One of the three founders of the British bar Cocktail Trading Co. talks “clever stuff” about life after lockdown. He has a degree in neuroscience and definitely knows flavor, he’s been consulting and managing venues for some time, all while having fun doing what he does.
How do you introduce yourself at the bar, when a new colleague joins the team?
In honesty, seeing as I’m in charge of recruitment at CTC and new team members almost always come through social channels, they basically always know that I’m the owner. That said, when I travel, I usually introduce myself as a bartender at CTC unless bar ownership is directly relevant to the meeting.
How did you spend the quarantine? Did you learn/ discover/ reinvent?
Oh, I’ve been busy. Once lockdown hit, the fundamental of running a business became more visible than ever in importance – outgoings and ingoings. The outgoings is the boring part, but we opened up channels with literally anyone to whom we owe money currently or regularly and began negotiations. Then there were the landlords and applying for governmental grants. While this is even more boring than you could believe, the support to the business from this is almost certainly greater than anything we could achieve in sales in the meantime. Still, the delivery cocktail service has been a success, and it’s been satisfying to develop it with a degree of thoroughness that I wouldn’t have been able to devote during the usual bar operation, and we plan to keep it going even when life gets back to ‘normal’, whatever that’ll mean…
What was the most awesome show you saw during the lockdown?
It’s all about context. Tiger King was what my mind needed during these times.
Best cocktail book written?
In terms of the greatest amount of learning available to people of varying levels of experience, I’d say Tristan Stephenson’s The Curious Bartender. For pure depth of knowledge, Kevin K Liu’s Craft Cocktails at Home. For the spirit of fun and service, Jason Wilson’s Boozehound.
The book you would read over and over again.
Hard to say. Recently enjoyed Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and its sequels, which I basically treated as the same continuous book. There’s so much in there to learn that I can barely imagine ceasing repeated reads because I’ve got it all.
Which cocktail are you most proud of?
Recently, the Buchu Highball. I like it because it reflects the challenges we’re facing now but also offers solutions to those previously encountered that I missed. In short, it’s a drink that contains no fresh ingredients, is an unusual pairing of aromas but is simply well-balanced, while the intense carbonation allows it to be satisfying but also profitable – selling drinks to people at home means using their (usually not great… and usually enormous) glassware, so portion sizes naturally had to go up with prices going down to reflect the fact that they’re simply not having as good an experience as they would be in the bar – we can’t ignore that. Thus drinks like this became a focus for me. Meanwhile, it contains a tea, a whiskey, a seasoning syrup and water, and I make about 50 of them at once.
Which cocktail is the one you have made the most during the years?
Yeesh. Purely for volume, there’s a good chance my early years mean the top contender in numbers is a mojito. Possibly an Espresso Martini (or the Pharmaceutical Stimulant we had on the menu). Of our drinks, I’ve definitely made an obscene number of Sauvignon Private Ryan’s.
What’s your favorite classic cocktail?
Probably a Caipirinha. Just so simple, and the classic way(s) of making it usually creates something beautiful so long as no lazy compromises are involved. Whereas other favourites like Manhattans are frequently made, even in excellent bars, without a modern understanding of seasoning and thus don’t reach their potential.
The most underestimated drink in the industry?
Sidecar. Everyone likes to put it down, but like the Manhattan above, it just needs to be seasoned well, and then it’s bloody incredible. Who gives a crap if sugar isn’t a listed ingredient? Would using a sweeter curacao/triple sec have been a problem? Just add sugar.
Which ingredient will be used far more in the future?
Salt. Not to be braggy, as it’s not exactly my own discovery, but I’ve been advocating, here and everywhere, a modern approach to seasoning. While some things require very little, there isn’t a single consumable product in the world for which the correct amount of salinity is zero. Even a martini or a simple gin and tonic tastes better with a touch of salt. It’s in every single drink we put over the bar, and in almost all our consultancy drinks, too.
As Nolo, classic cocktails, simple serves were trending, what do you think will be the next trend?
With the current interruption to our industry and social lives, this is a tough one. Perhaps cynical, but when we reopen, there’s obviously going to be an emphasis on safety and cleanliness, so I have a feeling that brands advertising ‘clean’ flavours etc will capitalise on the loose linguistics involved – this could drive increased sales and demand into clear spirits. It’s based entirely on semantics and conjecture, but they’re pretty important to trends, if we’re honest.
Favorite glass shape to drink from? And why?
Oddly specific, but I love stemmed beer glasses, schooners, etc. I’m pretty much always in a happy place when one of them is touching my lips.
Why is the glass that important for a drink?
So many reasons. Glasses are at least a transporter of the experience you’re after – they’re also ambassadors, avatars, to the drinks and overall experience. Rarely do you get a considered choice of glassware, maintained well, and not have a good drinking experience. It partly supports the drink, but also demonstrates the degree of care with which it’s been designed/served.
Glass: Durable or Fragile?
Durable. I’m a practicality guy and don’t like to feel like I’m holding a butterfly in my hand.
What is your favorite Libbey glass?
If I were to define this question as an analysis of which glass has yielded me the greatest enjoyment, the answer would bizarrely but undeniably be the Radiant Cooler. I have a shelf in the freezer for them and it’s what a beer goes in after a long day/night. Pure satisfaction.
What did you miss the most during lock-down?
The orchestral chaos of a bar full of happy people – the inability to pick up any one bit of sound or dialogue that directly states happiness or satisfaction, but knowing that the sound reaching your ears is that of contentment, independent of language.
What would be the first thing you’ll change when the bar opens?
Probably my shoes. I’m at the bar seven days a week now with basically no customer contact and have fallen in love with those ridiculous glove-like running shoes that everyone hates on. There’s no way I could wear them in service and gain the trust of my customers in making drinks recommendations based on good taste.
What will never be the same in the bars after the pandemic?
Having a sneezing fit?
What can be an awesome invention that will emerge in the hospitality from this crisis?
Door-mounted laser thermometers → trapdoor → trebuchet. All jokes aside, someone’s being trying to sell me the first part.
What tips will you give other bartenders and bar owners to prepare for the future?
This is depressing, but, especially if you live in a country where the people are fiercely critical of their government’s (mis)handling of this crisis (UK and USA in particular), expect more lockdowns. The ‘global pandemic’ scare occurs in mainstream media every couple of years, and the next one to come along, if the media create enough hype (regardless of how dangerous the disease is), governments will probably need to react very strongly in order to avoid public outcry. I’m sad to say that I honestly think we can expect to be closed for a month or so every couple of years for a bit. So have plans for how your skillset/business can survive or capitalise on these circumstances. I could well be wrong, and indeed hope I am, but I’ll be developing this delivery model real hard in the meantime.
What will be the one major change in the Hospitality in general, after the pandemic?
The landscape of business is going to change hugely. Lots of places won’t survive, lots of investment might be deterred by the above, etc. Equally, the nature of relationships with landlords could completely change. I think operators are going to be a lot more hesitant, more aware of their fragility.