Paul Lambert: “I don’t Think there’s Anyone Better as Bartenders than the Irish”
Only by imbuing objects with meaning they become important. Do so with enough of them under the same vision and you’ll create a world. In the hands of Paul Lambert, a message to book a table -or in my case, to meet for an interview- becomes an intriguing white rabbit you’re compelled to follow; a flight of stairs turns into a descend down the rabbit hole, and once you enter his bar, The Blind Pig, bottles that don’t need a “Drink Me” label become art supplies in a Wonderland of cocktail-making magic.
“One of the best memories I have is sitting in a bar in Tahiti, on the way back from the Cocktail World Cup, with some of the world’s best bartenders.” Paul was having a Pina Colada, “in Tahiti, it’s allowed”, he clarifies, as eyebrows would be raised if that tropical slap of sweetness was ordered at his eclectic establishment. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, he had one of those rare moments of awareness in which one’s mind reaches a realisation. “How did I get here?”
How indeed, did Paul become one of Ireland’s best bartenders?
They say a secret is something you tell one person at the time and “Irish people like to talk, if there’s a secret, they want to know”, a reaction that Paul has successfully encouraged. While he considers himself “very lucky”, 25 years of dedication have also helped more than a little bit for him to be there and with “at least four new concepts” in his mind.
Regarding The Blind Pig’s name, he explains that during the twenties, that name was used to refer to “dive bars”, louder and less sophisticated that their glamorous counterpart, the speakeasy. He aims to be a bit of both, serene and elegant, but as the night progresses, make it fun, have a live band, and adjust the atmosphere.
Running with the (High) Ball
He began his career in the early nineties as floor staff at Kelly’s Resort Hotel in Rosslare, Wexford. Paul was soon offered the opportunity to train in Kenmare with John Moriarty, who taught him not only to mix drinks, but “the five star level, and that there is a very interesting career as a bartender.”
After three years in Scotland, Paul came back in 2002, “for the love of a good Irish woman.” He was given, for the first time in his career, complete creative control over the bar at the now closed Diep Le Shaker. “One of the partners was Paul Cadden, who set up Saba and asked me to come and join”, again, Paul was given a blank page to sketch the bar, this time from its design.
On the 5th of December of 2011 Paul opened The Blind Pig. The day marked the 78th anniversary of the Repeal of Prohibition in the United States. “It was the first vintage bar in Dublin, so it was kind of a gamble”, so Paul decided to play it safe and open two days a month -a Monday and a Tuesday-.
“I said, let’s give something back to bartenders”, who he’d hope would spread the word. “It was at the middle of the recession so I didn’t want to put all my eggs in one basket.”
Nowadays he has to turn people away to avoid overcrowding and just as he was guided in his youth, he has trained several Irish bartenders, however, he flinches when asked his thoughts on becoming a role model for this generation of shakers and stirrers… “I don’t know about that… but everyone that works with me, yes, I will train them.”
I like the rugby analogy: I give you the ball, but you have to run with it.”
For Paul, an apprentice has to show initiative and not just sit there waiting to be moulded. Reading, practising and allowing different influences to shape your style are among his recommendations. “If I’ve inspired anyone, great, but I don’t set myself to do that.”
“If you Respect the Booze, the Booze will Respect you”
“We do comfortable drinking.” He compares what’s happening in bars it to what’s happening in the Irish food scene: people want premium quality without the notions, fine dining in a relaxed and friendly service, “five star drinks in a pub environment.” And is thanks to this balance between high standards and approachableness that Paul is convinced “we’re going to see Irish bars and bartenders becoming more successful in the global scene.”
“I don’t think there’s anyone better as bartenders than the Irish”, he says, thanks to his gentilic’s hospitable nature. The reason why this hadn’t happened before was that they were lacking the cocktail making mastery their continental peers had, “and that’s why all the good jobs went to Europeans.”
Now that the tables are turning, what’s the key to stay in the industry and avoid burnout? “Don’t party all the time”, Paul’s advise seems obvious yet it’s so often the cause of short-lived careers.
Two glasses of wine a day can soon become two bottles. This is true for the customers but also for the bartenders”
Now a dad, Paul has kissed goodbye frequent partying until 4:00 am and empathises that moderation is vital for those aiming to play the long game and “if you respect the booze, the booze will respect you.”
If you were a cocktail, which one would you be?
After a short pause, he tells me he’s “known for drinking El Presidente”, a rum based Prohibition era cocktail invented in Cuba, “kinda like a rum Manhattan”, he explains.
It’s calmed and sophisticated but with a bite… I guess I’m a bit like that”
After declaring his love for rum -one of the coolest experiences he recalls having at a bar was holding a bottle of pre-Castro Bacardi at The Savoy in London- he makes clear that he will gladly pour a classic Daiquiri, reluctantly might serve a strawberry one, but will politely decline to blend a frozen.
At The Blind Pig, he will bend the house rules every now and then but won’t oblige if the order requires “a blender or an espresso machine.”
“We don’t believe in dirty Martini, but i’m not arrogant enough to deny a customer of one”, instead, he serves the olive brine separately, next to a classic Martini as if saying feel free to ruin your drink.
He can’t help to show how proud he is of his Martini. After all, “Pierce Brosnan shook my hand at Diep Le Shaker and said that it was the best Martini he had ever had. He was James Bond at the time.”
The Clock is Tiki
Before we say goodbye, Paul told us a secret, but please don’t tell anyone, ok? Now that you promised, he might or might not be considering to bring a Tiki Bar experience to Dublin in the near future. This style of exotic-themed rum bar has been announced over the last few months as the next big comeback for trusted trendspotters such as Vogue, the New York Times and Eater. If anyone asks, you didn’t hear this from us.
Time for a photo, and Paul agrees to mix an El Presidente for us. Balanced, intense, and with a depth of caramel and orange… He has our vote!
Name a cocktail, spirit or trend that…
Is Underrated: Rum.
Is Overrated: Pornstar Martini.
Shouldn’t Exist: Cocktail Premixes.
We Should Bring Back: Anything that’s gone, is gone for a reason.
Will be the Next Big Thing: Tiki bars.
Is Hard to Make Well: Classic Daiquiri.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.