There are a few places that are able to incite a feeling of discovery and wonder with each encounter, even after several subsequent visits. Cause Effect is such a place. We discovered it during an extended stay in Cape Town, in the Tamberskloof neighborhood, which is full of great restaurants and boutiques. Cause Effect describes itself as an “experiential cocktail bar and kitchen” and it is best experienced with one’s presence and senses. We’ll try to do it justice here!
Opened in December of 2017 by renowned mixologist Kurt Shlechter, partner-in-crime James “Trigger” Phillips, and Siavash “Marshall” Bei (who is no longer with Cause Effect) along with bartender Justin Shaw rounding out the team, this bar delivers up delicious and delightful drinks that often incorporate elements that must be eaten, smelled, and touched, sometimes even listened to. And there is a lot to take in as Cause Effect is a loving ode to the striking beauty of the surrounding environs: the fynbos (from the Dutch word Fijnboch or ‘fine bush’ and referring to the incredibly diverse native vegetation of the Western Cape), the vineyards, the ocean, and the mountains.
The Cause Effect team made us some magical cocktails and sat down with us for a chat last winter. Kurt and Trigger spoke about the individual journeys that led them to open the space together, and the vision they have for Cause Effect. Justin shared some insight into what goes into bartending at this trailblazing establishment.
Kurt Schlechter has been bartending for over 25 years; his first gig was onboard a ship he was working on, while enlisted in the South African Navy and studying mechanical engineering.
Kurt: I just ended up enjoying the bar so much that when I left the navy, I started working as a bartender. I won the first South African bartending competitions that were around many years ago. I got into flair bartending and for a very long time I would compete in the Las Vegas Legends of Bartending. I started judging the Red Bull competition in Dubai.
I started bartending for the social aspects. I love dealing with people. It’s a lot of fun and I liked the energy of bars at the time. I became a drinks consultant about 16 years ago and I opened South Africa’s first mobile bar companies and bar schools. I had 6 of them, one in Mauritius, one in Namibia, and four in South Africa, which I shuttered about six years ago.
Then I decided to be a consultant on my own and I was living in Johannesburg at the time, where I met my wife. I won quite a few bartending competitions. I won the world champions margarita champions in Mexico. A Mexican [bartender] came second. I’ve competed in the IBA (International Bartenders Association) competitions. I’m not really competing at the moment, because I’m focused on bars. At the moment, I run a Bar Stars Academy for Pernod Ricard, a French company that has Absolute, Chivas, and so forth, and I run the academy in 12 countries, in Africa and some islands within.
I’m a bartender trainer, and I do consulting for restaurants, hotels. For example, I consulted for the Shangri-La in Mauritius, so I do bar openings, most of the training, but of course what I love the most, my absolute passion, is the creativity of cocktails.
When I started bartending, cocktails weren’t so amazing. They weren’t on the upward path. But in the last 15 years, bartending has changed so much. It changed more in the last 15 years than it’s changed in the last 100 years. The golden age of bartending was actually from 1860 to 1920, just when Prohibition started. Prohibition was repealed the 5th of December in America in 1933. What actually happened in bartending…all these hipster bartenders, all the mustaches and everything actually came from the golden era of bartending, which we call the vintage age or the golden age. It started with the very famous bartender Jerry Thomas.
Jerry Thomas was the author of the first-ever cocktail book in 1862 but at that time bartenders were making things like corpse revivers, fog cutters—all the coolest names. They were really showmen. Jerry Thomas was bankrupt twice. His cocktail kit was made of sterling silver and he earned [more than] the vice president did in America at the time, which was about 100 dollars a week. He was really famous, and he was very famous for The Blue Blazer. He was an entertainer and he was a showman when before they weren’t.
In the last 15 years, we have gone back to all these vintage cocktail books. We started going through these books and seeing that bartenders then were ten times more skilled than bartenders of the 90s and bartenders of the 2000s.
Not only did I get caught up in it, I was so happy that I chose it as a profession because literally from 15 years ago, the scene has exploded. We started getting all the cool cocktail equipment we never had before. If you look in the window here (at Cause Effect), I have a company here that sells this equipment. We import it from Japan, and we sell it online in Africa and we’re about to go to America with it now. There are a few companies that do it but we’re the only company in Africa, and we focus a lot on Africa. So that’s something super cool to be involved in, amazingly cool equipment. I’ve been watching the bar scene in South Africa and I was just thinking, no one’s really taking it to the hilt.
Why did we build Cause and Effect? Because we want to bemuse, entertain, and delight people.
We want to do it on our own terms and that’s why I decided to use brandy. I’ve done my masters in scotch working with the companies I work with. I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico with tequilas and mezcal but I wanted to showcase something that’s local, which is our brandies. And the last 14 years, South African brandies won the best awards for the last 13 years. We’ve won the last ISWC (the International Spirits and Wine Competition); we’re winning the awards. Last year, we won. KWV won the best brandy cognac producer in the world. The thing about brandy that is different from whiskey is that whiskey is made from malt and there are a lot of flavor profiles—amazing—but brandy is really truly unique because of the grapes. And that’s the difference, what grapes we use in [our brandies]. So when I first thought about Cause Effect, I thought about building a bar that’s about the grape.
The grape is the brandy, also the wine, and that’s why we make our own vermouth—which Marshall makes for us, we’re so lucky. And he’s making it in the Spanish style. But I was really set; I wanted to introduce the grape. Now South Africa is known for having brandy and coke drinkers, which is obviously 30% pot still and 70% neutral grape spirit, which is made in a column still and you can run your lawnmower with it as well, if you want. So we don’t have any of that here, we only have 100% pot still, which is very important. What you find about our brandies is that they age quite long, that’s just our style. There are some good brandies and there are some amazing brandies. Someone had to do something with it. We’re busy making these amazing cocktails and we’re making it with 80% brandy and that’s what we’re about.
So Cause and Effect is about that: creative experiential seasonal cocktails in special vessels, using special local ingredients and we’re inspired by the fynbos, the mountain, the ocean, the vineyards. So we’re looking at the mountain for ingredients, we’re always looking at the sea for ingredients. There are 600 different types of seaweed in South Africa, only one that you can’t eat. So there are a lot of species, there is a lot to play with and we’re just only beginning.
Cause and Effect for me is a study in creativity. I brought it to these guys so they can develop what they do, then become really great bartenders and really great epicures, which they are already. If not then I actually have not done my job properly. So we’re trying to learn together. I don’t make all the rules, because that’s how you stifle creativity. I really want us to grow, for each person here to grow. And literally when we do training, the waitress can give us much input as the bartender can, doesn’t mean she hasn’t got a creative side to her. I think through this process, we are all striving for this creativity; we are all interested in every drink that we serve. So a training session becomes a session of passion.
The people that are working with us now, the front of house staff, it is so important that they can have all the conversations about taste and flavor and that’s what they’re doing. And they will just tell me if my drinks are shit immediately. They’ll say, ‘I don’t like that one and that’s the reason why…’ And I’ll be like, ‘Great, well that’s interesting.’
So Cause and Effect is firstly the brandy bar; second we’re an experiential cocktail kitchen: seasonal drinks will change, and the cocktail kitchen part is where we’re fusing food and drink. You can get a dirty martini platter that’s made to enjoy: it’s fynbos-infused olives, nice big green Spanish olives, Clamato, goats’ cheese and that you eat with your dirty martini. And then we have an aperitivo board, which is basically the antipasti, Italian style and then we serve an aperitivo: you get our house vermouth service with it, which is just vermouth and sparkling Pellegrino. You have to have a great water to go with the vermouth.
We wanted to be the cocktail kitchen and that’s why we wear chef’s jackets. When I came up with all visuals, the reference for me is Netflix’s Chef Table, which is all about great chefs. I wanted to bring that style of Chef’s Table [to Cause Effect]: there’s detailed working with the drinks and bringing it to the next level of presentation, and flavor of course. I want someone to taste [the drink] and say, ‘Wow, this is amazing! This is not what I would normally drink but this is really what I’d like to drink right now.’ And that’s where we are pushing the boundary. And so the last thing, we are also focusing on aperitif service. We want people to come in the afternoon and drink aperitifs so that’s why we focus on the vermouth. There’s no one who has bothered to do it properly yet, but I’m sure there will be.
We try to stay away from the gin and tonics in Cape Town because everyone is obsessed with that at the moment. We’re having a gin revolution in South Africa. It started in Spain, the gin revolution. The Spanish have lots of style and lots of passion about food and drink and I’m not sure every country has. But the Spanish in particular are different to the Italians and the French; their style is so much easier and so much more relaxed. What’s happening in Spain now is a vermouth revolution. So you go to a local bar and they’ve got barrels of vermouth, and they’re just pouring it out of the barrel and it’s massive. That’s what the next trend will be.
Look, there’s already a vermouth trend but not drinking vermouth just on its own with water—that’s not happening. I think this vermouth service is a massive trend. One of my friends, Naren Young, has a famous bar called Dante. His bar won Tales of A Cocktail with Wim Bosch, they just won best (American restaurant bar in 2017) cocktail menu. And it’s absolutely amazing what he’s done with vermouth and his vermouth service. I’m really inspired by him as well, for driving that forward.
I’m also taking all the things I’ve learned (because I’ve traveled quite a bit so I’m always taking notes) and then coming back to here where we’re doing some creative things. We’re just trying to push the envelope. See, what we’re doing, you’re not going to get the same thing anywhere else. That’s where Cause and Effect comes from. Our motto really is a study in creativity, and I think what’s going to happen is our drinks are good now but they are going to be even better a year down the line. That’s what we’re aiming for.