From Liverpool to New Zealand and back again, to Australia, Canada, Scotland, and back to Canada, Sam Clark has packed a lot into 30 years.
He was studying social work at the University of Auckland, and working as a counsellor for children's charity, Barnardo’s, when he helped a friend paint a wine shop wall and fell in love with all the bottles, starting his shift into the world of wine, spirits, and bartending. Moving to New Zealand’s South Island, where he met his partner, Clark worked in a hotel and even started a rickshaw business, before bartending in Melbourne, and then in 2018, at Fairmont Banff Springs’ Rundle Bar.
Wanting to hone his skills, he was hired at Vancouver’s PiDGin restaurant, where he gained his love of sake, before an opportunity arose with Johnny Walker at the Glenkinchie Distillery. “I lived in Edinburgh and used to drive through the Scottish countryside to the distillery every day,” he says. “They'd rebuilt four of their distilleries into amazing bars and beautiful venues, and I looked after the beverage side - I loved it.”
On returning to Canada, Clark worked with Banff Hospitality Collective, opening Hello Sunshine's bar and writing the beverage program. “Banff is slowly becoming a destination for food and drink”, he says. “I'm really proud to be a part of that and bolster Banff’s reputation. That's my passion now, I'm not planning to go anywhere.” He hadn’t anticipated working with Fairmont again, but he’d really enjoyed his time there, and when the opportunity for Regional Bar Manager came up, he had to go for it. “I work with fantastic people in three international hotels. I get to work on exciting projects, such as our canned gin cocktails, and launch our new ‘Untamed’ whisky, and I have access to some of the most exclusive wines and spirits for our lists.”
Last year, Clark entered ‘World Class Canada’, his first cocktail competition, never expecting to get in. “I worked with some incredibly talented people; some are Canada's most creative minds. It's an amazing bonding experience for everyone, everyone wants each other to do well, then it's whoever scores the most points ultimately. But I see it more that you're playing against yourself as opposed to other people. I was very lucky, and placing third was huge.”
He had decided not to enter again this year, but went to a seminar to reconnect with some of the people, and they all said, ‘you should do it again’. “It was about two days before the deadline, but I had a drink planned and I just hit ‘send’ the day it was due.” He was accepted, and his first challenge was a live class cocktail class, which he did on the penthouse of Chateau Lake Louise - outside. “I didn't check the weather report; it was -25º C and it was a 10-minute live segment on Zoom. I could feel my hands going numb, but the frostbite was worth it,” he laughs. Not only did he get through to the Nationals in Vancouver for three whirlwind days of seven challenges each showcasing a different spirit, he placed second!
So what is Clark’s special bottle?
“I have fun things in the cellar - I have sake from space and all sorts of random things, but ultimately, I chose Glenkinchie 12 (year-old). Being so close to the distillery, and watching the generations of families who work there, put a whole different perspective on how a spirit is made, and how much love and care and effort goes into something that we handle every day, but maybe as guests you don't look at the back bar and think about all the stories behind each bottle,” he explains. “I think it's a huge obligation as a bartender to speak to those stories.”
“I love Glenkinchie for its light, approachable notes; it works really well in cocktails too. There's nothing better for me than a Glenkinchie highball or espresso martini. When I open it, I’ll probably make a highball with some chamomile tea and some green apple, stretch it out with a bit of elderflower soda for something nice and refreshing, and I always like to share everything I have with friends."