Born in Melbourne, Australia to military parents, James Grant grew up moving every few years. He studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Alberta, but didn't know what to do with it afterwards.
He’d worked in the service industry while at college - and really disliked it. ‘I told myself I'm never going to work in a bar or a restaurant again,’ says Grant. “I worked in public relations and communications, and thought ‘I'm okay at this, but I don't love it.’”
Wanderlust set in, and he moved to England. “I figured I have five years experience and two degrees - if I can't get a job in communications, I should choose a different field. And I couldn't get a job. I sent out probably a hundred resumes and I never got a call back,” he says.
He googled ‘bartender resume’, and sent out a fake resume. He’d never bartended, but Grant knew he could probably pull a pint and talk to people: “I sent out about 30. I got 25 callbacks the next day, had an interview the day after, and left with a job.”
He was soon promoted to manager, but when he ran out of money, moved back to Edmonton. He was hired on at Woodwork and loved it. “It was creatively satisfying. I was looking after guests; I was showing them a great experience, and I was learning every day,” he says. “I realized that I'd found my calling. I completely forgot about doing communications work, and eventually I took over as bar manager at Woodwork.”
He moved on to other bars until he recognized that Baijiu’s Little Hong Kong was perfect for a format he’d seen in Toronto - a bar with no menu. It forced him to develop different skills: “It was so rewarding and exciting, and fun.” The ownership asked him to open “Pablo,” a new high volume, cocktail lounge nightclub, which closed for the pandemic and he returned to Little Hong Kong. Within six months it became the highest ranked Edmonton bar.
Grant started competing in local bartending contests five years ago; he lost a couple, came second, and then started winning everything he entered. He wasn’t prepared for his first World-Class regionals in 2017, however. “I gave my best, and had a spectacularly poor showing”, he admits. “But I told myself ‘that's not how I'm going to be remembered in this competition.’ I came back the next year prepared and focused, and made the top four nationally, and then made it to this year's World-Class Regionals.”
Now 36 years old, Grant decided that by the age of 40 he needed a secure future. “I treated it like a full-time job, and won the National Finals - always a dream of mine,” he says. “It's pretty overwhelming to think that my life has now changed in some very fundamental ways. Not only do I get to represent our community, but I also have the opportunity to engage with bartenders and cocktail culture all over the world, and bring that knowledge back to Edmonton.”
And what bottle does Grant have squirreled away?
When you win the World-Class Nationals, you're given a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue label. “The first year that I came really close, the restaurant made it to the final four and I saw my friend was handed a bottle of Blue Label. At that moment I said, ‘I'm never going to buy a bottle of Blue Label, but I'm going to win a bottle of Blue Label.’ And I've never bought one, but I certainly have one,” he smiles.
“That bottle means much more to me now. It’s such a beautiful, luxurious, wonderful whiskey, and I've been fortunate to have it in a lot of wonderful contests. We certainly opened a bottle of it after I won in Toronto, and we were able to share it as a team, but to me that bottle represents so much persistence and tenacity, a desire to consistently improve year over year and prove something to myself - and to show that I could get to that level on my own terms. It's a very meaningful bottle to me, and it's quite precious.”