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Mines a Fragrantini - Emily Williamson

Feb. 22, 2010 by John Collingwood

Emily Williamson from LOVE Drinks gives her wise words about how the drinks industry is going back to its roots.

She will be coming up to Newcastle on Tuesday March 9th to host a fantastic training session about their amazing portolio.

Further info is available here.

Mines a Fragrantini…

While London splutters and shakes in the wake of the economic whirl winds which have hit this oh so complacent happy money making metropolis, what are we, the bar trade in London learning from it all?

Well first of all there is the fact that money is not forever, you might knit it into a nice protective blanket, but really, how long can something so absent keep you warm? Is negative equity really what we all want in terms of security?

Well, no, not when you say it like that, and really now people are saying it like that, people are saying no to debt and yes to home grown vegetables. Sustainability is the buzz word around the capital and generally, there is move away from money as an abstract idea.

Now if we spend it, we want to see REAL value. We want less fuzzy headed spontaneous whirlwind buying and we want to have real experiences and real memories. We all worked so hard and so long to make all that money, but where did the time go?

In my mind, nothing better could have happened. Having worked in the type of bars where just breathing the air outside the door whilst standing (freezing) in the queue was cooler than going to your local. I have had my fill of – “do you know who I am’s” and “I want the most expensive champagnes you have’s”.

For example, I was once working in a very busy cocktail bar in Soho, when the bar was 5 people deep and I got a pleading look from one of my bar tenders; she had been interrupted whilst taking an order by an impatient woman wanting a napkin.

Her response was to nod in agreement whilst still listening to her current customer and throw the napkin (in a genteel flapping action as seen in bar flair routines) to the waiting woman. This woman then got in a right old tizzy and demanded to see the manager.

I came over as head bar tender to pacify the lady who had my colleague held by the cuff of her shirt sleeve as she shouted over the crowd at her. I stepped in to ask if there was anything I could do to help and she let go of my poor friend and grabbed my wrist instead saying these very words…”I shall not be treated like this, what is she doing throwing things at me, I am an important customer, do you know who I am? I work in a BANK

I know… you know, we’ve all had that experience. Now I no longer work behind a bar, I stepped out in September ’09 and in my last three years I noticed some real changes. The Christmas of ’06 was probably one of my worst times ever.

I was working as the supervisor in the 35 seated residents bar in a boutique hotel and my job pretty much consisted of refusing very drunk and obtuse bankers into the bar due to it being full of actual hotel residents.

Explaining that it was a resident’s bar was far too logical an idea for these people to grasp, sometimes, actual physical removal was the only way to create a finite of the word NO.

Now, I am the first person to understand that the customer is important, that these people paid my wages and so essentially lead me to the training and enjoyment I got from my job and to be fair I’m grossly generalising – they weren’t ALL bankers.

However, as the past three years went on, I started to see the tidal wave of drunken over moneyed over pampered idiots subside to a gentle lull. In their place? A more shall we say, discerning drinker. A perhaps, more polite customer, a customer who might sit at the bar and chat to the bar tender; ask questions and allow themselves to be encouraged to try new and exciting drinks. Yes sales of Champagne went down, as did sales of fruity shooters, but my friends, what we gained was far more valuable….at last the real drinks got the chance to shine.

Many bar tenders now are aware that there are well travelled, conscientious, polite and let’s be honest, well heeled members of society who will still by the top dollar drinks. However, they do not lurch towards success wielding bravado; they sidle up to it and give it a gentle squeeze.

These people like good drinks and require real value for money service. They like the fine champagnes yes, but they know that there is a time and a place, their presence at the bar is still symbolic, it is still somewhat status driven, but its treatment by the drinker is better refined. These people know their money is valuable, and they want to be served in the most valuable way.

Great service is leaking into locals and in the top cocktail bars they want the best, most politely educated bar tender. And damned it they are paying for this drink, they want to know what’s in it, how it’s made, where it’s from and what the best way of making it is.

They want value for their money; they want us to talk, to converse with them. Finally the bar geek has got to the guest.

And what are we saying? It seems loud and clear that London’s cocktail bar tenders at least are playing with a much more sophisticated palate. According to the last blog (Jan 2010), we have one way of tasting salt, two ways of tasting sweet and umami and three ways of tasting sour, but at least 28 different bitter taste receptors. Bitters, botanicals, herbaceous notes, however you want to put it are the new black in the big smoke and probably for a good reason.

We’ve done the mojito to death, we’ve done the brands paying gazillions of pounds to feature in every drink on the list so we have homogenised generic menus. We’ve done the vodka sugar fruit combo so what is NOW.

Well, it seems a turn up for the books, or at least a turning in the pages of the books. From Jerry Thomas (1862) to Dave Embury (1948), we are looking at how it was done before the mass
marketing of everything. Not that this is an entirely new craze, bar tenders have been doing this for years, but now, NOW it is the guests who are asking for it! And we have read the books, we come prepared, we know the difference between a sour, a cocktail and a punch. We know that dividing products into base, supportive, and fragrant elements and about ice, glassware and measure ratios.

Some might ask all this looking back, is it really coming forward? Well in answer, yes it is…products are better, recipes need amending and evaluating and bar tenders need training. So looking back at what has been done helps us to move forward armed with conscious decision making and learned technical skills.

Cocktails are made with real thought about the base product, an often stronger more robust alcohol, often with a higher a.b.v than its supportive counterparts and thankfully, often aged or proceed (as in re-distilled) products are featured as the star performers.

The supporting cast are braver flavours, herbatious, bitter and fragrant. Fortified wines, vermouths, astringent bitter liqueurs, cocktail bitters, pungent, herbal, and fruit flavoured liqueurs support the delicate differences in flavour. Body is given through fresh produce and carriers such as egg, fructose, Arabica or home made glucose syrups.

Artificial colouring and flavouring are being rejected like x-factor winner Joe Mc Elderry from the Christmas number 1 spot. People are changing, they realise, that the reason we are all there…the customer, the bar tender, the wait staff, the bouncer, the manager, the coat check, the DJ, the bar designers and the Rentokill men in their late night jump suits – is all because we want people to have a nice time, having a nice drink.

So the industry is no longer putting bar tender personalities on pedestals…it’s the blending of their drinks and quality of their service standards that are important. Also, they are no longer putting customers all in the ‘always right’ corner, because if some can’t behave themselves while we all try and have a nice drink, well they can blooming well go off somewhere else thank you very much – especially if you work in a bank!

Taking off that security blanket, that green and orange, purple and red knitted quilt that money provided us has been the best thing we’ve ever done for ourselves. It has meant we have faced challenges and had to adapt.

It’s opened our eyes and enabled the industry to be a little braver and mature a little. Great giants of the local like Punch or Enterprise are being told by landlords that they can’t monopolise beer sales (do the same – only then will things change), delicate and complex cocktails are creeping into lists and great independent craft distilled or family owned spirits are getting bar presence.

Now we know we are not heart surgeons, we are not fixing the world, we’re just aiming to be good at what we do, and give people a nice time. We want to give this craft the respect it deserves and there are people on the on-trade with years of experience who are not afraid to make a statement in a recession.

If we treat this moment well, and if we’re careful and stick to our guns, it might just be that the paradigms are shifting and the golden glory of yore may well be upon us anew.

With Love

Emily Williamson