What does ‘craft’ really mean when it comes to the drinks industry? It’s a term that is being widely used in the marketing of spirits at the moment, in fact it seems like you can hardly look at a backbar these days without finding another ‘craft gin’ or ‘craft whiskey’ nestled amongst the familiar favourites. As a marketing term for spirits, at first glance it seems obvious what this must mean right? It’s a small production of spirit, made by a skilled distiller, using techniques and experience that set him or her apart from other producers… or is it?
There’s been a lot of discussion recently amongst bartenders about this new buzz-word and what it really means; is it a sign of quality, or is it simply the new replacement for super-premium in the marketeers dictionary? There are of course two sides to the story, there’s one where small producers are trying to find a point of difference in a crowded marketplace, and trying to find a label that fits what they do. They wear the word craft like a badge of honour, taking pride in the methods they use to make small batches of their spirits, and sharing their work with an ever-growing crowd of consumers and bartenders looking for something new.
On the other side of the coin there are those who look at the word craft as it relates to marketing a spirit. At best they think it is a meaningless label, and at worst it implies a quality that often times isn’t there. You see there’s no widely accepted definition of the word craft when it comes to spirits. The few definitions that have been proposed, often seem inadequate or slightly outdated. So as the use of ‘craft spirit’ becomes the new catch phrase of drinks marketing, does it have any meaning? Is there another more fitting term? Or is it a term that simply needs a better definition?
Bartending is a great job, in fact it’s more than just a job, it’s a vocation, and one that most of us do out of passion for our industry. Put aside the long unsociable hours, the often far too low salary and the fact that your parents don’t think it’s a real job, and you actually have one of the best jobs in the world. It’s sociable, ever changing, fun, you get to meet amazing people, and it can give you a lifestyle that’s pretty amazing. These days it’s possible for bartenders to travel the world, drink in the best bars, eat in the finest restaurants, and party in places many people can only dream of going to.
That being said, there’s a learning curve, and to go from simply making drinks to having a career, there are several things that I think every bartender should experience. Ticking these things off the list one by one will expand your horizons, put you in contact with inspiring people who share your interest in booze, and open the door to opportunities you can’t even imagine.
So below is a selection of things that every bartender should try to experience. They’re all achievable, and I promise they’re all well worth making the effort to do, and will help you to tumble further down the rabbit hole of the drinks industry.
There’s a strange sense of responsibility when compiling a list of spirits that I think others should try. I always try to put across a list that covers as many styles as possible, and includes products that I’d gladly recommend to anyone if I was stood at the bar with me. Of course a list of products is always subjective, and there are always others that could have made the list, but the point is to give anyone reading this a starting point, and hopefully to get you thinking, and talking about the category.
Because my knowledge of tequila is good, but I work with someone who knows even more than I do about agave goodness, I thought I’d use this as an excuse to be led through the category by someone else for a change. James Triffo, my business partner in NOLA, helped to launch Partida and Ocho tequilas into the UK, and worked for Tomas Estes of Café Pacifico and Ocho tequila fame, managing one of the La Perla sites in London. When I asked if he’d help me put together a list of 10 Tequilas that would show the breadth of the Tequila category, he suggested we use this as an excuse to do a tasting and maybe get a few Tequila lovers together to talk them through.
Now if you live or work in London, and you like Tequila, then one of the first bars that will jump to mind is Café Pacifico in Covent Garden, so where better to go and taste tequilas? Jesse and Tomas Estes kindly agreed to let us take a corner of the bar, and drink our way through a pretty healthy selection of their back bar. They also let slip about some of the design touches for their new bar, El Nivel, which will be coming soon to the space above La Perla on maiden lane… and trust me this is going to be an agave lover’s paradise! Enlisting the help of fellow Tequila lovers Matthias Lataille (ex Green & Red and now ambassador for Olmeca Altos tequila) and Guy Hodcroft (spirit buyer for Selfridge’s) we set about compiling a list of blanco, reposado and anejo Tequilas. Our original intention was to have a list that covered a range of highland and lowland styles, but as we worked through our samples we all seemed to gravitate towards the Highland style (with the exception of one). Needless to say that dinner, after tasting our way through so many Tequilas, was a lively affair.
So below you’ll find a list of some great Tequilas, all of which I believe offer a fantastic drinking experience. That’s not to say that there aren’t others that are just as good, including many valley or lowland tequilas, just that these offer you a glimpse of the category, and serve as a great jumping off point to start experiencing this amazing spirit. They’re all 100% agave, they reflect a range of prices and styles, and they’re all well made Tequilas that are a pleasure to sip. I hope you’ll try them and maybe find out which ones you enjoy the most!
So here’s the thing about tequila; it’s pretty straightforward right? You make it from the juice of a cactus, it has a worm in it, it gives you a hangover and really it doesn’t taste very nice but that’s ok because you would only ever drink it as a shot anyway, and the wedge of lime washes the taste away…
Ok, maybe that’s an exaggerated version of peoples perception of this spirit, but let’s face it even with good tequila being much more widely available than it was even 5 years ago, it’s not a million miles off the mark of what many consumers think when you mention tequila. It’s a misunderstood spirit with a generally undeservedly bad reputation (although in truth some tequilas may have earned that rep fair and square). So here’s the REAL thing about tequila; it’s a spirit category split in half like no other I can think of, and because of this, good tequila is fantastic, and bad tequila is the worst kind of spirit imaginable.
The reason for tequilas split personality is simple, there are two kinds, governed by a set of rules that is necessarily flexible enough to encompass both types. This flexibility in the rules means there are also two kinds of producers. On one had you have those who want to make and promote lovingly crafted and traditionally made tequila, a spirit that can be complex and elegant, and is deserving of our respect. The other type of producer, unfortunately, wants to make something inexpensive, that only vaguely resembles the agave-based goodness of the other side of the industry.
Paris is a city that I’ve struggled with in the past if I’m honest: I always wanted to love it, but it never quite did it for me. Well I can safely say that it has finally won me over, and as you might have guessed it’s all because of the cocktail scene and the amazing bartenders that seem to have sprung up from nowhere in the last year.
I think it’s fair to say that with one or two notable exceptions, Paris has traditionally been a city with an underwhelming cocktail scene, given its size and international reputation. Sure there was Le Forum and Candelaria, and of course it has it’s historical cocktail bars such as Harry’s and the Ritz, but by comparison to other large cities it just felt like the number of truly great bars was lacking, and there wasn’t the energy or excitement in the cocktail scene that you find in other cities such as London, Sydney or New York.
In the last year or two though the cocktail culture has begun to grow and develop, and in the last year especially it has positively exploded. New bars have opened, bartenders have stepped up their game, and now Paris is one of the most exciting cities to drink in. In fact I can’t remember feeling so inspired by a cocktail scene since I discovered the amazing bar culture in Copenhagen back in 2009. There can be no doubting that Paris is coming in to it’s own when you see that 5 bars from the World’s 50 Best Bars 2013 are from this city.
It’s been a while since I wrote a ‘what we’re drinking’ article, but lately I’ve been over run with interesting bottles and new products launching in the UK. So with that in mind I’ll share with you a few of the more interesting ones that have arrived at b&t HQ. I don’t use a star rating system on these reviews for the simple reason that what appeals to one person, doesn’t necessarily appeal to another, instead I just offer up some interesting spirits that are well worth a try.
It’s fair to say that a few of the products bellow might even prove to be quite divisive in terms of their popularity. I haven’t gone for obvious choices, instead I’ve chosen the products that have made me stop and consider them. It’s often the case that I get a new Gin and simply think ‘yeah, that’s pretty good, I bet it makes a good bramble or aviation’, but it’s rare that I get one that I feel is different and interesting enough that it makes me really want to play around with it.
So below you’ll find what I hope are a handful of interesting products, a few of my thoughts on them and of course a few cocktail ideas that should showcase them well. Oh and before I get the usual comment from someone who doesn’t know how b&t works, no this is not a paid for article, I simply select the products I find interesting and offer them up for you to think about. I hope you’ll give them a try!
I don’t do a lot of interviews on b&t, but when I do, I try to pick people who I think stand out from the crowd and bring something different to the drinks industry. So when I asked Andy Ives and Simon Webster if I could interview them, I got the reply I expected; “Ha, yes for sure, if you are happy for two idiots to grace your pages!” Well I certainly am happy to have them featured on b&t, not only are they two of the nicest guys in the drinks’ industry, they’re also humble enough that they were probably shaking their heads and wondering why on Earth anyone would want to interview them.
But I’m getting ahead of myself and forgetting the intros; for those of you who don’t already know, Andy and Simon are the brains behind BarLifeUK, the UK’s leading online drinks industry resource for bartenders, and one of the best bartender websites in the world. They are well known faces in the UK cocktail scene, as they probably judge more cocktail competitions than anyone else I know, not to mention their dedication to visiting as many bars as humanly possible in every city they visit.
I’ve known Si and Andy for several years now, and was lucky enough to get to know them even better last year during Tales of the Cocktail, where we avoided the usual industry activities together, shot guns, played poker on a river boat and helped Cuba Gooding Jr. on his way to getting in a drunken shoving match with a bartender (that resulted in a warrant being issued for his arrest); perhaps that’s a story for another time though!
Below you’ll find a short interview with the BarLifeUK guys, held over a Daiquiri, a Manhattan and a Dixie last week.
You would think that the words ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ would be pretty self-explanatory right? It’s obviously just Whiskey made in Tennessee… maybe it’s not quite so simple. I was recently asked to present a seminar on American Whiskey at Imbibe Live to a crowd of bartenders and industry experts. It’s a subject I know fairly well from my day job as Brand Ambassador for Four Roses Bourbon, (and a keen imbiber of all types of American Whiskies), so I was confident in terms of subject matter. I thought the research would be brief and that I pretty much knew the story I wanted to tell about how American Whiskey styles have changed over the years, but information that I have discovered since has made me think that maybe I was just a little too cocky!
For the Imbibe seminar I drafted in the help of fellow alcohol geek Stuart Hudson, and between us we came up with the order in which we would tell the whiskey story, deciding to start with Rye Whiskey, as in all likelihood rye would have been the earliest base ingredient for making Whiskey in the US. We thought we’d follow up with Corn Whiskies and moonshines, as they most likely emerged once colonists moved south into the warmer southern states, where corn grows more plentifully; then on to Bourbon as it’s something of a hybrid of Corn and Rye Whiskies. Lastly we wanted to talk about Tennessee Whiskey and what makes it different from Bourbon… and that’s where we ran into a small problem.
There are three reason why I’ve chosen this moment to write about the ‘big easy’ and the drinks that come from there; firstly it’s that time of year when bartenders start thinking about Tales of the Cocktail, secondly I’ve just opened a New Orleans inspired bar in London (NOLA) with a couple of business partners, and lastly I’ve been lucky enough to be nominated for ‘best cocktail author’ at TotC this year, which all means that New Orleans is on my mind a lot at the moment. Writing the menu for NOLA, I knew right away that I wanted to have a page of New Orleans classic cocktails, and I wanted our team to have some knowledge about their origins, so my research began.
OK, so enough with the shameless self promotion! New Orleans is an amazing city, with a unique culture that spans back generations. In terms of cocktail heritage there can surely be few cities other than New York, London and Paris that have such a long and rich history. In other words there’s a lot to write about New Orleans when it comes to cocktails!
I’ve chosen the drinks that appear on my menu at NOLA, the Sazerac, Hurricane, Ramos Gin Fizz, Grasshopper, Vieux Carre, La Louisiane and French 75 (not strictly a New Orleans drink, but strongly associated with the city). They’re all drinks that I love for different reasons, and all very different in style, but somehow they reflect the fact that New Orleans has had a vibrant cocktail scene through the generations, and in every era there has been at least one drink that has become a classic cocktail known around the world… quite a feat!
Having shared a few things you should know about Gin, I thought perhaps I should write about some of the gins I think you should try. I originally thought it would be difficult to narrow down the list to just 10, but bearing in mind the fact that I want to offer a selection of gins that are quite different from each other it has proved more difficult than I imagined. Trying to find a selection of new and old gins that all have something unique and remarkable about them, and that don’t sit too close together has been a challenge to say the least.
Below you will find a good range of products, which are (in my opinion), well made and interesting to drink. Many of the ‘new’ gins I have tried (and I’ve tried quite a few) are perfectly fine products, but haven’t made the list because they either don’t bring anything different to the category, or they stray too far away from what I consider to be the key characteristic of gin, and that of course is being juniper led. I’ve ruled out the ones with over-powering botanicals (no coconut gins here thank you very much) and have crossed off the fairly standard ones that just taste like another average gin. The result is a list that should cover all of your drinking needs!