Georgia Billing

Archaeologist & Bar Manager

What is your story before you started your degree in Cambridge?

I grew up in Cardiff and moved to London to pursue a degree in Archaeology at University College London (UCL). I had always loved History and was interested in discovering a practical approach to investigating the past. During my time at UCL, I excavated archaeological sites from South Africa to Belize, as well as locally in the UK, and had the opportunity to visit ancient monuments otherwise closed to the public.

Following my undergraduate degree, I spent a year travelling and working.  I spent 3 months in Peru and Bolivia and worked as a bar supervisor back home. I returned to UCL to complete a MSc in Dental and Skeletal Bioarchaeology. I learned how to recognise different traumas, diseases, and nutritional deficiencies in skeletal remains, and became interested in bone growth and rickets.

Thanks to a contact of my then tutor, Dr Louise Martin, I took a voluntary position in Jujuy, Argentina, excavating an Inca tomb, where I was in charge of cataloguing the human remains we uncovered. I remained in Argentina after the project, working in a Buenos Aires bar, learning Spanish, horse-riding, and tango dancing. What a year!

I always planned to return to the UK, and after several Skype interviews across somewhat questionable South American internet cafes, I was accepted as a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. The project was to research vitamin D deficiency trends in infants by analysing the concentration of vitamin D metabolites in human breast milk. The adjustment from studying humans in historical contexts to living populations was challenging. I embraced not only the medical aspect but also the diversity of working with mothers and infants from the UK and the Gambia, comparing their lifestyles. Dr Gail Goldberg of the MRC Human Nutrition Research unit was my much-admired supervisor and mentor, and it was an honour to work with such an accomplished yet grounded and kind person.

Which were your most difficult moments and obstacles you faced during this period? How did you overcome them?

There were difficult moments when I first moved to Argentina. I travelled there alone and only knew basic Spanish; not being able to express myself fully was debilitating. One night within about ten days of arriving, three men (masquerading as backpackers) entered my hostel and robbed the reception area. Many guests left immediately – even insofar as arranging flights out of the country – but I wasn’t ready to give up just yet! To my mind, the worst had already happened. I was in touch with my parents frequently, but I never told anyone about the robbery. I believed I was sensible enough to avoid a similar, repeat experience. Funnily enough, while male travellers I met were often travelling in groups or couples, it was inspiring to meet a greater number of lone female travellers like myself, and we supported and advised each other, making sure we were safe. I learned to rely more on myself, perhaps a ‘get straight back on the horse’ mentality after a fall.

In Cambridge, however, I faced different challenges. I found the environment competitive and stifling to begin with, and the self-doubt returned. My former training in archaeology enabled me to take an alternative approach to my PhD research, but it still felt like an entirely new subject. So, I had to catch up.

To overcome this knowledge gap and feeling of inadequacy, I attended undergraduate lectures in Biology and Molecular Medicine. I loved those lectures, and I was grateful to be able to sit in and lay the groundwork for the PhD research, which I had already begun alongside. It was strange to share classes with undergraduates, but it certainly offered perspective on how vast the academic world is – there is always more to learn. I suppose I had to step back to step forward!

What do you do now?

Throughout my studies, I always took part-time jobs in bars. I started in pubs and worked up to cocktail bars, which require increased skill and knowledge of spirits. I even conducted a side-project running cocktail workshops and events at Cambridge colleges during my PhD. My hobby later became my passion, and I now work in the drinks industry full-time.

Currently, I consult on new bar and restaurant openings, alongside managing the City of London Distillery and Bar. We produce nine gins from a small basement in London’s iconic Square Mile and were the first distillery to open in the area since the famous 18th century Gin Craze (gin has improved since then!). My team are all adept at conducting gin tastings and distillery tours, as well as guided experiences where guests can distil their own gin in our laboratory. We present an in-depth history of gin production in the area, with our spirit at the heart of the story. There are a lot of moving parts to oversee between the bar, the distillery operation, the guided experiences, the presence of the brand, and our shop, but we all share tasks as needed.

I also volunteer as an Ambassador for The Drinks Trust, a charity supporting hospitality workers who encounter physical, mental, and financial hardships, which is crucial for an industry that typically involves working long antisocial hours on your feet, minimum wage, and stressful environments. Having previously worked in nutrition research, I am particularly mindful of maintaining a work-life balance and often refer to knowledge gained during my PhD to help my team, for example on maintaining energy levels and the importance of a healthy diet.

That’s a very interesting change. Why did you make that decision?

After I graduated from my PhD, I was at a crossroad. Bartending had been the common denominator throughout all my studies and travels, so I consciously chose to concentrate on that more deeply, as I felt I could never reach a professional level if it remained just a side-line. It was a defining moment.

Hospitality is often overlooked as a legitimate career path, but is actually one of the fastest growing industries in the world. I am surrounded by interesting people, who challenge me daily. My colleagues have incredibly varied backgrounds, and I face new personalities from all walks of life every day. Engaging with different public sectors means that everyone I meet is a teacher; I think I will be a lifelong student! From lessons in geography, to history of spirits and classic cocktails, to physical and mental endurance, and more.

I constantly use the transferable skills acquired during my PhD, including critical thinking, project management, research, and experimentation. I have studied fermentation and distillation in depth and learned to infuse my own liqueurs and cocktail bitters, creating novel flavour combinations. I love to improvise with my own products, and on occasion, break the rules! There is a lot of ‘trial and error’ to extract the desired flavours and understanding the science behind each technique enables me to improve faster.

I love not sitting behind a desk. Movement is a gift that enables unique modes of expression. Shaking and stirring cocktails give me job satisfaction and maintain my technical dexterity. I have always enjoyed working with my hands and being around others who value the same. I aim to find the magic of the match: a particular setting, with a particular guest, with a particular drink. The scientist in me will always relate to the profound ability of flavour and aroma to link old memories and to create new sensory experiences.

What drives and motivates you?

Travel and exploration are big motivators. Everywhere I went during my archaeological digs, I found that sharing the local tipple, over the story of its origin, brought rich cultural experiences. For example, in Peru, I tried traditional pisco sours, in South Africa, it was Cape Brandy and Amarula, and Scotland has their own world of distinct whiskies.

Now in my daily routine as a bartender, the bottles lined up on my back bar offer a trip around the world – in spirits – and each one has a human story to tell. A great motivational tool for any bartender is the opportunity to meet the people behind the bottles. I once visited Schiedam, The Netherlands, the home of Ketel One vodka. I met the Nolet family, whose known history spans 300 years and 11 generations of distillers. It was fascinating to learn of their humble beginnings, building to global recognition, with their vodka and genever still owned and produced by their descendants centuries later. It was an impressive operation.

A bar is only as strong and memorable as its team, and each team I have worked with has shown a unique sense of togetherness. During a busy shift, communication is key, and bartenders often work extra hours through demanding periods. Complex relationships are forged that are closer to family (with a work ethic) than simple friendship. The hospitality community as a whole shows tremendous mutual respect and collaboration, which inspires me every day. My bar is my home away from home, a safe place that welcomes anyone without judgement. For all of our goals and for any recognition we wish to accomplish, we cannot achieve them alone.

What are your ambitions for the future?

It is often a bartender’s dream career path to have their own bar and be their own boss. For me, more than just a bar, I would like to start a laboratory to produce liqueurs commercially, and perhaps to obtain a distiller’s licence and produce my own spirits too. Just after I completed my PhD, I worked in an East London cocktail bar where I met my partner, Michele Reina, a prolific Italian bartender who had spent years perfecting his homemade cocktail ingredients. We developed new recipes and started making bespoke bitters, liqueurs, and vermouths for events and cocktail menus, and we even wrote two recipe books. After three years of running this venture, we made the tough decision to temporarily close until it is logistically stable for us to commit full-time. There is no deadline or limit on this goal, which is liberating.

My PhD involved aspects of food science, and I would like to develop this base knowledge into liquid science. Alcohol consumption ties in with public health, as we become more informed of excessive alcohol and sugar intakes. From historical importance in medicine, alcohol and alcoholic drinks have evolved towards the recreational practice. However, cocktails are a decadence to be enjoyed, not overindulged. My vision is one of quality over quantity; moderation rather than elimination. We have seen a shift in this vein, with the rising popularity of low and no alcohol cocktails in recent years. If I were to return to human research, I would like to study alcohol consumption patterns and their effects more deeply.

Other women who have had careers in hospitality as well as families are who I aspire to – including my own mother, a successful businesswoman herself. I am lucky to have common goals with my partner, and perhaps because we have worked together behind the bar, I know we make a good team and continue our professional and personal journeys, together.

What was your biggest accomplishment to date in the hospitality business?

Besides having the chance to talk to WATT, I won a cocktail competition for which the prize was to collaborate with a dozen bartenders from around the world on a new Single Malt Scotch, working with the wonderful master blender: Dr Rachel Barrie. We all have our names on the bottle, and it is very exciting to see our Auchentoshan Bartender’s Malt expression on the market. In future, I would like to represent the UK in a global cocktail competition, but I think I have a long way to go. The closest I have reached is UK top ten with Diageo’s prestigious World Class competition.

I have previously led bar teams in some grand establishments, including one of the busiest bars in Mayfair, and another restaurant serving over 1000 people each day in Covent Garden. I am also proud to be a judge for the annual London Spirits Competition, as well as the Women’s Wines and Spirits Awards. Right now, I am concentrating on my current post within a company that is helping me develop my business brain with a global vision. Although there are only 12 people on our team, our gin is distributed to 22 countries (and counting), and it is humbling to be a part of that machine – the idea of something bigger than myself. My team is currently planning to launch an innovative new menu and to expand our distillery and bar; I am excited to lead that future endeavour and discover where it takes us next.

What is your advice for young ambitious women?

Everyone is on a personal journey; here are some lessons I would like to share from mine:

–           A good friend once told me that a rainforest plant cannot survive in the desert. This phrase resonated with me because if you find you are not surviving, it may be time to find a more favourable environment to thrive in.

–           Keep an open mind and never stop learning. Expand your horizons even beyond your usual interests, and develop new skills. You will be surprised by what inspires you.

–           Meet family and friends regularly, their support is invaluable.

–           Any choice or action you take, do it for yourself, and rely on yourself to make it happen. Find your passion and let it motivate you naturally.

–           I have been lucky to find incredibly nurturing mentors. Choose who guides or validates you. There will be criticism, but how it affects you depends on where it comes from, and whether it is constructive. It’s your choice.

–           Consider having a contingency plan, just in case the main plan changes unexpectedly or circumstances become out of your control. It is useful to have a fall-back. The plan B may even become your calling.

 

Georgia was interviewed by Íris Luz Batalha.

 

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