From behind the bar in Bulgaria, to cruising the seven seas and now in his latest chapter starting his popular Instagram and online channel, justshakeorstir.com Georgi Petrov is constantly looking to innovate. Georgi spoke with me by phone and his fascinating story is brought to you exclusively here at www.top-beverages.com.
Ok, Georgi let’s start with the basics, tell me about yourself.
I was born in Sofia, Bulgaria during the height of communism. My first job behind the bar was for a Canadian guy who owned a live bar that served Mexican food. It was the coolest place in town.
Wait, so a Canadian guy moved to Sofia to open a Mexican restaurant?
Yep. It was the coolest place in town. At the time, live music was really big, and we served a lot of tequila, so most people had a good time. I worked there for maybe a year and half or two years.
Is that where you learned the mixology craft?
No, actually it wasn’t until my former manager brought me to the Capital Bar, a new bar that opened in a Sheraton in Sofia that I started to really learn and understand how to make a cocktail. I didn’t know much when I started but grew to become head bartender in a short time.
How were you able to grow your skills so quickly?
I love cooking and enjoy flavours and wanted to bring that same sense to cocktails. So I joined associations, read as many books as we could get in Sofia on making cocktails. I did tasting sessions and I worked and studied and worked some more. I really wanted to become the best mixologist that I could. It was a few years of madness but a lot of fun and a lot of drinks.
There are some amazing classics in the world of cocktail books, what was the first book you remember reading?
Well, with communism ending in 1991, we didn’t have the number of books that were available in the west. I do remember two books that inspired me, the Encyclopedia of Cocktails by Paul Martin and The Bols Book of Cocktails.
So as you were climbing the mixology ladder, did you ever do any competitions?
Yes, I did. In 2001 I finished 4th in a Bols Liqueur competition. It was 35 different countries so 4th overall was great, However, I did best tasting cocktail so I win in this category 1st place.
What was it?
I don’t even remember what it was! These competitions are crazy. Blind tastings with cocktails sent to a judge’s room and you have a short amount of time to create. But whatever it was, it won.
Generally speaking, have you done a lot of competitions?
Yeah quite a few in fact and more than I can remember. Some notable ones were: 1st place in a free style category competing for Beefeater Gin where we had to serve a themed cocktail. I did my Dracula performance and won the round.
More recently, I didn’t win but in 2019 I qualified for semi-finals and finals on cocktail competitions:
- for UKBG, Giffard Liqueurs, Chase Distillery, Amaro Montenegro, Angostura, and Cut Rum
- I reached the Top100 UK Bartenders in the Diageo World Class Competition; and
- My cocktail MOON RISING created for Russian Standard Vodka won an official cocktail for THE BLUE MOON FESTIVAL.
Ok, so you are competing and working your tail off. How long did you stay at the Capital Bar?
Well I started jumping all over place around 2001. Eventually I opened my own bar in 2004. I was also working training other bartenders, consulting with spirits companies, developing menus. Honestly, I got tired and needed a change. I was living to work and not working to live.
How did you get that change?
I went on a cruise!
I started doing some work on the cruise ship doing DJing and then was the senior technician on the ships for 6 years organizing production and events. It is where I met my wife who was a dancer. Basically, I took my career in a different direction.
So you put down your shaker?
Yes, I did for over 10 years. Eventually, we moved to England, and in 2011, I stepped off the boat and got a normal job. I started doing photography and graphic design until in 2018, after my daughters were older, I decided to build a home bar.
Why the home bar?
Well, I saw how the ability to communicate across a wide variety of mediums could enable me to show the mixology arts. So I created #justshakeorstir on Instagram and online at www.justshakeorstir.com and started to make cocktails again.
What was it like getting all the old tools out and creating again?
It was like riding a bike. Once a mixologist always a mixologist. I remembered the buzz you get of opening a fresh bottle and creating something. I missed it and was excited to jump back into it.
You have certainly amassed quite a following in a short period of time.
Well, I think there has just been a great awakening in the art of making a cocktail and people are very interested in learning about it and doing it at home and being more knowledgeable generally.
It seems as if mixologists are finally getting their due the way chefs have?
You are absolutely correct. We are innovators and creators and bars around the world are experimenting and developing and it is great to see.
What are your goals for justshakeorstir?
I really want to become a name people can trust in making cocktails. I want to be innovative and provide people a different perspective on how to create.
Ok, now the disappointing thing about doing these interviews over the phone is that you can’t make me a cocktail, so tell me what are you going to make me if I were there?
One of the skills a good bartender develops is how to read people. So I can determine what people want by the way someone looks. Also, I like to engage the customer and ask them questions about what they like so they can participate in the drink making process.
A couple obvious ones I may start with is a classic cocktail called Amsterdam: with gin, orange, Cointreau and orange bitters.
Well I enjoy vodka could we use vodka? And by the way, I like a bit of sweet and sour.
You can absolutely substitute vodka for gin. And with that flavor profile, I would make you a pain in the neck.
Did you talk to my kids?!
Hah. Well a Pain in the Neck is: vodka, spiced rum, strawberry, cranberry juice and lemonade. In a highball glass, no shaking and over ice.
Well, I could use one now! One last question, do you like a particular spirit more than others?
For me, it doesn’t matter the spirit. I don’t look for trends. I look for what is classic and try to deliver an amazing cocktail. I like to take simple ingredients and take it to the next level. A simple gin & tonic is actually not simple. Choosing the right kind of gin and marrying the right tonic can really transform a cocktail.
For my readers out there, if you are not following Georgi on Instagram @justshakeorstir, or on YouTube or at his website, justshakeorstir.com, then you are missing out on a real genius and a truly nice guy.