How I Became An Expert In Mixing Drinks

Discover what it is like getting paid to concoct cocktails.

27/09/2017 14:23 BST | Updated 03/10/2017 09:16 BST

When we think of dream jobs, a few instantly spring to mind: food stylist, video game designer, luxury travel adviser, anything that involves trawling Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter all day…

Oh, and working for Jack Daniel’s.

“Day to day, I’m the ‘go to’ contact for any questions on the whiskey in the bottle but I also offer some expertise on the brand’s heritage,” Cam Dawson, official UK Brand Ambassador for Jack Daniel’s, tells us (find him on Instagram @camdawsonjd).

Which means he does things like host training programs for bartenders throughout the UK, helps them come up with the cocktail menus for their venues and raises awareness of the Jack Daniel’s brand, showing how versatile the spirit can be.

Sean Ware Photography

“I also get to host some great events for people that aren’t in the drinks industry; whiskey fans that will come and learn about the history of Jack Daniel and his award-winning whiskey. You know, the distillery was registered back in 1866 – that’s a year older than Canada, so there’s a fair few stories to talk about when you represent a brand that’s 151 years old.”

Before you rush off and start updating your CV for a similar role, remember, knowing the drinks industry like the back of your hand comes from living and breathing it: even though Dawson’s working behind a laptop most of the time these days, he’s got over a decade’s experience as a bartender. He first pulled pints in London so he could travel across Australia.

“The bars in Australia really sparked my interest in mixology and when it was time to come home I had caught the cocktail bug. I spent a lot of time studying drinks literature, vintage cocktail books and generally getting quite geeky about the recipes and ingredients that I was using, just as a chef would do with their cooking.

“This led to me entering national cocktail competitions in the UK. These proved to be an exciting way to learn new skills and techniques behind the bar, whilst also allowing me to hone new skills in presentation to an audience,” Dawson explains.

Dawson won the Jack Daniel’s Birthday Cocktail Competition in 2009 with his highball cocktail, Red Dog Smash, and began hosting bartender training sessions for the brand alongside his day job. And the rest is history (he became brand ambassador four-and-a-half-years later).

Whiskey – and Jack Daniel’s in particular - is one of the most versatile spirits out there, making it every mixologist’s best friend when it comes to cocktail-making. Dawson describes it as a “full and spicy whiskey; it’s not too light and it’s not too overpowering, meaning that it will work in a much wider variety of cocktails.”

So yes, while JD always tastes simply delicious with cola, you can’t go wrong experimenting with it in a variety of drinks, or trying it neat.

Think you don’t like the taste of whiskey? Well you just might – you probably haven’t had the right one yet. A lot of people simply aren’t aware of the sheer scale of difference between certain bottlings.

“People generally look at age as a sign of quality, which quite simply shouldn’t happen,” says Dawson.

Sean Ware Photography

When it comes to cocktails, we can all agree that making them is a true art form, involving precision, the right combination of ingredients, knowing how to shake (or stir) to perfection and remembering it’s all about the presentation. AKA: as delicious as your drink might taste, you also want to make sure it’s got that Instagram wow-factor.

And sticking a maraschino cherry on your drink isn’t quite going to cut it these days, when bartenders are experimenting with more and more exotic – and exciting – ingredient combinations.

Think Super Lyan in Hoxton’s Tennessee Nitro Martini, which has been run through a draft nitro system (“This ensures the same quality of cocktail at the start of service until the end,” says Dawson). You’ll also find saline solutions have become standard in bars, as well as citric and malic acids. As has ‘fat washing’: when you add something with fat content to lend its flavour to your cocktail. Keep an eye out for menus with Buttered Toast Jack Daniel’s, Olive Oil Old Fashioneds and Coconut Oil Coated Ice Balls. Yum.

When it comes to mastering mixology on your home turf, Dawson’s got a few pointers to turn us into bartending pros.

“As well as your bottle of Jack, I would recommend buying a bottle of Angostura bitters to give a new level of complexity to a cocktail (I often describe this as cocktail seasoning). These two bottles are essential in making some classic drinks like the Old Fashioned and Old No.7 Sour. Obviously there are a few other ingredients you would need to buy, but it depends what you want to make.

“In terms of equipment; a cocktail shaker and hawthorn strainer will get you by. These can be bought for less than a fiver online but if you want something to make without any equipment, try the Lynchburg Lemonade. It’s such an easy serve to make at home, without using any cocktail equipment at all.”

So what makes Jack Daniel’s so unique? Well, all the whiskey comes from a single source, found in rural Lynchburg, Tennessee (land of cornfields and hills). Every single drop of Jack Daniel’s whiskey is still made in the same place it was in 1866.

Dawson hails from Stirling, Scotland, and Jack Daniel’s was the first whiskey he ever tasted aged 18, when his mate swapped his usual lager order for a Jack & Coke one night.

“I immediately went to the bar and ordered the same thing because it all felt a bit ‘rock ‘n roll’. I still get that feeling when I introduce myself as the JD ambassador and turn up wearing a Jack Daniel’s T-shirt,” he says.

While Dawson loves his new gig, he still enjoys getting behind the bar and shaking things up, whether it’s taking his guests out of their comfort zone and introducing them to something new, or experimenting with unusual flavour combinations.

“I particularly enjoyed changing people’s preconceptions on whiskey, which has this stereotypical image of being an old man’s drink.

“If you’re not used to drinking whiskey neat (like your Dad probably does), you’re probably not going to like your first glass of it straight and while it’s at room temperature. You’ve got to build up to these things and a cocktail will do just that.”