There are a handful of bars that have become truly iconic and have stood the test of time; Milk & Honey in New York springs to mind, Lonsdale for many years, but go into any quality cocktail bar almost anywhere in the world and mention LAB bar in London’s Soho and bartenders know exactly where you’re talking about.
For those of you who are scratching your heads and saying, ‘LAB? never heard of it!’ it’s about time you crawled out from under your rock and had a look around. LAB has been at the sharp end of the bar scene in the UK for over a decade and while it’s had it’s ups and downs it’s never really fallen from grace. Right now LAB feels as though it is on an up-swing again, so I’m readily anticipating many more years of greatness from them.
You see LAB was created as a proving ground for bartenders, a place where good bartenders went to become great bartenders. The name stands for ‘London Academy of Bartenders’ so you get the idea… Some of the leading lights of the bar world learnt their trade here and the list of ‘star-tenders’ who can trace their roots back to this bar is long and legendary. The fact that half of them have gone on to become brand ambassadors and are now leading the life of luxury shouldn’t put you off drinking here though, as each in turn earned their reputations by putting in the hours perfecting their craft. LAB has always been a place bartenders work to take that step beyond just making drinks; to learn the craft of tending bar.
Things just keep getting more and more hectic here at B&T HQ but fortunately we've had a few drinks and received a few bottles recently that have helped us to take the edge off the silly season. The chaps at Sipsmith were kind enough to give us a bottle of each of their products in anticipation of an update we will be doing in the new year about artesianal producers. I mentioned this to Victor from LAB and he set about whipping me up a new drink featuring Sipsmith gin, which on paper sounded confusing, but was actually a real treat to the taste buds.
THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT PRUDENCE
50 ml Sipsmith Gin
20 ml lime juice
10 ml Galliano L'authentico
5 ml Maraschino
1 barspoon Fernet Branca
1/2 barspoon caster sugar
4 seeds from a cardamom pod
Put all the ingredients into a shaker with cubed or cracked ice and shake hard. Strain into Champagne flute with a sugar rim and garnish with a long orange peel.
It’s been another interesting week and frankly I am wiped out. You see I had a last minute invitation to go to Copenhagen for a tonic water tasting… yes you read that right… I went to Denmark to drink tonic water. But that’s a different story for another time. All I will say is that after a night trawling the bars in Copenhagen 13 glasses of tonic water were exactly what I wanted to see in the morning!
In my mind this update was going to cover quite a lot of what we’ve been up to lately, kind of a ‘what we’re drinking, where we’re drinking and who we’re drinking with’ type of thing. But actually there’s more than enough to write about after just 1 night in Copenhagen so I think I’ll just stick with that.
To be honest I had mixed thoughts about what to expect from Copenhagen, I have a couple of friends who tend bar over there and they tell me it has a great up-and-coming scene, but I hear that a lot and sometimes the skeptic in me wins out. So I caught the plane looking forward to seeing the city, but also perfectly prepared to order beers if the drinks weren’t up to expectations… As it turned out the only beer I drank was at lunchtime with my traditional Danish Christmas lunch.
I was chatting with a couple of friends the other day who are not in the drinks industry. It's always funny to see their reaction when they ask what I'm up to, but this time when I told them I had been invited to Leeds to judge a cocktail competition for Cazadores tequila, I was surprised by what they had to say. One thought I was joking and didn't really believe that bartenders have competitions and the other said that it must just be a thinly desguised excuse for a piss up. Now I can understand the reaction, but it got me thinking about how important competitions really are to the drinks trade.
I guess even from an outsiders point of view there are some obvious reasons for comps. I mean from a brand point of view it is a no brainer. You can create a good buzz around your products, potentially get new drinks on menus, maybe grab some column inches in the trade press and most importantly get bartenders using your brand.
On the most basic level all a brand needs to do is throw some stock at a bar, invite a select few bartenders to come up with a couple of new drinks that fit whatever criteria you want to set, line up some judges, invite the journalists and line up a good prize. The result is several weeks of bartenders talking about the fact they are in your competition, trying out new recipes on customers and co-workers, and promoting your products to anyone who will listen. After the comp they will still sell their signature drinks, maybe even add them to their next drinks list and they will most likely reach for your brand over one of your competitors when they can.
This week I am feeling pretty lucky. You see Jim Rutledge, the Master Distiller from Four Roses is over in the UK and I have been invited to tag along with him as he does various events and trainings in bars across London, Leeds and Glasgow. He's here in the UK to kick start the new focus that Four Roses has on the UK market, since teaming up with InSpirit. So as we reach the half way point in Jim's stay I thought it only right to share some Jim's teachings and insight with those who've not been able to meet him in person.
I thought I would pick one day during his visit and share my notes from his training sessions as they panned out across the day... I guess I had better start with the bourbon Breakfast. That's right, you heard me, bourbon Breakfast!
Yesterday started with a small group of us meeting Jim for breakfast at Smith's of Smithfield as a chance for a few industry bods to get to know him in a fairly relaxed setting. It was only a matter of time before someone suggested that we 'just quickly run through the range' (while tucking into a full English fry up of epic proportions). I should state for the record that it's not my usual practice to have neat bourbon with my breakfast... but actually it did go really well with the bacon! So Jim kindly obliged by giving us a brief run through of the three products in the Four Roses range, Yellow Label, Small Batch and Single Barrel. He also talked a little about the history of Four Roses and how it has arrived at this point in time: its rejuvination.
My God it's been a couple of busy weeks for us here at Bitters & Twisted HQ. We have been working closely with our web designers and they have done us proud so we are getting closer and closer to the launch of our full site. We have been to check out the Sipsmith distillery in London, then we went drinking tequila in Leeds, followed by Gin in London, not to mention making pineapple bitters as well as homemade syrups and we have been catching up with friends old and new. I am getting tired just thinking about how rushed off my feet I have been.
On the subject of Sipsmith I am not going to say too much as I am going to be including them in an upcoming blog about artesianal producers and small batch spirits. I will say this however, if you get a chance to try their gin, I can highly recommend it. Somehow it makes me think that this is how old fashioned gins might have been. Not overly rounded or soft, Sipsmith gin is full of character and flavour and is a lively gin that grabs you by the taste buds and takes you for a ride. Right, that's enough of that, before I get carried away and don't leave myself anything else to write about!
I was lucky enough to be asked to judge the 'Cazadores hunt' in Leeds last week, which for those of you who don't know is an ever evolving tequila event that Cazadores are starting to roll out. The idea is simple, get 20 - 30 top bartenders together in a city centre at lunchtime. Refresh them with loads of tequila and then set them a series of tasks to compete at in several bars. End it all with a cocktail comp (after 6 hours of drinking tequila this was the most rowdy comp I have ever seen!) and crown the winning team as winners of the Cazadores hunt... The experience actually got me looking at both tequila and brand run competitions in a whole new light, so much so that I am going to be dedicating a blog update to the subject very soon. Keep your eyes peeled or subscribe to our blog to be notified when it gets updated...
I was really surprised at the response to our competition to win a bottle of El Dorado 12yo and 2 tickets for RumFest. Actually scrap that, with a really good bottle of rum on the line and forty quids worth of tickets I guess there was a reasonable incentive to send us a recipe. I was really happy to have so many excuses to drink autumnal rum cocktails! Admittedly the B&T drinks cabinet is now running a little low on El Dorado rums but it was all in a good cause.
After much sipping, and comparing of notes we finally managed to narrow the entrants down to just 10 that we thought were worthy of being added to the Bitters & Twisted drinks database, and the creators of those drinks had their names thrown into a hat so that a winner could be drawn at random… and the winner is…. You’ll have to read on to find out I’m afraid.
The whole point of this competition was that the weather here in the UK has definitely taken a turn for the colder and the leaves are changing colour as we speak. While I am a big fan of sunshine I am also a big fan of all those autumn flavours especially when you throw them at a good bottle of rum and see what sticks! I am pleased to say I have a few new autumn drinks that I will be turning to over the next couple of months, and one that might just see me the whole way through winter. Sadly Rob Poulter didn’t win the competition, but his autumn drink definitely deserves a mention here especially as it helped propel him to Theme’s Bartender of the year recently:
Our very modern bar scene in 2009 seems to be spending a lot of time looking back. The classics are well and truly in fashion and there is a real movement towards reviving long lost ingredients, methods, recipes and styles. Well that suits me just fine as there are few things in this world that I like more than a well made Manhattan, Bronx, Ward 8 or Pegu Club. I say long let this trend continue... but let me just caveat that by saying let's not get stuck in the past.
The very best bartenders I know are all pretty well versed in classic cocktails; they have read Thomas, Craddock, Johnson and Duffy from cover to cover and can recite facts so obscure I wonder if they are made up half the time! But let's face it anyone can pick up a copy of an old cocktail book and with a bit of effort reproduce some damn fine drinks. One of the things that makes a good bartender great is their ability to draw inspiration from the past but to give drinks a distinctly modern twist.
Over the weekend I was flicking through Ted Haigh's excellent book 'Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails' and drooling over some drinks that I feel certain will become new favourites of mine. If you haven't done so yet, then I suggest that you go out and grab a copy as soon as you can, if ever there was a more timely release of a book to reflect a trend in the drinks industry I can't remember it! Mr Haigh has assembled a list of drinks that should never have fallen out of fashion and along with a lot of valuable info about their origins and some of the more obscure ingredients has bundled them into a neat package that is a real pleasure to peruse.