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…
I was chatting to some friends in the drinks industry the other day about the challenges facing new-to-market brands in the UK. As tends to happen over a few beers, we started setting the world to rights, as well as drowning our sorrows about the challenges smaller brands often face. With a handful of large companies holding a portfolio of leading products, it can be hard for smaller brands to find their place in the market, and even good products don’t always last long. The conversation stuck with me (despite the beer drinking) and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on this subject. It’s an important topic, as actually it comes down to how bartenders and brand owners have to work together in order for good brands to survive in one of the most competitive drinks markets in the world. I’m sure many of the things mentioned below will ring true to those of you working in other countries too.
I should start this by pointing out that this is not me taking a swing at the larger drinks brands, or disrespecting what they add to our industry. In fact one of the things that we all agreed on was that we wouldn’t have such a vibrant industry, or nearly as many great events, without the financial clout of the larger spirit brands. Without their sponsorship and marketing spend, many great bar shows and cocktail gatherings wouldn’t be possible at all. In fact global brands such as Bacardi, Absolut, Gordon’s or Jose Cuervo, form the backbone of our industry and have paved the way for smaller brands to reach a larger audience.
I read an interesting article the other day on the Los Angeles Times website, about how clear spirits are the trend in Southern California at the moment. The article talks about ‘light drinks for sunny days, meant to refresh’ and goes on to say that ‘clear spirits often get the job done better than the dark stuff’. While I totally agree with much of what the article says, especially about treating these clear spirits with a delicate touch to stop them from being overpowered by other ingredients, it also got me thinking about how we often unfairly compartmentalise spirits to be for a certain occasion or time of year. So below are a few thoughts I have about not forgetting ‘the dark stuff’ when it comes to summer drinking.
I should start by saying that I love white Rum, Gin, blanco Tequila, and am even slowly growing fonder of Vodka. But having said that I’m often drawn to the complexities of dark spirits as a base for cocktails as well as for sipping neat. When the sun is shining I’ll admit that a Daiquiri, Margarita or Caipirinha are great thirst quenchers, or that a refreshing Collins can be hard to beat. But likewise there are some pretty amazing dark spirit drinks that fulfil the same role for me. A Mai Tai, Mint Julep or even a Whiskey Sour are pretty remarkable summertime cocktails.
Over the last few years there has been a growing movement within the cocktail bar scene for using homemade ingredients. Creating your own infusions, bitters and tinctures can offer a chance to be creative and unique in the cocktails you’re making. But there can be a downside to this as well. I always think of the practice of creating your own ingredients as being similar to the way a chef works with new products, but the big difference is that a chef is (usually) trained as a professional to handle ingredients in a safe way. Often when a bartender starts working with exotic herbs, spices, barks and berries they are doing so as an interested amateur.
I was judging a cocktail competition last year and one of the competitors presented a homemade chorizo infused tequila. When the judges quizzed him about how he had infused it, he replied that he has simply added sliced chorizo to tequila and allowed the flavour to infuse over a period of several days. It occured to me that he was thinking about combining flavours that would work well, but hadn’t thought about how to handle these ingredients in a safe way. Leaving a meat product sitting at room temperature, or even more likely on a hot back bar, for several days has the potential to make your customers seriously sick. Even infused in a strong spirit there is a chance that bacteria cultures could grow and lead to food poisoning. Had the bartender researched the idea of infusing meat into a spirit he would have found that there is a safe way of doing this, through fat washing, and would have produced a product that was safe to serve to customers, especially if stored correctly.
In my blog about the history of the Martinez cocktail, I explored the timeline of a drink that is considered a classic, but is known today by a relatively standard recipe. In searching through old recipes I found that many, including some of the oldest, called for dry vermouth instead of sweet vermouth, and that over the years the recipe had undergone many changes. Since then I’ve been asked by a lot of bartenders which recipe I like the best and if there is a definitive recipe for the classic Martinez. The answer to the latter question is of course that there is no definitive recipe, but my thought is that the Martinez is more of a style of drink than a single drink with only one recipe.
If we look at other classics that developed around the same time such as the Manhattan and the Martini, we see striking similarities. They are cocktails that feature a spirit combined with vermouth and bitters, they are simple stirred drinks and of course they have stood the test of time to become classics. The one difference between our understanding of the Martinez and the others though is that both the Martini and the Manhattan appear as a family of drinks that include different styles of vermouths in different ratios. We’re all familiar with sweet or perfect Manhattans, and the same was originally true of the Martini, but for some unknown reason the Martinez has always been assumed to be a drink made only with sweet vermouth.
There’s a lot of colourful, descriptive and evocative language used when describing spirits, and while the imagery called to mind can make a spirit sound inviting, the descriptions themselves can sometimes be a bit over-the-top. Generally the language used to describe a spirits aroma, flavour and mouth-feel isn’t quite as elaborate as with wine tasting (can you really smell the fresh dew on a dandelion petal in the morning sunlight?) but to someone who’s new to smelling and tasting spirits, it can still be intimidating.
To a lot of people bourbon smells like whiskey, gin smells a bit piney and vodka smells like alcohol, so when they read that they should be smelling dried apricot, pencil shavings and vanilla fudge, they wonder if they're doing something wrong. So I thought I’d take a look at the language we use to describe the effect alcohol has on our senses and the way we approach identifying the characteristics of different spirits. Take this as a beginners guide to the language of tasting spirits, if you will.