Interview: bartender Jacques Bezuidenhout (Partida + Kimpton Hotels)

Bartender San Francisco

Jacques Bezuidenhout is a Johannesburg native who became enraptured with cocktails and spirits in London and relocated to San Francisco in 1997 after going on a Greyhound adventure and deciding it was his favorite American city. His last single-bar stint was at Tres Agaves, where he drew the attention of Partida Tequila’s owner. He’s now a brand ambassador for Partida and co-manages the bar program for 56 Kimpton Hotels properties. On May 10, I met Bezuidenhout before the start of a guest bartending shift at Big Bar, and he shared spirited insights that hinted at why he’s been successful.

At what point did you know that you would work with cocktails and spirits for a living?

I never really planned for it, but I think it was in London when I first got a taste for working in a great bar, learning about cocktails and spirits, and I decided, I’m going to explore this more and more and more. I never really gave it much thought, other than wanting to learn the most I can about this industry and bartending and spirits and cocktails.

You’re originally from South Africa?

Yeah, from Johannesburg.

What brought you to San Francisco?

I traveled the States extensively on a Greyhound when I was living in London. I loved the States and loved San Francisco. Of all the cities, I loved the smallness of San Francisco and the unique food and beverage culture that it had.

Do you have a first cocktail memory, good or bad?

Some of my earliest cocktail memories were from my parents. South Africa has a lot of English drinking culture, so my parents always drank gin and tonics. I was always fascinated by that. Or Campari and orange juice. One of my first really good cocktail memories in London was having a mint julep at the old Atlantic Bar, which is really famous. It one of the first main bars in London that started the whole bartending movement.

I’ve heard a lot about it but unfortunately never got a chance to go.

At that time, which was 1995, I didn’t realize there was this little cocktail movement going on. I remembering going into that bar and ordering a mint julep and being blown away and having like three or four of them.

What was your very first night like behind the bar, and where was that?

My first night behind the bar? I worked in restaurants in South Africa, and when I moved to London, I worked in a kitchen, and then I worked in a pub. I think like any first time bar shift, you’re like a deer in headlights. Where is everything? What am I doing? Trying to balance people’s needs. Oh, you just asked for that? Where is that and how do I make it?

At what point did you realize you might be good at this?

There wasn’t just one day. I never really thought before, “Oh, I’m good at this.” I think it was more just a realization, “I love doing this.” It was just talking to people or learning about alcohol. It was probably more of a moment where, “This is what I love to do,” rather than thinking I’m good or bad.

Is there anybody who’s been a mentor to you over the years?

Yeah, I’ve had a few. Julio Bermejo from Tommy’s. Francesco Lafranconi. Obviously some of the old guys like Dale DeGroff and Tony Abou-Ganim. And then from the U.K., Dré Masso is one of those guys. Who else? My original bar manager, nobody really in the cocktail world, his name was David Lawson, but he just took what he loved to do and taught me about working with wine and Champagne and proper service, making an old style martini, that kind of stuff.

How long have you been working for Partida for?

Partida, I’ve been working for about five years now. I opened and was running the bar at Tres Agaves in San Francisco, and the owner, Gary Shansby, would come in all the time, because he had just launched the brand. I got to know him through Tres Agaves and made him cocktails and we got talking. He asked me to come work for the brand.

You also work for Kimpton Hotels. In what capacity?

I am the mixologist, run beverage for all their bars. I work with another guy. The idea being that the bars maintain their quality, that they’re using fresh products, and the bartenders are very proficient.

How many properties is that?

We now have 56.

How are you able to maintain balance in your life?

There’s a lot of travel. There’s a lot of living in bars, but it’s fun. It’s not so much you’re trying to throw down the hammer – “This is the way it’s got to be done.” It’s more like at Kimpton, we try to create a culture, and people buy into and be a part of that culture. With the new cocktail culture, it’s something that’s easily done, because you can give them something that’s made with cheap sweet and sour, and you can give them something that’s made with fresh lemon juice and simple syrup and you go, “Taste both of those, and you tell me which one is the better drink.” 100% of the time, they go, “Without question.”

Is there anything you miss about being behind one bar on a regular basis?



Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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