The late Wayne Michael Collins was one of the pioneers of the modern bar industry – his good friend Jason Crawley writes a tribute to his life and legacy.
It has been said Bob Dylan’s contribution to music is “incalculable”. Well, Wayne Collins’ contribution to the global drinks industry was equally hard to measure. His ground-breaking approach to bartending, cocktail creativity, standards of customer service, drinks education and training brought a blurry ’80s and ’90s drinks industry into sharp focus in the early Noughties.
What was obvious about Wayne was he lived and yearned for ideals. By ideals, I mean he had a vision of how things should be – and how to execute them perfectly. He had ideals in friendship, ideals in how you should order a pint, and how one should dress on a Sunday. He projected his broad vision of social ethics, honour and the cultural myth of how things ‘should be’ to all who would listen. And, because it came from this baby-faced proper Cockney Barrow Boy done-good, it was incredibly infectious, real and powerful.
In our bartending days, Wayne was the best of us. By far. His spiritpouring style was ridiculously smooth, so much so that people would often stop their conversations at the bar to watch as the liquor fell from high to land perfectly in a tiny jigger, then stop, perfectly. Everything he did behind the bar had some sort of fancy little twerk to it. These high pours and cuts could not be easily emulated. But, if you tried to, he’d shout: “You’re welcome”! This saying would be continually repeated when Wayne came across recipes or “moves” he’d created, humorously underlining his impact.
Perhaps drawing on his trading days at Queen’s Crescent Market, Wayne really loved the bar set-up process. He’d spend hours crushing ice in ice buckets with a muddler and he’d always wear a butcher’s apron – very uncommon at the time. He’d talk to the mint leaves and the lychees as if they were people and carved names such as Charlie Bronson and John Wayne into the wooden muddlers. He took a pride in making everything perfect and giving everything and anything a purpose.
He could sell anything to anyone and drizzled Cockney rhyming slang into most of his sentences. Sometimes ‘karate’ would appear when putting money in the till and he’d make references to Hong Kong Phooey when shaking drinks. During service, he would remember a less well-known nugget of slang and he’d tell you it again several times over while breaking into fits of laughter. He had lightning wit and transmitted his world view without much of a filter, but always with a quality punchline.
If you were his friend, you were deeply loved and he’d socialise your name around the industry as being the “best sailor in the Navy”. He always turned up with a novelty gift, such as a giant silver spoon, and try to convince you it belonged to a famous dead American Bartender.
Over the years, what was noticeable was how wonderfully important Wayne made you feel, especially among ‘his’ industry peers. When introducing you to someone, he’d pause all conversations, put both hands up in the air to quieten, stick out a finger and audibly intro you with a compliment and a funny ‘dig’ stuck to it. An example would be “this is my buddy Jay, he’s much funnier than me, not as good looking, but he knows his onions, so watch out”, then burst into laughter.
Wayne was wonderful with training, education and “sharing all his knowledge”. He somehow untangled the most complex and historical world of Punch and the millions of mixed drinks it spawned – and made it all make sense with a practical approach. He always insisted that a few good dashes of personality were mandatory, much like his mentor and market guru Mickey Benson had instilled in him from 14 years old.
The Mixxit bartender training programme he founded and ran gave the world drink ‘families’ which were tangible and clear with ‘formulas’. This was hugely important at the time as it gave all bartenders a starting point for building their own creativity and threw light and fun into the darkness of dusty but significant old drinks books. He inspired us and challenged accepted ideas while pushing drink creations into new heights.
Wayne’s philosophy can be seen on thousands of cocktail menus around the world today. Sometimes it’s cocktails that make legacies, and you could remember Wayne for the White Negroni, but this is just a half-atom of his story. He was more of a generous pioneer who threw the gold behind him as he found it. He was osmosis to knowledge, a true gentleman and a tireless and hilarious raconteur. And finally, the best-greatest friend to all he loved, nurtured and protected.
Wayne Collins was born in Camden, London on 20 May 1970. He was son to Cecelia and Michael Collins. He would go on to father two daughters with his partner Karen, and there is one much-loved grandson.