Asterley Bros. is just about to release a London Fernet to go alongside its acclaimed Modern British Amaro and English Vermouth. We talk to one half of the dynamic duo, Rob Berry.
The Bros. in Asterley Bros. are Jim and Rob Berry. The company is named after their mother’s maiden name, Asterley; Berry Bros. was already taken. Out of an industrial estate in Forest Hill, south London, the brothers make a range of delicious products including an amaro, which had them shortlisted for a BBC Food and Farming Award, a vermouth made with English Pinot Noir from Gusbourne Estate in Kent, and now a London Fernet which we have been experimenting with at MoM Towers and love. The ingredients list includes roasted hazelnuts, cacao nibs, chocolate malt and London porter. It’s got a chocolatey minty quality that does magical things with bourbon in a Boulevardier. We caught up with Rob Asterley, the talkative one, to learn about their latest product:
Master of Malt: How did you get into making an an amaro?
Rob Berry: I married into a Sicilian family ten years ago now. My wife’s grandfather gave us this very classic Sicilian amaro recipe. It was very reminiscent of Sicily: so lots of citrus, loads of bright orange and bergamot coming through. A few soft herbs, kind of basil, rosemary, a little bit of oregano and then lots of Arabic spicing as well which kind of permeates all the way through Sicilian cuisine. About four years ago we started talking about it [making an English version] seriously. We live in South London which is not quite the same terroir as Palermo! So we wanted to make something which has a Sicilian starting point but then also start to bring in some sort of British influence and make it our own. That was 2014 when we started that process.
MoM: And what do the Sicilians think of it?
RB: They love it actually! I think they’re just very proud of their own influence and the fact that the English are making an amaro.
MoM: Was it a lot of trial and error, getting it right?
RB: Oh yeah, shitloads! I mean like two years of trial and error. We must have made that first amaro recipe around 30 times. And each time takes months because it’s maceration. It’s not distillation where you can kind of get flavour out of ingredients relatively quickly. The first thing that we did was get a hundred jam jars and then in each of the jam jars we put a single botanical and then topped it up with grain spirit at 75% ABV. And after a month or six weeks we’ve just tasted our way through every single one. We were trying to build this collection of botanicals and then we started combining them. We started off in my kitchen. Then we moved into my shed. And then we moved into my basement. And then in 2015, we moved into the unit in Forest Hill.
MoM: When did you have the idea for doing this new product, the fernet?
RB: I think we always had in the back of our mind that we wanted to do one. I mean we love fernet. It’s quite niche, it’s not a very mainstream product. By the time we’d finished the amaro we were also making a sweet vermouth. And for the third one we thought, ‘what do we want to do next?’. There were a lot of people asking us for a bianco or a dry vermouth but I think we wanted to do something a little bit different that no one was doing at the time.
MoM: What exactly is the difference between an amaro and a fernet?
RB: Amaro is the overarching category, so fernet is a type of amaro. Fernet is this kind of fun category of quite brutal bitterness. Normally, you’d find it at around 40% and there’s a lot less sugar than an amaro. You’ve got three or four really classic elements to it: myrrh is one, saffron is another, you have aloe, and there’s a lot of mint.
MoM: Fernet Branca from Milan is obviously the famous one, but are there lots of different others?
RB: I could probably name about ten but I’d get a bit stuck at that point. The Americans are popularising fernet. In San Francisco and Seattle in particular, plus New York a bit as well, they’ve got this really distinct taste for bitter drinks. There’s a real body of new wave producers who are making really nice, interesting fernets. And of course it’s the national drink in Argentina, somehow!
MoM: Tell me about the beta testing you did before launching your amaro and fernet?
RB: We scratched our brains and thought: ‘what can we do? We’re two brothers, self-funded, how can we approach things in a slightly different way? How can we get people to taste our drinks? How can we create focus groups which will enable us to garner workable feedback and refine products? How can we get our message out there with zero marketing budget?’ This idea of beta testing is something that’s been used in the software industry for numerous years, a way of doing a invite-only release of the game, where you get people to work through it and play it in the normal way but then report back on all the bugs that are found. Beta testing covers two different things for us. A big one is the focus groups, getting 500 or 600 people from different parts of the globe to try the product, and with different levels of understanding of the product at well is really interesting for us. We’ve got people who have tried many, many different spirits and have a natural vocabulary, write about them, describe them for a living and have a really deep understanding of the spirit and wine world. And then we’ve got housewives in North Carolina who are trying them and giving us feedback as well.
MoM: Is there a difference in taste between professionals and your average member of the public?
RB: Yeah absolutely. All of the professionals said: ‘this product should be much more bitter and you should really reduce the amount of sugar’. And then all the people who are consumers, who had probably a lot less understanding of the category, said: ‘oh my gosh” It’s way too bitter, it should be much more sweet’. So, those two elements of feedback and two user groups can take you in two opposing directions.
RB: Is it possible to reconcile them?
MoM: Probably not! So what we decided is that we didn’t think we could necessarily reconcile them but we kind of made a decision and we thought the British desire for bitter products is only going to grow. And as you drink more bitter things you want things to be more bitter and less sweet. That’s what we found as consumers. And that’s what we thought would happen over the five to ten year period in the UK. And the writers, the bartenders, the bar owners, they are going to be leading the charge for bitterness, and the consumers will follow in that direction. So we’re going to take a bit of a punt and we’re going to have less sugar, more bitterness. We’re going to be more bitter that people will grow into, rather than being less bitter, which people might grow out of.
MoM: What would you use the fernet in?
RB: We really like it bashed into things like White Russians. So you’ve got a quite rich creamy drink and then a shot of the fernet added to that suddenly takes it in a much more sophisticated, bitter, intense, grown-up direction. It’s the same thing with Espresso Martinis as well: probably half a shot (12.5 ml) going into an Espresso Martini, again it sort of amps up all of those flavours inside. So almost like a seasoning to a degree. It gives it a lot more bitterness and edge to the drink. It works pretty well with any kind of dark spirit, so if you’re having an Old Fashioned, or even a Manhattan, a few drops in there, a little dash, just to take it in a slightly more grown-up direction.
MoM: You’re working on some Sicilian vermouth, aren’t you?
RB: It’s in the initial stages. We’re going to be using Sicilian wines infused with British botanicals and we’re going to create a slightly different sub-brand of Asterley Bros, almost like a house range for everyday drinking. We’d like to be able to approach the Martini Riserva range where you can get a 70cl bottle for about £17.
MoM: And will you make those in your little garage in Forest Hill?
RB: In the big shed! Yeah, I think we will. We’re just trying to think of ways to streamline it and keep our product cost down, as far as we can, and pass that onto the consumer.
MoM: When will that be available?
RB: I would say, knowing us, six to nine months. We’re just starting the crowdfunding process at the moment. We’re going to be selling some equity in the business and going via Crowdcube, hopefully within the next two or three months. And once we’ve done that, and hopefully we secure some investment then we’ll be moving into it full time from that point onwards.
Sounds like exciting times for Asterley Bros.. We’ll let you know as soon as that crowdfunding offer opens. We can’t wait to try the new vermouth. Meanwhile, the London Fernet will be available any day now.