With his new Birmingham bar, Passing Fancies, Tommy Matthews is creating a space where lab kit is shared and the next generation of bartenders will be nurtured.
I didn’t start bartending to make the single most delicious cocktail in the world, and I reckon most of you didn’t either. We got into bartending for the people.
Yeah it’s great seeing a guest repeatedly order one of your bevs, or picking up awards or comp wins for your drinks, but all of that pales in comparison to surrounding yourself with passionate people every day. I mean, I just took my entire team to Barcelona for 50 Best … which we didn’t have tickets for. We just wanted to experience the parties, the hospitality and see a bar community I’d never experienced before. That’s the stuff that puts a smile on my face. When we work together to share knowledge, better ways of doing things and are supportive to the community around us, the better we get as a whole, right?
At Passing Fancies, my new bar here in Birmingham, the venue is designed around the idea of a kitchen during a house party, because that’s where most people are in a good house party. The kitchen. We refer to ourselves as a “community-led venue”, which refers to a number of things: the community in my bar, my local community and my industry. We want to take a bit of the focus off just the liquid in the glass. Blasphemy, right… but a bar is more than just that. A bar is a space for collaboration, for relationships and for knowledge and stories to be shared.
What’s the point in a great drink if the experience is sub-par? I’ve had some great drinks in famous bars but experienced abysmal hospitality. And on the other hand, I’ve had some of the best hospitality drinking a can of Stella on the curb with some bartenders I’ve just met. When I really started to think about that – what makes great hospitality – it made me realise how important it is to share knowledge, skills and understanding, not hoard it.
Passing Fancies is the only bar in the Midlands which has a rotavap, a centrifuge and loads of other lab kit under the same roof. But instead of using this as some sort of competitive advantage, I’m of the mindset to just open it up to everyone who wants to try it out. Perhaps you work in a national chain and want to come and make a distillate for a special drink or a comp? Sure. Or if you want to try out the rotavap to get understanding of distillation? Done. You might want to use the centrifuge to understand clarity of flavour and how to use oils or fruits more efficiently? Easy – just come down. There’s a certain level of training I’d need to give bartenders who’ve never used equipment like this before, but it’s pretty low cost to me when you consider the aim. We’re up-skilling, sharing ideas and techniques. We’re investing in our community’s future.
We just did a launch event for Empirical’s new Symphony 6 at Passing Fancies, but instead of a tasting following the tired and boring format (turn up, taste, go home), we made a menu of three drinks with differing levels of prep, from just shop-bought ingredients. The idea was to be inclusive – to show that no matter where you work, you can take ideas and use them in your bar. The guys at Empirical just brought a case of stock, we did the drinks free for a few hours after and people could socialise and relax while gaining a bit of knowledge. Is this not a better way to inspire and motivate? Make them feel part of something.
The room was packed – many of them the next generation of Birmingham’s bartenders.