Joe Petch: Cocktails in Reading? (Where’s that I hear you say?!)

I’ve come to realise when engaged in conversation about quality cocktail bars that the same cities always seemed to get mentioned.

And rightly so, having as a whole earned their reputation over years of hard work. Outside of London there are certainly the old favourites: Manchester, Brighton and Edinburgh to state a few of the obvious.

After these well established cities come some of the smaller upcoming cocktail scenes, some of which have crept out of nowhere and over the past year or so Reading has been sneaking its way into a few of these said conversations. I’ll start by telling you a bit about the bar scene in this small 8th century home-counties town where I was born and bred.

Since the day I discovered the wonderful world of hanging out it bars (this may or may not have been when I turned 18) I have enjoyed the obvious pleasures of social drinking, be it in a slightly different kind of bar environment I frequent nowadays. Over time I became more & more interested in the bartenders & the drinks they were serving, although at this point I must add it was a very basic uneducated interest in spirits & what mixers to use with them.

In 2002 I went with a few friends to a recruitment evening for a new bar that was said to be “next big thing” in Reading, to my surprise we all got the job, I say surprise as our only experience was mixing up a snakebite & pouring an insane amount of vodka into partially empty bottle of coke.

Perhaps we were hired for our sense of enthusiasm but it was more likely because we were some of the only ones to turn up! Either way the idea of working with each other in a brand new bar & getting an abundance of discounted drinks down us sounded amazing… Welcome the days of showing up on shift wasted, getting sent home to sleep it off, waking up the next day late for work still in your uniform & running back….

The bar (that I won’t name due to the fact I eventually had to take them to an employment tribunal over underpayment & holiday. Successfully I might add) wasn’t great as you may have already guessed.

It was essentially a cheesy volume driven cocktail bar with happy hour prices all the time. Our training was vague to say the least & I fear this was much the case across most of these type of bars in the area at the time, there were a few exceptions of coarse, places such as TGI’s & Santé Fe seemed to be leading the way but I was yet to develop my interest in making quality cocktails.

I have no shame in admitting the drinks we served were just  a crude mix of a spirit, liqueur & a mixer all stirred with a straw over a few pieces of ice in the glass its served in, you were pretty damn lucky if you got anything resembling a garnish let alone a bev nap! Well we all had to start somewhere I guess, but I’m sure this isn’t a unique story.

After “leaving” I wanted to do take a more serious approach to bar work. At the time there were only a handful of bars that I wanted to work at for this reason, so came the turning point in my bartending career, starting in Sahara Bar, a small recently opened independent cocktail bar with people who really did care about drinks they made & actually knew how to make them, suddenly I felt like I had a lot to learn!

More independent cocktail lead bars started to open (Mix & Cerise to name a couple) , it was an exiting time as the competitiveness amongst bartenders grew, so as did the knowledge & skill of the bar teams. In 2004/5 (I can’t exactly remember) came what I believe to be the first “open to all” bartender competition in Reading, which to this day I am still unsure how I managed to place first in.

It seemed to be a point of realization to many of us as young bartenders that maybe entering the national competitions may not be a complete waste of time after all. Cocktail sales & the consumer demand for an increased amount of quality drinks fuelled the fire & bars became more & more creative, I’m not saying for a second saying we were leading the way in cocktail making technology, far from it in fact but we were making a LOT of drinks properly & equally if not more importantly with pride.

Things were looking up as the drinks offering increased & along with healthy competition between venues that did have a good cocktail menu meant that the mentality towards cocktail bars moved away from the stereo typical “I’m not drinking out that girlie glass” to a more open minded attitude towards drinking good drinks & not just a “oh, whatever’s on tap” response to who ever was buying a round. Saying that, there is probably some truth in saying that without this change in attitude amongst Reading’s drinkers many of us would not be where we are today.

So here we are now in 2011 & things are certainly looking up for this suburban town 24mins west of London Paddington. Drinks have been made & competitions won; to mention but a few winners; Dan Bovey’s cocktail for the Chambord Rendezvous dinner, Ash Jones went to Cognac with Cask & also to Tennessee, Dean McGregor bagged a trip to tales of the cocktail & I made some weird drinks at a molecular comp.

The local bartender competitions have been huge successes with an obvious increase in skill & creativity almost every time one is held. Of the few I have arranged back home it is apparent that the bar teams are thinking a hell of lot more about the drinks than just slapping on a fancy garnish.

The First Drinks “Winner takes all” (back bar) competition was won by Maciej Szajda, The Russian Standard Bloody Mary duel off was taken by Glenn Savaille & Ketel One’s competition by Rich Williams. So next time your heading down to Reading to take part in the Half Marathon, The Rock Festival or a London Irish game you can feel safer in the fact that if you go into a decent cocktail bar & order a cocktail, you wont be given something that looks like it was made by some kids in a park!

In summary I feel it’s fair to say that it’s certainly not the last we have heard from this small town & although it most certainly won’t take over the cocktail world, it’s a damn site better than when I started out in bars!