Join us as we step inside the MoM time machine, back to the heady days of the late 1990s and the notorious Met Bar. We talk to Ben Reed about the 20 defining moments of the London cocktail scene.
Don’t call Ben Reed a legend of the London bar world. He prefers the word ‘stalwart’. And at Gridiron (the site of the old Met Bar) on Park Lane last Wednesday night, the room was full of such stalwarts including Salvatore Calabrese, Ago Perrone, Erik Lorincz, Emily Weldon, Claire Smith-Warner, Peter Dorelli and Tristan Stephenson. They were all there sipping Pineapple Martinis and literally partying like it was 1999, only a little more sedately, and with more grey hairs.
We were there to celebrate and discuss the ‘20 defining moments of the London cocktail scene’. It’s a look at the most important events in drinks culture over the last 20 or so years like the launch of CLASS magazine in 1997; the creation of the Match Bar group in 1998 with Dick Bradsell as head bartender; the opening of Milk & Honey in 2002, London’s first speakeasy-style bar; and the foundation of Sipsmith gin in 2009. It’s an initiative by Ben Reed, formerly head bartender at the Met who now runs a drinks consultancy firm, Cocktail Credentials. We caught up with Reed before the event where he explained the concept.
“We asked 30 of the top bartenders in London to submit three to five of their personal defining moments. And then we cross referenced that to see which ones were mentioned most often,” he explained. “There is an element of this being a work in progress, and us seeing where we go with this. This being a list that could be written again in another ten years because things are moving so fast in this industry.”
Reed began his career working in some rough pubs in Hackney before moving to the somewhat swankier PJ’s on Fulham Road. After that, there was a stint at Mezzo, Terence Conran’s gastrodome on Wardour Street, before he was, in his own words, “headhunted to head up the Met Bar”. “Whether by fortune or by destiny, it became the place where the glitterati of the London scene met,” he continued. “It was one of the seminal places where cocktails started to be taken a little bit more seriously.” The Met Bar was the epicentre of ‘90s and early ‘00s swinging London, frequented by Kate Moss, Liam Gallagher and Damon Albarn.
It was a very different world back then. “In those days you were really only a bartender if you weren’t much good at anything else, there was no gravitas in the industry,” Reed recalled. “And then, piece-by-piece, through a number of pioneers like Dick Bradsell who stuck at it rather than getting a proper job, we developed an industry.”
Reed’s signature drink was the Pineapple Martini, which was tasting good (if extremely sweet) at the event last week. “We created a style of drink called ‘the fresh fruit Martini’ which involved using fresh and sometimes exotic ingredients. So exotic fruit as ingredients rather than garnishes,” he told me.
Vodka was king in those days. If you look at the invite above it’s from the front cover of an early edition of CLASS, with Reed and the Met team looking very cool in all black DKNY. Now look behind the bar; it’s pretty much all vodka with only a couple of gins, and whisky nowhere to be seen. It’s not just the spirits that have changed; the role of the bartender is much more complicated, according to Reed. “Now we’re looking towards chefs, learning from them and understanding some of the tricks of their trade – whether that be using sous vide machines or otherwise.”
Being a bartender is now a proper career. “20 years ago most bartenders were still trying to find a way of getting out from behind the bar to open consultancies, or work for brands,” Reed said. “Whereas now the trend is much more to stay in the industry, to stay ‘behind the stick’ by opening their own places. That is testament to how the industry has evolved.”
That’s not the only way it has changed. 2013’s ‘defining moment’ was the opening of the environmentally-friendly White Lyan bar in Hoxton Square. 2017’s was a focus on bartender wellbeing. The industry now has to look at “the bigger picture: diversity within the industry, gender and racial equality, wellbeing and sustainability,”Reed told me.
But not all recent developments have been quite so positive, he added. Another ‘defining moment’ was the 2010 appearance of Instagram, which Reed isn’t convinced has been entirely beneficial to the experience.
“It’s now less about the interaction with the bartender, and more about how instagrammable the drink is,” he reckoned. “So there’s an element, perhaps, in a rise in the quality of cocktails, and a dip in the standard of service. By service, I don’t mean how fast your drink comes, but how you are treated by your bartender. Some of the older guys such as Pete Dorelli, Salvatore Calabrese and Nick Strangeway were great raconteurs, people who could really give you the warm and fuzzies. I would rather go to a bar, get a good drink and my interaction with the bartender be the memorable part of things, than go to the bar and get an awesome drink but not really remember who has served it to me.”
Reed himself hasn’t worked ‘behind the stick’ for a long time. He started one of the first cocktail consultancies in Europe in 2001. Five years ago he set up Cocktail Credentials. “I think the difference between my consultancy and other consultancies is that I’m the only guy in my consultancy that’s ever stepped behind a bar. My other partners have marketing expertise and agency expertise. We can see the industry from outside of the bubble.” Reed and his team have come up with innovative ways to present brands, such as a taste experience with Absolut Vodka in its brand home in Åhus, Sweden. “We tried to find a new way for consumers to understand flavour differentials in vodka by creating a 360-degree taste experience.”
The night wasn’t just about nostalgia. Alongside the ‘90s classic cocktails, we tried updated versions by Max and Noel Venning that were more attuned to less sweet modern palates. Looking to the future, Reed is very excited about some of the new talent in the business. He mentioned Joe Scofield, formerly of The Tippling Club in Singapore, and Jack McGarry, co-owner of The Dead Rabbit in New York, as young bartenders he admires. According to Reed, thanks to the internet, the cocktail business is international. “You’ll find guys who don’t really work in one bar anymore, they just traverse the world, doing guest shifts in different bars, learning and understanding from bartenders, bars and countries around the world.”
It will be interesting to see what the next 20 years has in store for London’s bar scene. But it’s fun to look back, too. What are your defining cocktail moments from the nineties, noughties and now? Let us know on social or in the comments below.