Shepherd on why bartending beats DJing as a career

28th November, 2019 by Owen Bellwood

Rory Shepherd was torn between a career in DJing or bartending before plumping for the latter. The creative director of Bonomy Group tells SB why he made the right decision.

Rory Shepherd: “I wanted to be a superstar DJ”

*This feature was originally published in the September 2019 issue of The Spirits Business

“It’s weird how much cocktails and music relate to each other,” says Rory Shepherd, operations manager and creative director at Little Red Door owner Bonomy Group.

“If you play someone a song that they absolutely love there’s this real sense of happiness and amazement that comes across their face. When I started bartending I realised I could get little feelings like that all night long by giving somebody a drink that I know they will enjoy.”

The Scottish bartender says he has always loved music, and felt that he was “always going to go either into a band or DJing, or something like that”.

“I wanted to be a superstar DJ,” says Shepherd. “The guy that ran the first bar I worked in had a pair of decks and I would hold a sign outside the bar for two months just to get my hands on those decks.”

Doing that outside a Thai restaurant and bar in Edinburgh gave Shepherd his first taste of work in the on‐trade. While he began his bartending career and pursued his dreams of DJ stardom, Shepherd soon found that the two careers could grow and develop alongside one another.

“I did a big new year’s rave where I was playing drum and bass and dubstep and things like that, and we made a song drop at midnight on the dot, and that was an absolutely amazing feeling,” he recalls.

LOVE OF MIXOLOGY

As time went on though, he says his love of performing began to wane, while his interest in mixology continued to grow. “The beauty of just collecting music kind of wore off when I started doing it just to please people; it’s weird,” he says. “In all honesty, I started working in bars and really loved that. I was still able to do a bit of DJing though, because DJing and making playlists kind of went hand in hand with bars.”

Shepherd decided he was ready to commit to bartending and dropped out of university to pursue his passion for cocktails, which he says was the moment that he “grew up”.

“The point where I actually wanted to make a career out of this was significant because it was the first time that I had really set my mind to something,” he admits.

French chic: the Little Red Door in Paris

As he developed his skills and techniques behind the bar, Shepherd left Scotland behind and went to London – where he says he learned his greatest lessons on how to succeed in the on‐trade. In the capital, he worked at Under Dog – a beer‐focused cocktail bar underneath the Shoreditch branch of Scottish brewer BrewDog’s chain of craft beer bars.

Shepherd says: “A guy called Roy Varty was my manager when I tended bar at Under Dog. He taught me how to host people, how to make people feel like they’re just relaxing in your living room, and how to get as much as you can out of a night of talking to people and serving people. To this day he is an absolute delight to be served by; he is the most friendly, welcoming, hilarious guy.”

After London, Shepherd moved to Paris where he can now be found in venues operated by hospitality company Bonomy Group – namely, renowned speakeasy Little Red Door.

“I didn’t want to work here at first,” he explains, “because I really liked just sitting drinking here.” Following a tough night in his previous “high‐volume, high‐demand bar”, Shepherd says he was having a beer with Remy Savage, former Little Red Door head bartender, when he found himself asking “can I have a job?”.

“I always liked the way they served people there, with such open arms,” he says. “It’s about being really friendly to absolutely everybody, and really understanding that if you are being nice and hospitable then nobody is going to be nasty. Also, it was about the creative licence that was available, and that meant that I could come in here and challenge myself creatively.”

When he joined the renowned Paris bar, Shepherd agreed that initially he would spend his first six months as a bartender, rather than stepping straight into a managerial role.

“Part of the conversation with Remy was that I also wanted to just bartend and talk to people and make drinks for six months,” says Shepherd. “Eventually I became bar manager then after that the operations manager and creative director for the group. So I didn’t intend to immediately go into management, but I knew that if I liked working at Little Red Door then I didn’t want to just stop here for a couple of years and move on.”

Having pledged to “never leave” the bar group, Shepherd now splits his time between Bonomy’s three venues: Little Red Door, Lulu White Drinking Club and Bonhomie.

“They are three very different venues,” he explains. “We did that on purpose; at each bar there are very different teams and there are very different styles of the way we make drinks. Understanding that no venue is more important than the other and putting time into every place is difficult – especially with a place like Little Red Door.”

The Mauri from Little Red Door

Shepherd says the bar has given him creative freedom. His time there has seen him work on new menus, including the bar’s latest list that features cocktails inspired by untranslatable words, and take the drinks team to countless events and on tours around the world.

“The Asia tour was just incredible,” Shepherd enthuses. To celebrate the release of the bar’s recently‐launched menu, Shepherd and bartenders from Little Red Door travelled to Asia to showcase the latest drinks at venues there.

“We went to Shanghai, Hangzhou, Hong Kong and Singapore, and it was really cool,” says Shepherd. “The bar scene over in Asia is unbelievable. The shifts were amazing; we had people coming to visit from far and wide that had heard about us coming on WeChat. There was a couple at one shift that had visited the bar in Paris on their honeymoon and came along when we went to their city. It was lovely, and it seemed to make the world a bit smaller.”

THE GLAMOROUS LIFE

Despite deciding against pursuing the rock ‘n’ roll career of a DJ, Shepherd has found his own way of bringing elements of that glamorous lifestyle to bartending.

Having travelled around the world serving drinks for fans of Little Red Door and continuing to dabble in music when creating playlists for the Parisian bars, Shepherd seems happy with his life creating mixed drinks rather than mixtapes.

“I’m really glad that I have this as part of my life and that this is the direction I’ve taken; it’s been amazing,” he says.

“I love meeting people, I love serving drinks, I love travelling the world and I love that I can go back home and tell my gran where I’ve been. She won’t understand why I was there but she’ll be really happy about it.”

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