Bar interview with Nathan O'Neill
World Best Bar
Mar 29, 2018
26 November 2020
Nathan O’Neill winner of Beefeater 24’s global competition in 2012 and now tending the bar at London’s Milk & Honey talks to us about his career.
Nathan O’Neill already has a list of plaudits to his bartendering career, not least taking the title of Beefeater 24’s global competition in 2012. Moving from Belfast, he now tends the bar at London’s most famous speakeasy, Milk & Honey and is one of the Rushmoor Group’s most experienced and well known bartenders.
How did you become a bartender?
In 2008 I was fortunate enough to spend a year living and working in New York as part of my marketing degree. It was during this time that I was introduced to some of the world’s best bars, places like Pegu club, Milk & Honey and Angel’s Share. At this point my knowledge of drinks was very minimal, but having just turned 21 and being sat in front of some the world’s greatest bartenders my thirst for knowledge grew rather quickly and I made the conscious decision to get involved in the industry.
On returning to Belfast I began working in a local bar where I was lucky enough to be managed by a gentleman who taught me all aspects of service, speed and drinks from the ground up. From here I kept pushing and pursuing more knowledge and experience. I was bar tending at a point where Belfast was just emerging on the global scene; the Merchant Hotel had just won the World’s Best Cocktail Bar and some of the best seminars and bartenders where visiting the city; all of this fuelled my motivation to keep improving and developing my skills in an aim to work with these guys.
What do you like about being behind the bar?
Being behind the bar for me is only a small aspect of bartending; I always look to the whole room. I love the feeling I get when I can see the enjoyment in a guest’s face, from the moment they first walk into a venue, through to their first sip of a drink and the perfect service they receive. For me service is paramount; without it a guest’s visit just isn’t complete. A bartenders role should always be more than just creating drinks; I always make sure that the guest is at the forefront of everything, they are instantly acknowledged and that we ensure that their stay with us, including their drinks, the temperature of the room, the lighting, the atmosphere and ambiance and their overall enjoyment is as perfect as can be.
Who has been your biggest inspiration?
My biggest inspiration comes in the form of two people I am very privileged to call close friends; Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon. I know for anyone who has worked in the Merchant Hotel, their influence was enormous, to bring titles such as the World’s Best Cocktail Bar to Belfast is something that many thought would never happen. Their drive to carry on, keep pushing and strive to be the best through to the Dead Rabbit just shows how hard they work. I consider myself very lucky to know them, both professionally and personally because to have even a small insight into of either of them makes you realise how much you have still to learn.
What’s your best memory from work, be it an event you’ve done or just an ordinary shift?
The best memory I have from my career so far occurred in November 2012. I was lucky enough to win the Beefeater 24 global competition and having moved to London two days prior, was due to start working in Milk & Honey the following night. I was full of confidence and on a complete high after winning and arrived at Milk & Honey not quite knowing what to expect. To be told that I would be bar backing for the foreseeable future brought me back to earth very quickly. In Milk & Honey I learnt to be grounded very quickly; this is a moment that will stick with me forever, because it reminded me that not only did I have to work from the bottom up and earn everything in life, but that when you do get behind the bar at such a place, you understand how much of a privilege it really is.
What do you drink on your night off?
Martinis, cold, with gin.
Where do you drink on your night off?
I love hotel bars, the Connaught, Artesian and Savoy all have amazing bartenders who host the room exceptionally, the drinks are always first rate, and the comfort is perfect. I love Toucan for a cheeky Guinness before work, or the Rake at Borough market for their amazing selection of beer.
What’s your bar tending style?
My style is to work quickly but always with precision; to make sure the drinks are perfectly balanced, garnished and served as cold as possible. To focus on the guest; meeting and exceeding their expectations whether I am hosting the room or controlling the bar.
What do you hope to achieve in your career?
I hope to keep learning and always to keep being inspired. I have a huge love for travelling; seeing different cultures and taking in everything they have to offer. I hope to continue ensuring guests enjoy their experience, wherever I may meet them, and to continue doing what I love and making drinks until my body tells me I can’t anymore.
Written by Claire Sherwood