Growing up in England as a dyslexic child, Justin Darnes never did well at school. He was praised for the first time when studying media at college, resulting in the highest grades ever for the course, and a passion for TV and radio.
Fortunately, in his teens he’d worked in pubs, as on graduating film school it was hard to find work. “Most people moonlight as a bartender, but I moonlighted as a filmmaker for 12 years,” he laughs. He moved to London, got a job in a cocktail bar, and learned the hard way. “I got my foundation, and that set me up for the rest of my career.”
Eventually Darnes realized his passion had changed. “It was really the encouragement I was getting, people wanted me to make drinks for them. I was praised for my cocktails and banging my head against the wall trying to get into movies.” A position at the trendy, vegan restaurant, SAF, set him along a new path as they used molecular techniques to create the dishes, and he started hand-crafting his own ingredients too. It attracted a lot of attention, and he started to make a name for himself.
At the time, the Savoy Hotel had closed for renovations, and when it was to reopen three years later, now he was in demand, Darnes decided to apply. From 8,000 applicants, and after five hours of interviews and an online psychological exam, he was offered one of the four bartender positions, opening on 10/10/2010.
“I only managed a year there because I wanted to move to Vancouver. My visa options were running out, so I moved one week before my 30th birthday,” Darnes explains. “The Savoy on your resume opens a lot of doors, and since then I've been all around the world. I did the anniversary of the Apollo 13 space mission in Texas, and also consultancy in Hong Kong.”
Cocktail Concierge’s focus is bottled cocktails and consultancy. “My ambition for over 10 years is to build a platform for many cocktail-related projects, and I see this as my opportunity to pay it forward by helping those people that have huge potential but never really been encouraged,” say Darnes.
“There weren't many things in my life that I was recognized for being good at, and it was hard on me. I feel like it's been a constant theme throughout my life. Bartending just happened, and I'm thankful to be able to do what I think I was born to do – creativity, find an avenue for it and get praise for it.”
So what bottle is Darnes saving for a special occasion?
In his early days Darnes didn't understand cognac until he was invited to visit the area. “And from that day on, I'm sold. I love it,” he says. While running a bar in Kitsilano, he started “break-even bottle” industry nights, buying one special bottle and selling it by the ounce at cost.
“Delamain Réserve de la Famille was the bottle that I wanted for myself. They used to select one barrel of exceptional cognac to serve to friends, and in the mid ‘80s, they decided to sell this to the public,” explains Darnes. “It’s from 1952, and naturally 42 percent ABV after the angel’s share - no water added, it's pure cognac. They only produced 180 bottles and I have bottle number one. I put dibs on the last two ounces. I put it on social media and lots of people wanted to come; the first guy bought me an ounce too. I tasted it at the time, but I saved the rest for a special day; it could well be the last three ounces in the world.”
Darnes doesn’t know when he’ll drink the cognac as he gave up drinking five years ago. “I felt like I’ve got to reach my potential, and I have to focus now on building and getting where I want to be,” he says. “Eventually, when I've achieved what I want to achieve, then I'd like to have another go at drinking, but in a good way.”