty sweet. Having said this, I’ve lost many competitions as well, and that’s where you really learn and grow!
If you could be a Bartender for a week in one Vancouver restaurant/bar, which one would it be?
I’d love to have one more week working with my guys back at L’Abattoir! Jason Earle and Robin Cleaver are two of Vancouver’s finest in my opinion. I had a lot of fun with them!
If you could be a Bartender for a week in any restaurant/bar outside Vancouver, which one would it be?
Dandelyan in London, I think. Ryan Chetiyawardana and Iain Griffiths have been making waves since 2014. Their current menu is extremely progressive. Comfortable with itself and completely unpretentious. I think every bar around the world could learn a lesson from their ethics and execution. If they offered me even a barback position, I’d take it.
What’s the single most important lesson you have learned from your current boss?
Throughout some of my more recent competitions I’ve become obsessed and overly particular with certain elements. I was reminded very importantly to not compare myself to other competitors or colleagues. Own your work and be yourself. I think that’s pretty integral to all elements of life.
Who have been some of your most impactful mentors?
My guests. I believe firmly that any individual who gives you free reign to make something off menu, while giving you some constructive feedback or even a complaint is an opportunity to build on yourself. How you handle yourself, your tools and your ingredients while under pressure is always a challenge; with a little feedback it just gets a little easier.
Describe a spirit that you’re most sentimental about. Where did you get it? What’s the story?
I have two bottles of 1960’s Chartreuse Tarragona. I was visiting a friend’s grandparents who had boasted that they had the largest home bars of anyone. A bold claim already. Well, they weren’t completely wrong; it was absolutely vast. Nonetheless, they really hadn’t a clue about much of it and really the value of some old unopened gems gathering dust at the back. I took a shining to the two aforementioned bottles (fascinating history, look it up!) and helped them sell a few of those old, rare finds. As a thank you, I was given the two bottles of Chartreuse (unopened they’d hold a value of of upwards of $2000 each). The grandmother was so surprised at my interest in these beat up old bottles and told me “I’ve been pouring that over strawberries for years”. (Gulp!)
Do you have a method in creating a cocktail? If so, what do you do?
Absolutely! Pun first, then the drink builds around it. Some of my best received original cocktails came about this way. Obi Wan Negroni, Sauvignon Private Ryan, Cachaca in The Rye. Unconventional, I know, but it ensures you keep to a theme or idea. I always try to ensure the premise of the drink is relevant to the name in the final iteration.
Ok, now name the weirdest ingredient you’ve used in a cocktail. What?s the story?
Peking Duck fat-washed Yamazaki 12. The drink was Tall, Duck and Handsome; I was really trying to get the flavour of a duck spring roll into a Manhattan style drink. I met an old guy that was running a Peking duck cart in a hawker market in Chinatown, London. I gave him a bottle of whiskey and once a week I’d come by to collect the fat run offs from that day’s Peking Duck. The flavour was fantastic! In hindsight, this was before the discontinuing of age statement Japanese whiskey. That would be an incredibly expensive and disrespectful move to make on that whiskey today.
What current cocktail trend are you already sick of?
Why are people still hating on Blue Curacao! There’s two types of drinks in this world, blue drinks and disappointing drinks.
Do you have any ambition to open a bar of your own one day?
I think every bartender has had that dream at some point. It’s just finding the right business partners, which is the challenge.
Two guests have just sat down at your bar, what?s your process?
Greet them warmly, present menus and water and offer any help if required, briefly directing them through the inspiration of our menu.
Have you always loved cocktails or was there a drink specifically that sold you?
I happened upon cocktails quite serendipitously. I distinctly remember the first Negroni I ever made. I was instructed to put three ingredients of equal parts together and stir. I tasted it and almost spat it out. In front of the guest, I ashamedly told my mentor that I’d managed to make it wrong. When he tasted it and confirmed that that was in fact a Negroni, I remember my shock, exclaiming “people really pay to drink that?!”. Today, a Negroni is one of my favourite drinks. So no, I suppose there wasn’t a drink that ever really sold me. I just grew to love them all.
What is your favourite type of wine, beer and spirit to drink?
All of the above, depending on time, mood and season.
Any favourite BC spirit producers?
I’m a big lover of Jason McIsaac’s work at the Sheringham distillery, as well as The Fermentorium for their work on Stump Gin. I feel that each of their products really manages to demonstrate our geography and the local flora.
Have you visited many distilleries, wineries or breweries? What?s been your favourite?
Many! Some in Scotland, some in France but most of what I’ve seen are in BC. I’m a big lover of Le Vieux Pin. I adore the space, the land around their winery, as well as the broad and diverse range of wine they produce.
You recently had a cocktail featured in GQ magazine. How was that?
That was an amazing experience and certainly not something I could have foreseen happening. Opportunities that come through cocktail competitions can really accelerate someone’s career progression and exposure. It was a true honour to have one of my drinks featured in an international magazine.
Name your all-time favourite three spirits.
Please don’t make me pick! Gin, Whisky (I won’t pick a style!) and Rum.
If you could recommend just one cocktail book for any aspiring Bartender, what would it be?
Jigger, Beaker and Flask by Charles H Baker. Written by a barfly about experiences around the world. No bias, no sponsored content. Just an articulate journalist’s tipsy findings.
What’s the most rewarding thing about being a Bartender these days?
The same thing that it always has been. Finding just the right drink for an individual and being able to create just a brief moment of happiness in a busy and hectic world.
You’ve just clocked out and you’re thirsty. Where are you going and what are you drinking?
Home usually! I’ll have a beer and/or a Negroni when I get in to unwind. I usually like to do something active in the mornings and afternoons before work so a hangover isn’t always conducive.
Outside of Bartending, what are some of your other passions?
Following my youthful desire to get into tattooing, I still do a little design work when I have the time. Being a resident of British Columbia, outdoor life is so readily available — I always enjoy a little camping and hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter.
What?s the most enjoyable part of your job?
The creative freedom to develop unique drinks for a guest willing to try something new.
Let’s say you had an unlimited budget to open the bar of your dreams. Really, the sky’s the limit. What would the concept be?
No menu, no vodka. Not hating on vodka, I really just want to help the guest enjoy an experience that accentuates the nuances of the fine spirit that sits at the heart of their drink. Vodka tasting notes are almost always immediately lost in a mixed drink. I feel that Pisco is a truly wonderful and massively underrated alternative. Dry palate, fragrant nose, massive diversity in grape base. It’s a win-win for guest and bartender.
Where do you see yourself – career-wise – in five years?
I hope to have found the right business partner by then and be well underway to bringing my cocktails and dreams to Vancouver.