Jacob Briars might well be New Zealand’s most famous bar industry export, having spent 5 years travelling the globe as the Vodka Professor for 42Below.
However he hung up his white lab coat a few months back, so BarLifeUK caught up with the man with the industry’s most infectious laugh to find out what he’s been up to (please note this interview has been translated from Kiwi to English for your enjoyment)
BarLifeUK: So Jacob, what have you been up to since you left 42Below and what brings you to London?
Jacob Briars: Currently I am over with Leblon Cachaca who I am now working with on a brand ambassador level to help spread the word and ultimately grow the brand internationally taking it from the current 5 countries it’s in to 15 by the end of the year. As I say I’ve gone from coming from a country no-one has ever heard of to a category no-one has ever heard of! Leblon is my main focus at the moment but I have a few other things on the go to keep me busy. I did some bar consultancy in New Zealand before I left (Jacob has now set up home in San Francisco) and launched a new tonic water in NZ which will soon be heading over the water to Australia called Quina Fina, also working with Gunpowder Rum and working on a new rum brand to come out of NZ.
BLUK: So what’s the story behind Quina Fina?
JB: A friend approached me at Geoff Ross’s (42Below founder) book launch in NZ a while back with the idea and he convinced me it was a good idea. It’s very, very dry, with a 1/3rd of the sugar of Schweppes, hand harvested Cinchona Bark, organic lemons, organic sugar and made in an old cider factory close to my parents. It’s not necessarily designed with Gin & Tonic in mind, it certainly makes G&T taste like it used to do but it is also great to drink on its own.
BLUK: Presumably it is going to be a busy couple of years for Brazil and in turn Cachaca?
JB: That’s right Brazil has the World Cup coming up and the Olympics. Our primary focus at the moment is the US and Brazil, there are some premium Cachaca’s out there at the moment for whom Brazil isn’t their primary focus which is very important for me. It’s like if a Tequila doesn’t exist in Mexico, like some super high profile brands, then it’s very difficult to give it the credibility. We also hope to expand through Europe and then Australia and NZ later this year.
BLUK: So then you and John Gakuru now….
JB: You mean who’s going to get diabetes first?
BLUK: We were thinking more along the lines of whose going to win in a fight?
JB: With all that weight he’s lost recently and the amount I’ve put on after living in the states for two months then I think I’d have to say John, however when it comes to who has the biggest muddler…. well that would be me.
John has done an phenomenal job with the cachaca category over the years. The reason that bartenders use cachaca and see it as a serious ingredient is 100% down to John Gakuru. If I can half the impact on the UK and US bar scene that he’s had then I’ll be very, very thrilled.
BLUK: You said earlier that you see the Cachaca category now as the Tequila category was in 1995 – explain yourself man….. sorry bro?
JB: Absolutely, when I started bartending in 1999 all we had in our bar was a bottle of Cuervo and some Margarita mix and people didn’t understand tequila. In 2005 I came to the UK and people were telling me that tequila was going to be the next big thing and that was only because people started to learn so much about it.
I popped into Gerry’s earlier and they said ‘all Cachaca tastes the same when it’s in a Caipirinha’ which is exactly what people used to say about Tequila and the Margarita when the first $100 bottles of tequila started arriving.
BLUK: Is one of the problems that Cachaca and especially the Caipirinha are seen as beach drinks and yet the current bar trends seem to lean towards dark small rooms?
JB: It’s interesting I was with Jim Meehan at PDT the other day and he said he didn’t see it as an ‘urban’ drink. The trend seems to be in the US at the moment that everyone wants to go back to 1920’s as if prohibition was a good thing and in the UK people are yearning for the days of Dickens as if it was a pleasurable time to be living in a slum and getting typhoid from Eau De Thames.
As Cachaca is so old we’re just waiting for the bars from the 1720’s to come back into fashion with slaves fanning you and spices arriving on boats for our time. I am also trying to show the versatility of cachaca on my trips making up some different cocktails to the Caipirinha.
BLUK: With all this talk of bar trends, if you were still working behind the stick and could work at any bar in the world which one it be?
JB: It would have to be Callooh Callay. There are a lot of bars in the world I love: Milk & Honey, The Golden Dawn, PDT but for me what I am seeing right now is bartenders becoming so hyper serious they forget that the bar is a halfway house between work and home and if you make it too intellectual you lose the point that some people just want a drink. For me Callooh Callay, more than any other bar I’ve been to in the world, strikes that balance between knowing everything about the products, great respect for tradition and also having a great laugh, it’s the one that stands out.
BLUK: Becoming a brand ambassador these days seems to be a job that a lot of bartenders are interested in, as someone who has made that transition so successfully, is it a job that’s all it’s cracked up to be?
JB: Yes, to be honest it is a dream job for me. I still get behind a bar as often as I can but it has it’s perks of course however I do more hours now than I ever did when I was working in one of the busiest bars in NZ. You are always expected to be working, you are always the brand which is one of the biggest downsides, sometimes I just want to go out and have a Gin & Tonic… with Quina Fina tonic of course! However it has to be said being a great bartender doesn’t make you a great brand ambassador, you have love the job you do. There are lots of other options out there as well, be it Adam Elmegirab making his own bitters or Dean Callan and George Nemec who are practically professional standard photographers – they are many ways to explore your passion for cocktails.
BLUK: As the Vodka Professor for 5 years, have you ever seen Ian Burrell drink vodka?
JB: I’m sure he has! Ian is a great bloke but he is like the Stalin of the sugar cane. If he ever claims he hasn’t had a vodka well let’s just say he has a proven track record as a liar, he once stood up at Sydney Bar Show and said that Bundaberg was a good rum!!
Sometimes people just want a fucking vodka soda; every bartender that says vodka hasn’t got any flavour… well sometimes you just drink alcohol because it’s got alcohol in it and every bartender who as ever had a shot of Jager…. Well no one drinks Jager cuz of the taste do they? Kicking vodka is just fashionable as it’s the biggest spirit in the world.
BLUK: From all your travels around the world, which city do you think has the best bars?
JB: The city in which you have the best chance of walking into a bar and getting a great drink is San Francisco which will horrify any New Yorker. A close second to that is Edinburgh. To me the smaller the city and the more communal the feeling then the more likely you are to be recommended a great bar.
Dale DeGroff will hate this but I think as a tourist arriving in New York knowing nothing your chances of walking in and getting an Appletini or Long Island Iced Tea are far great than getting a decent Old Fashioned. Sydney is a great example as despite its amazing bars and cocktail scene there are many awful places, if you could shrink Sydney down to Darlinghurst and Potts Point you’d probably have the greatest concentration of great cocktail bars on the planet.
Using the tourist knowing nothing approach, the cities you are most likely to walk into a bar and get a great drink are San Francisco, Edinburgh, Wellington and Melbourne.
BLUK: During your dream shift in Callooh Callay which two people would you have working behind the bar with you?
JB: Good lord, I’m going to offend a lot of people here. It has to be Naren Young with Alex Kammerling, Alan Kavanagh as bar back and Sean Ware working the floor with Gakuru out the front drinking Leblon Caipirinhas. Hang on there’s no women….. Kelly Jane Ferry as hostess.
BLUK: Finally what’s the fastest land animal in the world?
JB: Cheetah. However the fastest animal in the world in the Pink Tailed Swift which is faster than the Cheetah by about 2:1.