In the space of just a few month’s, Alana Durow, also known as AJ, has managed to work her way up from being a new-comer (having only attended bartending school last year), to the lead bartender at one of SA’s most exciting new hotels, Radisson RED, Rosebank.
“It’s been a hard graft to get here,” AJ notes. “As women in the workplace, sometimes you don’t get the respect you deserve because people either think you’re aggressive if you’re trying to assert yourself or a walkover if you’re being empathetic. I think it’s important to find that balance between being confident, standing your ground and caring”.
Creativity has been part of AJ’s identity from the start. She is a qualified fashion designer who has worked in the field for the past ten years. AJ also has counselling experience, which any bartender would know is something that comes in handy in the field. When the pandemic hit, AJ decided to explore a dream that she had always had – and it had nothing to do with her previous experience at all.
This is when she decided to follow a career she had always wanted to do. She realised that her love for creating new things had stemmed from her fascination with recipes and cookbooks when she was younger. Ever since she was old enough to drink and serve alcohol, AJ has been fascinated with how mixology takes basic recipes and plays around with new flavour combinations in a fun and exciting way. She’d started playing around with a few drink recipes when she was 18-years-old and mixology was something that she wanted to explore after school. She admits that she didn’t really know what she was doing at the time. And, in 2018, while working as a hostess at the popular Johannesburg hangout, Sin Tax, she was fascinated by the bartenders and what they could do.
“Watching them motivated me to aspire to be a kickass mixologist myself,” AJ says. “Through observation, I learned a lot of things,” she adds.
During the 2020 lockdown, she made up her mind to turn her passion into a career. She packed her bags for Cape Town and enrolled at the European Bartender School.
“Covid and the lockdown were a blessing in disguise for me because they encouraged me to reassess my direction,” says AJ. “I thought to myself that you only live once and I’ve got to at least try this because it’s been my dream career all along. ”
At bartending school, AJ was able to learn the foundations of classic cocktails and mixology. This helped her to break down basic formulas and gave her confidence to play around with new spins.
“It was such a wonderfully rigorous and stimulating experience. It pushed me and I found myself stepping up and facing all the challenges. I loved every minute of it. And I learned so much more than I ever thought I would about classic cocktail culture.”
After completing her schooling, AJ went back to work at Sin Tax to get behind the bar and push herself to a new level of creativity.
“Over the years, my love for mixology has only grown and my passion shines through in the drinks that I create,” explains AJ.
She notes that because of this, she was able to get recognised by Radisson RED’s food and beverage manager, Javad Pourjam when he visited Sin+ Tax to experience one of the world’s top cocktail bars. He had come to the bar one Sunday.
“Sundays were slightly more laid back for us. I used these days to focus on my guests and create something really personal for them. That’s what bartending means to me. It’s creating an experience while getting to meet new people. That’s how I met Javad and got on his radar for RED” says AJ.
“Bartending is a combination of all the things that I love. I love the creativity I get to explore in the same way I could with fashion and I love being able to talk to and help people in a little bit of the same way I did when I was counselling.”
“I never thought I’d move from a private cocktail bar to the hotel industry, to be honest. But I am loving the new adventure because it provides so many collaborative opportunities.”
A hotel offers a wide range of teams in different aspects of the industry such as marketing which is helping her to learn new skills that she is able to apply to her work as a mixologist. And while the Radisson RED’s cocktail menu has started off with the classics, she’s already contemplating and dreaming up new creative drinks to help the hotel’s bar stand out.
“Because this specific Radisson RED is more focused on fashion, lifestyle, and music I find it such an amazing career opportunity for me to work here and it ties into my creative background too,” adds AJ. “Being behind the bar is the most fun I’ve ever had. I am looking forward to the opening and showing guests what Radisson RED Rosebank is all about.”
AJ has become such a phenomenon in such a short space of time. Her work ethic, creativity and love of the craft has landed her in the finals for the Patron Perfectionists “Take Thyme” competition. To help AJ get to the SA finals (and hopefully the global finals, too), you can vote for her here