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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Nate Brown

Launching a cocktail company during COVID

Today, we delighted to have top bartender Nate Brown on the blog. Since his last post, he’s been trying to open a bar, struggling with COVID and HMRC, and has…

Today, we delighted to have top bartender Nate Brown on the blog. Since his last post, he’s been trying to open a bar, struggling with COVID and HMRC, and has just launched his own drinks delivery service called Easy Social Cocktail Co. Here’s the full story:

Launching a brand at any time is a little crazy. We talk about round pegs in round holes. However, the essence of a new business is to find a new shape of peg that fits perfectly into a new shape of hole that no-one realised was there before. 

In a perfect world, it would involve tonnes of analysis, and market research, insights and consultants, coupled with scrupulous product development and feedback. Only then, could the creator or founder announce with certainty ‘I have created this thing that no one in the history of the world has done before me and it is good and you shall all want it desperately even though you had no need of it before!’ 

Or, more likely, a few ideas are strewn together with a bit of boredom, a pint or three, coupled with a ‘close-enough’ acceptance, (not forgetting a wing and a prayer) and hey presto, something almost similar to the original idea comes to market. The spawn of the ‘Well, if you don’t try you won’t succeed’ platitude. 

And then, perhaps, you’ll be up and running, right? Wrong. 

Only when your company/ product comes to life, does the real sleeping giant raise its ugly troll-head from under the bridge. Like it or lump it, the beast that is HMRC will be your bedfellow in any adventure you take. More open to interpretation than ending of Inception, its rules must be obeyed, and its randomly generated deadlines must be met. You need to be Doc Brown and Marty McFly to keep on the right side of this grumpy, leviathan riddler. Don’t read Kafka, kids, just file a tax return.

Nate Brown running a bar back in simpler times

Considering all of which, it’s remarkable so many businesses actually exist, and even more so that so many businesses exist well enough to employ others. Having staff is a real sign of continued confidence in your business. A commitment to not only pay them regularly, through funds yet to be received but also to pay HMRC its share (again seemingly randomly generated). 

But now imagine launching a business in the time of COVID: a time where all semblance of confidence in the future dissolves before your eyes. At the time of writing, we don’t know if we can go for a pint for next week. As an operator, we don’t know if there will be an appetite for pints next week, regardless of their availability. When things return to such semblance of normality, will people rush out and pack the bars, or trickle out in small numbers? And this is just one microcosm of uncertainty in future behaviour. 

We had planned to open a cocktail bar, and to follow this with a bottled cocktail company under the same brand, and then look at something more mainstream. Instead, COVID dropped the grenade and our detailed, considered, meticulous timeline was obliterated. And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, running a business is simply accurate future planning, or an educated guess. Suddenly we found out that fifteen years of industry insight and experience was essentially worthless. Who knows what the next six months will look like in terms of appetite, tastes and behaviours? How do you plan?

Fancy a perfect cocktail delivered to your door? (Photo credit: Mill Fletcher)

However, where there is change there is opportunity. We had been working on that idea for a drink-at-home cocktail platform for 18 months. I’ve written before about changing tastes in the drinks market, the move away from elaborately prepared drinks and the appeal of simpler, low-fuss-pure-flavour serves, like the Highball. So perhaps we are well suited to the upcoming brave new world?

For context, I know I’m not alone in harbouring the frustrations of the label ‘bartender’. When I turn up to parties, I’m inevitably asked to make drinks. Like a comedian asked to ‘tell us joke’. If a chef turned up to your house you wouldn’t tell them to ‘get in the kitchen and whip us a meal’. 

Simply put, I don’t want to be in the kitchen, I want to be in the party. Being stuffed into the back room to serve drinks sucks, even if it’s just a round or two. And if that’s how I feel, how bloody difficult must that role be for someone who hasn’t made 40,000 Daiquiris in their life? Making rounds of drinks isn’t easy, and it isn’t social. Which is one reason why we would go out. Until we couldn’t.

Suddenly, even Stanley Tucci was online showing us how to make simple drinks. Fortunately, we had already started to (unfortunately, slowly) build a bottled cocktail company that was being tested, tasted, discussed, thought about, tasted some more… but the ideal time had jumped up and slapped us in the face. Without bags of money, as any business owner will tell you, getting off the ground is the balance between the ideal and the mechanics available to your means. 

No, we didn’t have the confidence in the future (or even the present) of the market.

No, we didn’t have months to trial various ideas.

No, we couldn’t afford consultants and prototypes.

No, we didn’t have the means to construct and execute feedback loops and A/B testing.

Hindsight is an overlooked superpower. 

Cocktail delivery! (Credit Milly Fletcher)

But what we did have was a clear opportunity. We had a cocktail-shaped hole and cocktail-shaped peg: our ideal demographic was drinking at home or in the park. Our skill set allows us to put together tasty cocktails. We had friends with great palates and awareness of the demographic. We knew exactly who we were making these for, and had years of making drinks for them. The context gave extra prominence to our tagline – ‘Life is better when we mix’.

And so, Easy Social Cocktail Co. was born.

We’ve sent drinks to our friends and family and gathered their thoughts. I’ve designed simple, minimalist packaging based on the proposition. Our cocktails don’t rely on the brand strength of an existing bar (and its subsequent narrow market), and so it may have trickier inception, but our brand has a larger ability to scale. We’ve navigated HMRC and obtained the necessary licensing and registrations. We’ve asked for help where we needed it and more than often got it.

Yet, in a COVID world, nothing seems to go exactly as you’d think. Everything is slower. Everything is more expensive and less expected. Assume nothing. We’ve tripped over a few hurdles and are scaling a hundred more. 

You’d think mixing some well-sourced ingredients in a bottle and posting it out would be a simple affair. You’d be very wrong. As with a bar, the idea is the drink, the insight is everything that facilitates that drink: the lighting, the music, the glass wash, the license, the lease, the contracts, the HR, the regulations, the mop and bucket. For a business like Easy Social, that’s the website, the labels, the shipping provider, the social media, the shipping container and the eco-friendly pouches and the canned seltzers. These are the brush-strokes that make the painting. 

For us, Easy Social is more than just a response to COVID, but an estimation of the future of drinking. Bars will remain and rebound, but not like before. The joy of sharing nice drinks with nice people has out-grown the four walls of the bar, flooded out of the basement dives, grown weary of the evil service charge. We can all drink nice drinks at home, it can be easy and it can be social, we just don’t want to have to make them ourselves. Maybe this is the new future. Who knows?

Find out more about the Easy Cocktail Co here

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Why I won’t be reopening my bar this December 

Today, Nate Brown returns to explain why, despite the easing of restrictions in London, it’s just too much of a gamble to open his Hackney Road bar and pizzeria, nebula….

Today, Nate Brown returns to explain why, despite the easing of restrictions in London, it’s just too much of a gamble to open his Hackney Road bar and pizzeria, nebula.

You often hear the phrase ‘you play the hand you’re dealt’. Well, I play poker, and anyone else that does will tell you that this is bullshit. You don’t play the cards, you play the table. It matters less whether you have an ace than what’s at stake. How much is the bet? How much have you got? How are the other people at the table behaving? Was she a little too quick throwing in her chips? Did he just smirk? In truth, gambling in this way actually comes down to the stake and the stack. How many more deals before I go bust? How many more deals before the guy across from me has no choice but to go all in?

I look at operating a venue in December in much the same way. Every day that I open the doors deals a new hand. In normal times, I know my stack. I know the rules of the game, and I know how to play. This doesn’t mean winning every time, it means winning enough times that you can afford to sit at the table and play again tomorrow. 

Nate Brown running a bar back in simpler times

Today, England exits lockdown and enters its tier system. London is in Tier 2. I am sat at the table. My stack is a place called nebula on Hackney Road in London. We have a glorious pizza oven in full view of the bar, and so there’s no doubt about it, we can open. [In Tier 2, alcohol can only be served with a ‘substantial’ meal.] Every guest that could visit could have a slice with each drink, and we’re obeying the laws of this new game. The brand is tight, the team is strong, the venue is large and has a vast outdoor seating area. If I were to design a COVID-friendly venue, it would look pretty much exactly like this. And so, I feel like I’ve been dealt a king and a queen, off-suit. 

But I’m not playing the cards. The minimum bet, the blind as we call it at the table, is enormous. The government has set this. In order to play, I must make this commitment. In real terms, that’s a commitment to taking staff off furlough and paying their wages. It’s placing a new order for a whole cellar of keg beer. It’s probably investing in renting some covering for the outdoors with heaters (snow is on the way). It’s turning on the beast of an oven, which guzzles so much gas it must be American. The oven runs hot, so it doesn’t care if it’s doing two pizzas a day or 200, it just runs. 

And I check my stack. I’ve already spent the vast majority of it paying the fee just to sit at the table. A venue of nebula’s size, no matter how you do it, is going to cost. My pile of chips is measly compared to some of the other players’. I’m not alone in this. No matter how much I look at my chips, they aren’t going to grow unless I bet. 

Yet we haven’t seen the flop yet. The shared three cards in the middle have yet to reveal themselves. What I mean is, we do not know the appetite of the London consumer in this festive season yet. Yes, in all likelihood they’ll flock to the nearest bars. But look at the job losses announced on the news. Look at the stories of impending economic doom. Will this cause some to stay home and save the pennies? Christmas is upon us, and already expensive, especially for those who have lived on 80% of their salaries all year. We could debate each side of this coin all day and night. In truth, we won’t know how busy nebula will or won’t be until we match the bet and see the flop.

Nebula on Hackney Road (photo credit: Milly Fletcher)

Plus, there are serious restrictions. No meeting of households indoors, rule of six outdoors, last orders at 10pm. This mixes up the ranking of hands. Even if could see everyone’s cards, I still wouldn’t know who is likely to win. Couple that with the fact that these rules could change in as little as two weeks, will definitely will change in a little over three, and beyond that is completely unknown. 

So, I ask myself, do I want to play? Seemingly, almost all the other players are hungry for the large stake on offer. They’ve been bleeding chips all game and now is their chance to win it all back. I don’t blame them. I can feel the pressure of those expecting me to call. Intuitively, it feels like I should play. This is what I’m sat at the table to do.

But I’m not going to. I’ll fold this hand, and I’ll save my chips to play again another day. The cards are good, the pot is large, but the stake is too high, my stack too low, and the rules aren’t what they used to be. I’ll hold onto my chips and afford myself the most future possibilities. In these strange times, I’ll wait for a pair before going all in. In the case of nebula this means keeping shut for a little while longer, riding the storm, and seeing what the cards the new year deals. 

Nate Brown is just launched an at-home drinks service called Easy Social Cocktail Co. Full story next week. 

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The American Bar at the Savoy, London, where the magic happens

The American Bar at the Savoy, London, with its roster of famous alumni and groaning trophy cabinet has been making cocktail magic for 100 years. But it’s not resting on…

The American Bar at the Savoy, London, with its roster of famous alumni and groaning trophy cabinet has been making cocktail magic for 100 years. But it’s not resting on its laurels; Bartender Nate Brown looks at all the little things that come together to create perfection.

There’s no such thing as magic. It’s a trick. I don’t like tricks. Fool me once and I’ll hold it against you for an eternity. Similarly, I don’t like surprises. I’m not one for pomp. I don’t take kindly to those who show off. I’m not an attention seeker. Nor do I handle compliments well. I don’t like it when people make an effort for me, nor for themselves. Least of all, I hate it when people believe that different equals better. Difference for the sake of difference gets no stars from me. 

I don’t like the showmanship, the frills. I’m a sucker for the understated, the details. To me, it’s obvious that a table should be kept clean, cocktails should arrive subito, and the wine should arrive before the meal. On the whole, a well functioning bar is a case of simple mechanics. I want a bartender to know more about the products they’re selling than the guests do. I want the lighting to make me feel something other than self-conscious. The music in lounge bars should be there, providing a welcome function, noticeable only by its absence. Like a belt.

Basically, there are component parts to hospitality propositions. And these can be executed well or poorly, accounting for subjectivity. Nevertheless, when these things are all in alignment, they form something greater than the sum of their parts. A great bar, by doing the simple things well, can do something special.

A picture of the American Bar at the Savoy, London.

What makes the American Bar, Savoy so special?

Picture, if you will, the Mona Lisa. What do you see? Some see a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, others see an intriguing lady, others see colours, others see a story. But almost no one sees the hundreds of thousands of imperceptible brushstrokes that make up the whole. On their own, each brushstroke, each mark on the canvas is insignificant, irrelevant, unskilled, and inconsequential. But you only have to look at the whole to understand the power achieved when each one is executed perfectly. 

And it’s much the same when we enter an excellent bar. London is blessed with a prudent handful of these masterpieces. Homeboy’s jovial conviviality is a masterpiece. The drinks at Mint Gun Club too (hurry back please MGC).

Yet, for me, there is none more so masterly than the American Bar at the Savoy. There is no place I’d rather be. It’s fancy, but not it’s not the frills that excite me. This is the place where the team enact a supernatural ability to blend the familiar with the formal. They are the ultimate creators of their environment, here to lord over us guests with benevolent charm and intoxicating potions.  

The American Bar at the Savoy is a true masterpiece. It’s a place where guests like me can feel special without being special. It’s a place where the bartenders, in their fancy dress, know your name. I’ve always said (borrowed) that guests don’t return to the bars that they know best, they return to the bars that know them best. With the American Bar, not only is this true, but it’s probably the only place where I want them to know me best. 

Cocktail perfection

This is the place where a cocktail of guests from all over the world, existing on all time zones, with all manner of agendas, come together to have a Sazerac, or a Hanky Panky, or a beer, or a vino. Where else can a grumpy introvert like me freely engage in a conversation with the guest at the next stool over, not knowing if they’re a Sheik or a shopkeeper, a millionaire, or just a bartender on his night off? This is a bar where Hemingway and Sinatra drank, and where I take my Dad. It’s a place where I can host, or be hosted, where I can entertain and be entertained. That’s a thought worth savouring.

I could (and did) try to break the bar down to its component parts. The canvas, for example, isn’t the best. As fabulous as the lobby entrance is, the carpet in the bar (I have a thing about carpets) is all kinds of wrong. Likewise, the bar itself is tucked away in the corner of the room. It shouldn’t be. The music is bordering on cliche. But how I wish I was there right now, listening to ‘My Way’ again, sipping on my Martini, expertly made my way: painting my palate brilliantly cold, all gin and spice and steel. How refreshing it is to see some not just take my order, but understand it. So simple. So powerful.

I want to be there now, having oysters, drinking pastis, chatting to the bartenders and the hosts, seeing familiar faces and close friends, hearing the ice rattle in the shaker, and the popping of corks table-side. I want to wander out at the end of the night, half-elated, half-skint, all happy. 

Trying to analyse what makes this bar so darn good is like looking at the brush strokes on the Mona Lisa. I’m not down for that. Instead, I’ll hurry back to this place, this, dare I say it, magical masterpiece. 

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No more heroes

In the wake of some very public scandals in the drinks world, our contributor Nate Brown thinks it’s time we retired the word ‘legend’ and stopped putting bartenders on pedestals.  …

In the wake of some very public scandals in the drinks world, our contributor Nate Brown thinks it’s time we retired the word ‘legend’ and stopped putting bartenders on pedestals.  

I don’t know about you, but hospitality as a career was never something offered to me at school. Which, with hindsight, seems strange in a country of drinkers. According to our betters, we could be anything we wanted, so long as it was a police officer, teacher, lawyer, tradesperson, journalist, or an accountant. The idea of a career in hospitality sat alongside creatives and self-employment as the scary unmentionables of the taboo section. 

It’s hardly shocking, therefore, that when I, like many others, fell into this industry we were like rabbits in the headlights looking longingly for guidance and leadership. We found ourselves entering into a closed, unknown world, a magic circle of performers and actors. We were among kings and queens, filling their ice and polishing their glassware. We watched in awe as they enthralled the masses at lightning pace on nightly basis. They were the centre of attention, and the centre of our aspirations. Look at them go!

cocktail competition

Don’t call me a hero, I just make the drinks

The bartending world is a world so full of heroes it could be an Avengers movie. But of course, they’re not really heroes, are they? They’re drinks-makers and they’re entertainers. Some are business-minded, most are chronically gregarious. The attention they receive is addictive. And we want some of that. The industry is fuelled by their social status, and the energy that it brings. 

And so, as newbies, we watched on with dumbstruck awe as this microcosmic clique spewed out nano-celebrity after nano-celebrity, and we were desperate in our fawning cajolery to emulate them as protégés and prodigies. Bartenders who stuck it out passed some sort of invisible threshold to become industry furniture. Thought-leaders and disruptors are elevated as demi-gods to the bowing congregation. They are rewarded with praise and glamorous trips across the globe, brand merchandise and party invites. The career bartender is walking aspiration. Powered by big brand support, the idol factory that is hospitality continues with relentless abandon, some chosen few enjoying their fifteen minutes, others fifteen years. 

Without a nurturing framework, the green look up, and the experienced look down. What else did we expect? But this is a much more dangerous situation than a first glance would suggest. Reputations deliver powerful personas. In the worst cases, they can absolve responsibility, enabling abuses of power and position, acting as a suit of armour against accusation. Much has been said in recent weeks about the awarding of an ‘industry legend’, one who has a history of misogynistic opinions. The result of which was a conflicting polarity of lauding of his career and despising of his character. Who is the judge, who is the jury, and who is the executioner? Accountability and responsibility have long since sailed into the sunset, I’m afraid, and much like the takedown of a similarly culpable London ‘legend’ in recent years, it’ll all too soon blow over.

This goes deeper. Controversies like these, at least momentarily, serve to usurp the facade our industry constructs. 

I do not wish to undermine the achievement of owning and operating one’s own bar or brand, or the hard work and dedication it takes to become a thought-leader through merit. But for goodness sake, stop calling each other legends. The Minotaur, Medusa, King Arthur. These are legends. Since when did legends stop slaying dragons and start fucking throwing martinis?

Clearly, no one, no bar, no ‘legend’ is beyond reproach. If it’s heroes you want, you should have joined the police.  


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Ce n’est pas un Martini

This week our contributing writer and bartender Nate Brown channels General Bosquet* following a disappointing Martini experience at a famous London bar. Stepping into the bar of this St. James…

This week our contributing writer and bartender Nate Brown channels General Bosquet* following a disappointing Martini experience at a famous London bar.

Stepping into the bar of this St. James hotel feels like stepping back in time. Not way back, not like centuries. More like decades. It has a bit of ‘50s feel at best. ‘80s at its worst. The carpet is so plush one does not walk as much as wade through the room. It’s eerily quiet, despite the two elderly men in a corner. 

Table for three, I whisper. Right this way sir, says the white-jacketed man. Why do they all wear these jackets? I ponder. It’s somewhere between a uniform and a suit of armour. They all look like they’re carrying concealed weapons. 

I reach my table through the heavy silence, and see that I am the first arrival in the back room which opens only for evening service. I stand to remove my raincoat. It’s been one of those awkward autumn days. The rain falls but the temperature is still high. I can’t tell if I’m sweating or damp from the rain. Both, probably. Double moisture to be soaked up by the depth of fabric underfoot.

Nate Brown

Nate Brown, too scruffy for some London bars

“Excuse me, sir”, I’m interrupted. “But we do not allow tee shirts in here”.

“It’s boiling in here”, I protest.

“I’m sorry sir, you’ll have to keep your jacket on.”

I look incredulously around the empty room, wondering who I could possibly be offended by my wearing of a tee shirt. Perhaps the walls are of a certain sensibility, the chairs perhaps? No, it’s definitely the carpet. That bastard mangrove of a carpet hates the sight of flesh.

I have no choice but to relent. I’m meeting two friends, L & C, here for the signature Martini. Apparently nowhere does them quite like here. I’ve been before. I hadn’t rushed back, but the gents insisted. C’s gin is on the menu and he’s quite proud. The damp raincoat stays on. 

Apparently this where Ian Fleming came to write some of his Bond novels and allegedly create the Vesper cocktail a shaken, gin heavy Martini with a pointless measure of vodka. No shaken martinis are any good. The only decent thing about that drink is the Kina Lillet, and you can’t even get that anymore. Nevertheless, here we are, about to spend £20 a pop on the speciality of the house. 

The Vesper Martini, shaken, not stirred

When they arrive we order said Martinis. A generous amount of time later, a rickety wooden trolley is lugged through the carpet. On board are a few enormous frozen Martini glasses. The kind that feel like danger in the hand. We are asked how we like ours. A request for a dry Martini results in a few dashes of house vermouth bounced into the glass, before being discarded ceremoniously onto the carpet. Right, so I can’t wear tee shirt but you can playfully toss vermouth onto the floor? In fairness, I bet you could empty an entire bottle onto this spongy floor without so much as a damp patch. 

The quantities of frozen gin poured directly into the glass are colossal. No shaking here, that’s for damn sure. What an imagination that Fleming chap must have had then. I mean, who else could have dreamed up a Scotch-swilling, colonialist, oft-racist, mass-murderer in this place? I look back towards the bar where now a few elderly, straight-backed chaps in striped suits have gathered and are proudly guffawing.

After ten minutes drinking we still haven’t emptied our glasses and the gin is now warm. It’s a grin and bear it moment to finish. We order another, or rather the first bucket of gin does. After two we are cut off. I’ve heard stories of two gin ambassadors coming here and finishing six of these mammoth Martinis on a few occasions. That seems unbelievable. I know I’d be my unwelcome self after that sort of session. I’d probably be requesting Meatloaf on the bar stereo. The embarrassment would linger. But then again, maybe that’s why neither of those chaps live in London anymore. 

As we leave, I can understand the two Martini limit. The afternoon is still blindingly bright, it’s still raining, and, in the lingo of the location, we are a bit spiffy. I suggest a beer to bring us back to reality. Drinks here are indeed worthy of their notoriety. Only it’s not really a Martini, is it?

*Who following the Charge of Light Brigade said: “C’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la guerre, c‘est de la folie” – “It’s magnificent but it’s not war, it’s madness.”

Nate Brown has owned and operated spirit specialist cocktail bars in London for the better part of a decade. He’s a regular speaker on industry panels, a judge for various spirit awards and has been known to harbour an opinion or two.

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How to lose your own cocktail competition

Nate Brown returns this week to take issue with the often costly, crass and conceited world of cocktail competitions. Walking into a bar and trying to choose what to drink has…

Nate Brown returns this week to take issue with the often costly, crass and conceited world of cocktail competitions.

Walking into a bar and trying to choose what to drink has become a game of chance. Menus are caught between the esoteric and the boring. Back bar shelves are at the point of collapse with every new gin and third-party-sourced rum. The tyranny of choice is palpable.

Imagine, however, that you’re the producer trying to squeeze onto the shelf like a baby pigeon on a shit-covered statue, screaming “Pick me! Pick me!”. Because, once upon a time, you felt the romantic lure of getting your hands dirty, of stepping away from your cog-in-the-machine 9-to-5 desk job and into the soulful world of creation. You’ve bought a still, you’ve filled in your paperwork with HMRC and passed all the inspections. You’ve smelled a hundred different exotic botanicals and imagined awe-inspiring stories of where they came from (they came from a shipping container, mate). Eventually, you make your first batch. You’re so proud that you put your child’s drawing on the label. You have achieved the wholesome life you always dreamed of. Looking over at the pallet of boxed up bottles, it dawns on you. Now what?

How do you recoup some of the life savings and family-borrowed cash that you’ve ploughed into this little project? Suddenly, it all begins to feel a little self-indulgent, doesn’t it?

cocktail competition

An ingenious creation, or self-indulgent nonsense that doesn’t benefit the brand?

Fear not, intrepid soul. There are dozens and dozens of brand management agencies on hand. “Sell bottles?”, they’ll chortle, “We’ll do more than that, we’ll build your brand so large you won’t need to worry about selling bottles!”. OMG, you’ll think, I’m going to be the next Sipsmith.

And, sure enough, the agency will tell you that the key to success is to engage with bartenders. These guys and gals on the front line are the power. They are the trusted voices, with the power to recommend, the power to dismiss, they are the proletariat of booze. “Fabulous,” you’ll scream, “how do we get them on board?”

And lo, you’ll be begging, borrowing and stealing to magic up a marketing budget to no doubt run a cocktail competition that’ll engage every bartender in the land with the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime prize. You poor, poor sod.

Because there are various problems with this format. Not least, competitions by definition make more losers than winners. Not exactly the lasting impression you want your brand to make, is it?

cocktail competition

Look at all that wasted drink. Heartbreaking.

Secondly, the practicalities of organising and hosting a competent nationwide cocktail competition are fraught with difficulty. The hours spent in encouraging the lazy, I’ve-got-nothing-to-prove (read: ‘My ego can’t take the bashing) attitudes of a large number of bartenders are enormous. The groundwork requires the establishment of relationships, plenty of smoke being blown up certain sun-deprived areas, hundreds of unanswered emails and missed deadlines.

Bartenders don’t like to be hassled. This does not fit with their personas.

Thirdly, there’s finding a suitable venue. This is the true hallmark of the prestige of the operation. Get one of the most highly regarded venues to host and you’ll attract a higher quality of entrants, and also a hugely expensive bill for the space.

Plus, you’ll be throwing stock around left, right and centre to encourage experimentation. ‘You want to try a Szechuan pepper infusion? Here, use my gin. Then throw it away.’

cocktail competition

Nate Brown is sceptical of the benefits of cocktail competitions

Then, of course, is the judging. How bloody contentious. Who do you get? How much will they charge, if at all? And how, oh how, do you get them to judge impartially and kindly, without favouritism to their mates? Because I’m sorry to say, there are very, very few cocktail competitions ran without fixing: skewed to favour the glamorous bar, to reward sales volumes or the weight the name carries in the industry. There should be a scoring criterion rewarded for zeitgeist. Bars operate in a microcosm of local celebrity associations. It’s all nonsense. On more than one occasion I’ve been privy to the judges’ final deliberations, discrediting entrants based on the bar they work in, and crediting their mates, regardless of the quality of the drink or presentation. It’s a con, folks.

Then, of course, is the quality. In theory, a huge prize should attract a high level of drinks and presentations. But what happens when none of them are any good? It’s an Olympic scoring system. Even I’d win gold in the 100 meters if all the other competitors fell over.

In the end, the result of the cocktail competition might be a whole host of disgruntled, bitter bartenders, and a few select winners, who have zero influence on the products stocked in their bar, and even less ability to present your product in the best light. Money well spent? I think not.

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A little learning can be a dangerous thing

In the drinks industry we talk a lot about the importance of education but what if the customer or bartender isn’t listening properly? Or just being badly taught? This week,…

In the drinks industry we talk a lot about the importance of education but what if the customer or bartender isn’t listening properly? Or just being badly taught? This week, Nate Brown has an issue with those who think they know best.

“Excuse me, but I ordered a Daiquiri. This is not Daiquiri”
“Uh yeah, I believe it is.”
“It’s not.”
“But… it is. I made it. Rum, lime, sugar. Bish bash bosh.”
“No. It isn’t. Trust me, I know.”
“I can assure you…”
“Have you ever been to Dylan’s. Do you know Sergio there? He’s the best, and he makes me the best daiquiris.”
“I have not. I do not. He does not.”
“Well, you obviously don’t know what a Daiquiri is, then. Some bartender you are.”
“Enlighten me.”
“It was red, and frozen, and the best.”
“See, what you had there was a frozen strawberry Daiquiri.  It’s not quite the same.”
“A frozen strawberry what….?”
“I can make that for you if that’s…”
“A frozen strawberry what…?”
“Fuck you, Sergio.”

Miseducation. Fake news. Arrogance, mismanaged expectations. Call it what you will, but that’s a toxic cocktail of ingredients right there. Stirred together and they help form the Dunning-Kruger effect, a sociological phenomenon whereby a person’s perceived competence is hugely over-inflated with the smallest amount of knowledge. Bad education, between peers or across the bar, is breeding a generation of rabid, jacked up on the power of knowledge fools. Dangerous, dangerous fools. 

A lot has been said about what we sell in our bars. Is it drinks? Is it atmosphere? Is it escapism? Is it experience? Maybe. But no matter your thoughts on the matter, one universal truth is that guests pay for value. Anything you can get in a bar or restaurant can be achieved in the home, albeit at such an extraordinary cost that the value evaporates. It is the value that keeps bums on seats. And this value is becoming eroded. The second a guest knows better than the host, the system is in trouble. And those guests with a little bit of knowledge are being created by us.

Daiquiri Naturale

That’s not a Daiquiri!

That guest that knows cucumber is the best garnish, or that Schweppes is the only tonic for that gin, or that gin should really be drunk from balloon shaped coppas for flavour, they know their gin. This is the guest that knows that a Manhattan should be stirred 30 times in 15 seconds in a clockwise motion, that water belongs nowhere near a Scotch, or that the cork of the vermouth should be waved over the Martini; the guest also knows that rum is sweet because it’s made from sugar and that Daiquiris come in passion fruit or raspberry. Well, that guest is Frankenstein’s monster.

Behind the stick is no better. The archetypical bartender who holds dearly the phrase “that’s not how we did it in my last bar”. That bartender that stirs a Negroni in a mixing glass because that’s what they did in the hotel he came from. You know the one, he’s the one describing every spirit as smooth and fruity, and uses polishing cloths to clean his bar top and discards his used tools in the sink for the long-suffering bar back to clean because that’s how he earned his stripes. This is the chap who knows, and I mean really knows, what whisky goes in a Rob Roy, because the brand ambassador himself bestowed the burden of knowledge upon poor Barry’s special shoulders. Well, I don’t give a fuck, Barry. Where I come from we used to meet disobedience with kneecapping, shall we return to the good old days you miss so much? Thought not.

We should be preaching understanding, not knowing. We should be placing learning above knowledge, even if a few egos have to suffer. Is it too clichéd to quote some old wise character here? Like that lunatic Gandhi: “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom,” or Socrates and his paradoxical “I know that I know nothing.” Humility is in short supply in our industry. To be seen to change one’s mind is perceived as weakness, which is a dangerous spiral. One of the theories of bartending I was taught was the ‘failure of success’, which decried that if you think you’ve made it, you’ve failed. Some of you may know this as ‘sharks don’t sleep’. Only progression and learning are worth praise, and that’s worth remembering.

We should be preaching understanding, not knowing. We should be placing learning above knowledge, even if a few egos have to suffer.  Look up the Dunning Kruger if you don’t know it already, for forewarned is forearmed. Just don’t go preaching it – a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.


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The hell of airport drinking

Ever had a crappy cocktail at an airport, a piss-poor pint at a festival or a glass of watery wine at the theatre? Then this one’s for you. Nate Brown…

Ever had a crappy cocktail at an airport, a piss-poor pint at a festival or a glass of watery wine at the theatre? Then this one’s for you. Nate Brown asks why drinks have to be so hellish when bars have a captive audience.

Here’s a classical depiction of Hell. Numerous descending circles, each floor a deepening depiction of depravity and retribution, hot pokers and all that jazz. However, at the bottom is no lake of fire, no burning pits. Instead, the devil is a three-headed monster encased in ice, frozen and incapacitated. 

I have a different interpretation of Hell. It is about an hour south from St Pancras station. It is a place where frivolous hope comes to die. At least in a hellish fire pit, you could cook sausages. At least among the ice, you could make a decent Dry Martini. In Gatwick airport, however, such simple pleasures are forever out of reach. 

Plymouth Martini

Imagine getting a Dry Martini like this at the airport, you’d want your flight to be delayed

On my latest adventure, I found myself thirsty, peckish and soon to be depressed in the departures hall. Bacchus and the other gods of food and drink have certainly never blessed this land. This is a place of hunger and want of every kind. Foolishly, I thought that a visit to one of the last remaining Jamie’s Italians would at least be mediocre. But my safe bet was a mule. Immediately, I became aware that the hostess’s lack of lust for life is contagious. Boy, if terrorists could bottle that, they could be done with us all by lunch. 

There’s an irony in this one remaining smouldering ember of an empire being the worst of the bunch, like a cockroach that just won’t die. I was sent to the bar to order. I watch the bartender (and I use that term loosely) make a deplorable Bloody Mary: a single of Smirnoff, visibly fizzy tomato juice, bubbling like a witch’s cauldron, a single dash each of Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco, two ice cubes and a withered, malnourished lemon slice. I prayed for her to add more Tabasco to save whatever wretched soul was about to be served this crap. Mind you, all the hot sauce in the world would not be enough. The whole thing was put together at a snail’s pace, with absolute zero fucks given to the drink, or the guests impatiently waiting at the bar. She stops halfway through to complain about Barney the manger to her colleague, how he’s always hiding in the office. He’s hiding from you, Medusa.

The presence of a captive audience should stimulate the bars and restaurants that feed and water the endless arrival of inquisitive travellers. The hardest part of operating a venue is getting willing punters through the doors. Not focusing on that means more energy spent on perfecting the product. If only! Instead, the absence of a need to draw in punters transforms these venues into cesspits of hospitality excrement. What does it matter to them if the beer smells like cheese, or the mixed drinks are watered down with decomposing ice, or if the fruit garnish was cut last week? There’ll still be another wave of suckers to inflict this torture upon. 

Nate Brown showing us how to make a proper drink

The lounges are no better, stocked with horrendous spirits. Nor is there any relief to be found after boarding. Why is the journey a penance and not part of the pleasure? I think about becoming teetotal when I travel. Or hijacking the plane. And airports are not the only criminals. All arenas of captivity are the same. Theatres offer (bizarrely) acidic Merlot, bought by the bar for £5 a bottle and flogged for £30 to mugs like me. No, I do not want a Bell’s while watching Pinter. I’m close enough to the edge as it is. I’d kill for a Redbreast. Literally. On trains, it’s a choice between tins of London Pride or Carling? Give me strength. Why is there not a Beavertown? Or some partnership with one of the thousand independent breweries this country supposedly has to offer? Instead, I’m left with a choice between having my throat burned or my stomach assaulted. It’s part of the reason why I don’t go to festivals, either. I do not want to have to pay £9 for a horrific Heineken in a plastic pint. I don’t want to pay an extortionate amount for the worst Bacardi and faux-fruit slushy imaginable. Why is it so hard to offer a decent Highball? Is this why people take drugs?

There’s a certain destitute acceptance of being in a captive audience, one that will consume any old crap at any old price, and one that I refuse to partake in. When the demon Mephistopheles in Marlow’s Doctor Faustus is asked why aren’t you in Hell, he responds, “Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it.” I know what he means. 

Nate Brown has owned and operated spirit specialist cocktail bars in London for the better part of a decade. He’s a regular speaker on industry panels, a judge for various spirit awards and has been known to harbour an opinion or two.  

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RSVP crimes 

Our resident bartender Nate Brown is not impressed with people in the drinks industry who say they are coming to events and then don’t show up. In fact, he’s hopping…

Our resident bartender Nate Brown is not impressed with people in the drinks industry who say they are coming to events and then don’t show up. In fact, he’s hopping mad. . .

Not so long ago I attended an event in Shoreditch. It was a snazzy affair in terms of organisation. Five sets of bartenders from all over the world were shaking up different interpretations of a similar brief, and it was fascinating. 

Each team produced widely different end products: some thought-provoking, some bloody good fun, all delicious. There was music, dancing, canapés, smoke machines, laser lighting, the works. It had just the right amount of glamour and good vibes for an epic, inspiring party. 

But one thing was lacking: guests. The room was sparsely populated. There were a few of the usual suspects, press, bloggers, bartenders associated with the brand, and not even a huge amount of those. Sneakily, I managed a peek at the guest list. It was long. There were dozens and dozens of names all expected to turn up at any point. But as the evening progressed, the numbers dwindled like a wake. Most of those no-doubt-enthusiastic would-be revellers simply didn’t show up. This is an epidemic in our industry. And that’s a terrible thing. 


Now this is how a party should look (5th birthday bash for East London Liquor Company)

Firstly, a lot goes into organising and hosting an event. From a brand’s perspective, there’s finding the perfect location, and if that’s bar, then choosing a date that won’t detract from the usual trade will be a challenge. There’s always Monday nights, as almost no bar in London loves Monday’s ghostly trade, but this has to be balanced with when the target demographic actually want to go out. 

Print materials, such as menus, need to be designed and paid for. This will probably mean sourcing logos, typefaces, colour palettes etc. Stock, the currency of the events market, will need to have been requested, justified and shipped. 

As for bars, there are always obstacles. Team members aren’t always receptive to change, and all too often diminishing initiative is the price paid for moving them out of their comfort zone. Drinks have to be written, high volumes of glassware need to be on hand and playlists need tweaking. All this before the dreaded invite list is constructed.

And, after all, it’s worth remembering why these events are happening in the first place. Maybe a brand is launching a new expression. Maybe a master distiller is in town. Maybe the latest vintage is out. It almost doesn’t matter, for all the shapes and sizes a brand event may take, they are almost without exception a celebration. A celebration of achievement, an anniversary, a celebration of the industry, a salute to be honoured and respected.

You got the drinks, but where are the people?

Escapism and experiences are the tools of the hospitality trade. I’ve heard it said that ‘we sell the life of a millionaire, one drink at a time’. This is what good events offer: glamour, celebrations, appreciation. So it is amazing to me that we, as so-called experts of empathy, don’t show up when we say we will. 

I’d go as far as saying that we have developed a culture of false kindness. Of saying ‘Yes, I’ll be there’, without bothering to attend. We click ‘Going’ on Facebook, unaccountably making online promises that the analogue self has no intending of upholding. The attendance rate amongst those that RSVP yes can be 10%.

This false enthusiasm is hypocritical. If we feign enthusiasm, we are hypocrites. We create and offer worlds expecting guests to flock to and embrace, and, importantly, to play their part. And yet, we don’t reciprocate in our turn as role of guest.

I get that hospitality workers have long hours. I get that evenings off are precious. What I don’t get is the easy “yes” when the answer is no. Say you’ll try, say I can’t, say ‘if it suits’, but don’t make false commitments. It affects those who have worked hard to put it on. It goes beyond bad manners. It’s nasty.

So next time your phone pings with a new Facebook event, or an invite enters your mailbox, spare a thought for the organiser. Think twice before hitting yes. I know I’ll be making an effort to attend more celebrations, some to improve my knowledge, some to garner insight, but most to have a blast and celebrate our industry done well. I’ll see you there. Or not.

Nate Brown has owned and operated spirit specialist cocktail bars in London for the better part of a decade. He’s a regular speaker on industry panels, a judge for various spirit awards and has been known to harbour an opinion or two.  

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Roe & Co, a Dublin distillery reborn

Last week saw the next step in the revival of a great name from Irish whiskey as the new Roe & Co distillery opened in Dublin. Our in-house bartender Nate…

Last week saw the next step in the revival of a great name from Irish whiskey as the new Roe & Co distillery opened in Dublin. Our in-house bartender Nate Brown paid a visit, tried the new make, and spoke with Diageo master blender Caroline Martin from Diageo. 

Some two and a half years after the release of the whiskey, Diageo launched the Roe & Co distillery in the Liberties area of the city. The distillery is the fourth whiskey producer to open in the area, further adding to the rebirth of the distilling heritage of Dublin 8. In the 1800s, George Roe & Co distillery was one of the big players in the Irish whiskey scene, with the distillery occupying some 17 acres, and home to nine massive stills making the traditional Irish Pot Still style of spirit. The whiskey crash of the early twentieth century called time on the brand, as it did on so many. Today, all that remains from the original company is a copper-domed tower, from which the Roe & Co bottle draws inspiration, and a centuries-old pear tree, which, appropriately, still bears fruit.

The still room at Roe & Co

The new Roe & Co is situated in the red brick 1930s power station that had previously powered the Guinness storehouse next door. Speaking of which, the Guinness plant is Europe’s most visited tourist attraction, and the folks at Roe & Co are hoping to capitalise on the trade. As part of the tour, visitors will be treated to a Highball cocktail experience, with the opportunity to mix their own drink using whiskey, a cordial of their choosing and lengthened with soda. At the end of the tour, guests can enjoy a drink in the lavish Power House bar. The emphasis throughout is on how to enjoy Roe & Co, not just how it will be made, which is a welcome sign of where the whiskey market is moving. The appeal is clearly to a younger, trendy crowd, and a step away from the more traditional Scotch distilleries in Diageo’s portfolio. Much of the design work was done by Drinksology, whose contemporary stamp is all over the distillery, from a mind-map made from copper wire, to the stylish cocktail menu in the bar.

The three pot stills are visible from the street thanks to an enormous glass-panelled window. These will be used to create the triple-distilled malt, and are named Vision (a 14,000 litre wash still), Virtue (a 6,600 litre ex-Tanqueray still) and Valour (3,300 litre spirit still). They are accompanied by a three tonne mash tun and six wooden washbacks. 

Refreshingly, Roe & Co does not shy away from the fact that its current bottling is not distilled at the new distillery. Instead, the focus is on the art of blending, as executed by superstar master blender, Caroline Martin. Martin has worked on Johnnie Walker, Bell’s and a host of other blends in her 33 year Diageo career. “A big factor [on creating the blend] was the need for a depth of flavour. I wanted something robust, that could stand up in cocktails,” says Martin. Throughout the development process, she consulted with Irish bartenders on what they wanted to see. One such change was the increased ABV to 45%. “We wanted transparency from the start, with no nasty surprises,” she says of the ethos.

Caroline Martin, Diageo

Caroline Martin enjoying the fruits of her labour

Indeed, Martin sent various samples to the helping bartenders, and it was version 106 that scored the highest. This commitment to developing the liquid has been honoured in a blending room called Room 106, where guests will be able to explore the art of blending and bring a blend of their making home. As a way of thanking the bartender crowd, and as an homage to the whole of Ireland, Roe & Co have released an Ireland-only blend, with the ratios of malt to grain reversed. This malt-heavy spirit is aged in a combination of Port and bourbon barrels, and is to be the first in a long line of limited release expressions.

As for the regular liquid, we tried the new make and true to the brand’s history, it is jam-packed with pear notes. Powerful fruit flavour, already synonymous with Irish Whiskey, is certainly the goal. Currently, the new make liquid is laying in cask awaiting the first release of Roe & Co distilled at the new Dublin site. In the future, it’ll be up to Martin to blend the final product to match today’s releases, although she certainly has all the right ingredients to hand. 

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