It’s been a hell of year in the world of bitters&twisted, and now seems like as good a time as any to have a look back at what’s happened in 2012, one drink (or article) at a time. It’s kind of strange reviewing the year, and seeing which moments were absolute highlights, what brands and drinks made a lasting impression, which characters we shared good times with. It actually creates a pretty interesting picture of what’s happened in the cocktail scene in the last 12 months.
From shaking drinks with Jim Meehan and Colin Appiah in New Orleans, to creating drinks to serve to some of the best bartenders in the world, I've been busy. There have been new friends to meet, new products to drink, new distilleries to visit and new cocktails to drink. Yes sir, 2012 has been a hell of a year!
I’ve been thinking recently that we live in an interesting moment in time, in terms of the history of drinking cocktails. There’s definitely a huge resurgence in the popularity of mixed drinks, with cocktails making it more and more into people’s everyday lives. So here’s a little snap shot of what happened, from my point of view. I hope it makes interesting reading for you too.
Well it’s that time of year again, when the bars start getting crowded and the smell of mulled wine fills the air, which of course means that Christmas is fast approaching. I’ve held off on posting a Christmas list blog post for as long as I can, as frankly I hate seeing this season exploited in November, but as we get closer to the big day I thought I should share a few of those ‘must have’ present ideas for the cocktail enthusiast, bartender or hardened drinker in your life. So below you’ll find some of the things I would be happy to find waiting for me under the tree, as well as a few of the things that I’ve been especially pleased with owning this year.
If, like me, you fell that one of the few saving graces of the festive period is the excuse to have a few ‘festive’ drinks to drown out the hectic month of December, I hope you’ll find this list helpful. Maybe it’ll give you a few things to put on your own Christmas list, or inspire you to buy something booze related for a loved one. If all else fails nothing says ‘I love you’ like a bottle of good Whiskey and some tumblers to drink it from, and the best part is getting to share the gift you’ve just given!
Sometimes it seems like the drinks industry has become a little bit formulaic, especially when it comes to spirit brands. New Gins come to market shouting about their unique botanical, new Whiskies find a story to make up for their lack of heritage, Vodkas find a funky spelling for their newest flavour… it’s all a bit predictable all too often. Of course there are exceptions; not everyone follows the usual routine, but there are too few passionate individuals who find pioneering ways to launch something new to market. So when a couple of years ago I was told by a friend that I really needed to meet some guy named Stephen and try his new Mezcal, I’ll admit I was expecting a run of the mill story behind his brand.
Unfortunately for me I missed that chance two years ago in New York, but I was lucky enough to get a sip of his Ilegal Mezcal and thought ‘well at least it’s good liquid’. Fast forward to July this year and you’d find me stood outside a firing range in New Orleans drinking Mezcal from a bottle with the man behind the brand, Stephen Myers. The first thing to mention is that Stephen is one hell of a nice guy, the second is that his Mezcals are fantastic, and the third is that there’s a real story behind the liquid. You see Stephen is a modern day bootlegger, a passionate advocate of his category of spirits, and a dangerous man to drink with…
Firstly may I apologise for the length of time between updates, but as it has been ‘Bourbon Heritage Month’ I felt I should dedicate myself to promoting this fine spirit in various countries across Europe! Last month I shared with you a few things that everyone should know about Bourbon, so it seems only right to share some of the Bourbons I enjoy drinking. To be honest, for me narrowing it down to just 11 has been challenging as there are over 80 Bourbons in the b&t drinking room at the moment. Of those 80, I’m pretty sure there isn’t a bottle that hasn’t been opened, and most of them get enjoyed on a regular basis.
In tackling this task, I considered breaking them up into different styles to make sure that Bourbons with high rye, corn or wheat recipes were well represented, but somehow that didn’t balance out, as I tend to be a little biased towards rye heavy Bourbons. Then I tried breaking them down by distillery, but there are just too many distilleries! Doing it by price seemed like a reasonable course, but once again I didn’t find the balance I was looking for, so instead I have done something a little less formulaic. Below you will simply find a selection of Bourbons that I like, with a description, and a cocktail for each. There is everything from super premium to entry level Bourbon, some made with wheat some with rye. There are lots of Kentucky Bourbons, but also a few from newer distilleries in other parts of the US. The main thing that they all have in common is that they’re tasty examples of this fine and versatile spirit.
Over in the US it’s ‘National Bourbon Heritage Month’ which is a celebration of Bourbon as America’s native spirit, so it seems only right that I dedicate a bit of time to my favourite spirit. Bourbon has an amazing history, and given its rising popularity a very bright future; yet as a category it is still often misunderstood. Back in March and April I wrote about rum, posting a blog titled ‘9 things you should know about rum’ and then following it up with ‘9 rums you should be drinking’ and as they both proved incredibly popular I thought I’d follow a similar format for Bourbon (although apparently I have 11 things to say on this subject!).
I hope that my thoughts below will inspire you to explore this amazing spirit category and truly get into the swing of Bourbon Appreciation Month. There are so many wonderful products available today, especially with smaller producers popping up at an astonishing rate, that hopefully with a bit of understanding and perhaps a few pointers towards some of my favourites, you’ll find something new to enjoy.
It has been a good year to be British so far: our Queen celebrated 60 years on the throne by throwing a party in London and giving us an extra day off, the 2012 Olympics rocked, giving us a chance to show the world how it should be done, and our bars and bartenders showed that London is still the cocktail capital of the world. The first two reasons may have grabbed more headlines, but honestly they pale in significance when compared to our achievements at Tales of the Cocktail this year. You see every single ‘International’ category at the Spirited awards was won by a UK bar or bartender (Angus, we’re still claiming you even if you spend more time away from the UK than in it, you have the accent, you’re ours!)… yep, every single one! Now I’m not one to gloat, but that’s pretty amazing really!
Having been at the awards I can tell you that I felt proud to know all the award winners and consider many of them to be friends, and the feeling of seeing one after another walk onstage to collect their trophies was amazing. So upon arriving back in the UK my first thought was that we should get all those trophies together and make a few drinks to toast this amazing feat. To be honest I’ll be surprised if we scoop so many awards again, with bars from the US, Australia and many countries in Europe nipping at the heels of London when it comes to cocktails.
If you’re in the drinks industry or a serious cocktail aficionado, you might just have noticed a lot of talk recently about New Orleans and Tales of the Cocktail. Now that the week-long gathering has passed and we’ve had a couple of weeks to recover, I thought I’d have a stab at trying to understand what makes this gathering the biggest, and arguably the best of the year when it comes to all things cocktail and spirit related. When over 20,000 people travel not only from across the US but from around the world, you know there must be something special about it: but what?
If you really think about it New Orleans is a strange place to hold a cocktail and spirit related event. It certainly has a history when it comes to cocktails, with drinks such as the Ramos Gin Fizz and the Sazerac hailing from this city as well as the famous Peychaud’s bitters, but history alone isn't enough to make it a cocktail epicentre of the world. There are many other cities that have a much more developed modern cocktail scene, with New York and London immediately springing to mind, and in fact there are only a small handful of bars in new Orleans where you’ll find it easy to get a great cocktail. So why do so many people make this pilgrimage every year?
There are some interesting drinking trends being attributed to the current economic climate, and two in particular jump out at me. The first is that people are drinking out less frequently these days, but looking for better quality experiences when they do. The other is a trend for trading up to higher quality products when buying spirits to take home. It looks like consumers are trying not to compromise their drinks quality when drinking at home so we’re seeing a rise in premium spirit sales. I guess when you’re going out less often, it makes sense to have a few nice bottles of spirits at home to enjoy on a night in.
These trends, coupled in the resurgence of a cocktail culture that is reaching into the mainstream at last, mean that having a well-stocked drinks cabinet is becoming standard. So if you’re a cocktail lover, who’s willing to turn your hand to home bartending, how do you go about stocking up the home bar with everything you might need for happy hour? It can be quite daunting to try to build a good selection of spirits, vermouths, liqueurs and bitters, not to mention rather expensive, but below are a few thoughts on how to build up your home bar without breaking the bank!
Last month I wrote about how difficult it can be for small brands to compete in a crowded spirit marketplace, especially when they often compete against larger companies with big budgets. Well when I bumped into Alex Stein at Imbibe Live last week, it reminded me that there’s another way for a brand to become successful, and that’s to buck the trend and put quality above cost in their list of priorities. You see Alex is the mastermind behind Monkey 47 Gin, a brand that is fast becoming a firm favourite with bartenders in the UK and across Europe. The more you learn about Monkey 47 though, the more you realise that no compromises have been made in the name of cost savings, which is pretty rare when it comes to spirits.
Having spent a couple of days in the company of Alex and his master distiller Christoph Keller, I’ve seen how they have set out to create the best gin they possibly could, regardless of cost, and the result is a high-end gin that’s worth paying for. All too often when it comes to ‘super premium’ spirits, I’ve felt that you’re paying for a fancy bottle and a lot of expensive marketing, but in the case of Monkey 47 I think you might just be getting value for money.
There are invitations, and then there are invitations! When Jim Meehan of New York’s famous PDT bar, asked me if I might consider being involved in an event at Tales of the Cocktail this year, of course it got my attention. When he explained the event and listed the people involved in the project, it became the sort of invitation you simply can’t say no to. A group of bar luminaries coming together to honour the work of a bartending legend, in a unique and compelling way is hard to resist. Make the setting for this event in New Orleans on the Mississippi river, and get four fantastic brands involved and there was no way I could say no!
Colin Asare-Appiah, decided that it was about time someone paid homage to Tom Bullock, the first African American to release a cocktail book, back in 1917. If you don’t recognise the name, there’s more information below about why he remains an important historical figure in the world of bartending. Anyway, while he seldom gets the spotlight, making way instead for the likes of Jerry Thomas, Harry Craddock and Harry Johnson, his book, The Ideal Bartender, has done more to record the history of pre-prohibition cocktails than any other I can think of. So the idea of building an event around this character from our cocktail past was instantly appealing, but the method for doing so needed to be something special.
But first more about the man himself, Mr Tom Bullock…