Alana Durow, known as AJ, managed to work her way from being a newcomer who only attended bartending school in 2020 to the lead bartender in a space of just a few months at one of South Africa’s new and exciting Radisson RED hotels.
From the start, creativity has always been a part of AJ’s identity. She’s a qualified fashion designer who has worked in the field for the past 10 years, and has counselling experience which may come in handy in the bartender field.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, AJ decided to explore something she had always dreamed about which had nothing to do with any of her previous experience at all.
“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.”
Her love for creating new things is what played a part in deciding to follow a career that she always wanted to do. When she was of drinking age and able to serve alcohol, she became fascinated with how mixology takes basic recipes and plays around with new, fun and exciting flavour combinations.
When she was 18-years-old, AJ started playing around with a few simple drink recipes. She admitted that she had no idea what she was doing at the time. In 2018 while working as a hostess at the popular Johannesburg hangout, Sin Tax, she was fascinated by the bartenders and their exceptional mixology tricks.
“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 lockdown in 2020, AJ made up her mind to turn her passion into a career, 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.”
While at bartending school, AJ learnt the foundations of classic cocktail and mixology which helped her to break down basic formulas, giving her the confidence to play around with more liquor.
“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 school, AJ went back to work at Sin Tax – only this time, behind the bar with an aim to push herself to a whole 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.
This was because of her recognition 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.”
Hotels offer a wide range of teams in different aspects of the industry such as marketing which is helping AJ learn new skills that she can apply to her work as a mixologist. The Radisson RED’s cocktail menu has started off with a bang of classics and AJ has already started contemplating and dreaming of 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,” says 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.