Rookie Programme 2016: Session 2

Gin, Vodka, Menus, Marketing, Distilling and Cocktail Competitions it was a busy couple of days for our Rookies but we still found time for a round of Crazy Golf.

‘Did I tell you I was moving to New York?’

The Mixxit & BarLifeUK Rookie Programme promises to give a group of young bartenders the best possible training to kick start their careers, and the second session certainly lived up to that promise and continued where the first session left off.

Our home for the first day was Cocktail Trading Company, who have been great supporters of the programme since we kicked off last year. Once again they invited us in, let us take over their lovely bar, make a mess and generally get in the way.

We kicked off with Rebekkah Dooley. Her talk on Menu’s and Marketing was a hit last year so we thought we would make the most of her again before she buggers off to help out a couple of Irish blokes in New York.

Rebekkah’s cocktail menu collection from some of her favourite bars around the world is, on it’s own, a huge source of inspiration and they were passed around the group to great excitement. However, it is her insights into what makes them work so well, and in some cases what she would change, that really gets the imagination ticking.

Having been part of the Callooh Callay team for many years and involved in several of their coveted menus she also has plenty of stories and tips from her own experiences to pass on, all delivered in a reassuringly self-deprecating way. You could see the Rookies all coming up with menu concepts in their heads as she talked, so we decided we should test them out.

Split into three groups the Rookies were tasked to come up with a menu concept, talk us through it, as well as three drinks off the menu, and make one of them for us to try. They were given £20 budget per team to aid their presentations and drinks, although it turns out we have a group of blaggers on our hands with everything from pickle juice to cinema tickets being bartered for free.

The winning team
The winning team

All three concepts impressed our two judges, Mixxit’s Amanda Humphrey and Rebekkah, especially considering the short time frame we had given them. We had one concept based around the European Championships using a paper fortune teller as a menu, with drinks inspired by the various countries taking part. Another team were in festival mood with a menu on a lanyard, who had really thought through the idea of providing a take away product to promote your bar.

However the winning team, Phoebe Ruddock, Guy Mazuch and David McLean, based their concept around the cinema. When a customer ordered a drink they would be given a ‘cinema ticket’ with the name of the drink, ingredients etc on. When the drink was served the bartender/server would tear off the stub leaving the main part of the ticket to act as the coaster. A superb idea which won them a yet to be decided upon prize.

Everyone’s A Winner Baby

Well actually they aren’t, in fact usually there is only one winner in a cocktail competition so after lunch BarLifeUK took the Rookies through ‘How To Win A Cocktail Competition (or at least not lose too badly)’.

There is no guaranteed way to win a comp but there are a lot of things you can do, or avoid doing, in order to help your chances and get your win ratio up significantly. We will be bringing you a detailed look at this presentation in the next couple of weeks so if you want some comp tips keep an eye out for it.

We decided to continue the days competitive theme in the evening with a trip to Junkyard Golf in the Truman Brewery. Before that we thought we should build up some team confidence so had a couple of rounds of drinks in Cocktail Trading Co with the Rookies taking full advantage of the stellar back bar on offer.

From there is was down to London Cocktail Club for some Happy Hour drinks and an impromptu few games of pool on their new table. It would be crass to point out who the MVP of the pool games was, because it was us….. oh wait look at that.

Udder or over?
Udder or over?

That was all preamble however, to the big game of the night, Junkyard Golf. For those unfamiliar with the concept of Junkyard Golf it is a crazy golf gone rogue, thanks to the twisted mind of Lyndon Higginson, with plenty of cocktails and street food thrown in. There are three courses at the Truman Brewery site (the original is up in Manchester) each a bright mix of bits from a scrap yard and second hand shops put together to infuriate and bamboozle.

We were superbly looked after by Sarah Mitchell and Bart Murphy who ensured that a drink was never far away and a great night was had by all. The winner is a difficult one to call mainly as we suspect quiet a large amount of cheating and score fudging went on but as far as we remember Paul McLean seemed to have the biggest claim to the title. However, by that point we must admit to being more than a little distracted by the superb hotdogs that were being consumed so that could be completely wrong.

Vodka and the Super-Premium Myth

Everyone was surprisingly fresh the next morning as they arrived a Found Bar for a day of category training in one of our favourite Shoreditch bars.

With a day of vodka and gin training, and sampling, ahead Amanda gave them the background they needed in the form of a Distilling 101 session. As always Amanda managed to take a subject that could be, let’s face it folks, dull as David Cameron, and make it interesting and fun.

The history of distilling was covered along with the various types of stills, why they are used and the advantages of each. Distilling (and indeed maturation) are one of the subjects that are often overlooked in early bartending training which can lead to brand presentations being a little daunting  for younger bartenders unaware of the nuances and language associated with the category.

With that in mind we will be bring a Rookie Programme Distilling 101 article very soon.

Our Rookies were primed so it was time to introduce our first guest speaker of the day in the form of Gareth ‘#bigdeal’ Evans. Since leaving the Atherton Group Gareth has been traveling the world educating bartenders in the dark arts of vodka with Absolut Elyx.

For a long time bartenders have looked down their noses at the vodka category but thankfully, due to an increasingly growing number of passionate and educated ambassadors, such as Gareth, bartenders opinions are beginning to change. In our humble opinion it’s about time to.

'Remember it's #bigdeal'
‘Remember it’s #bigdeal’

Vodka, more than any other category, is more than just the liquid in the bottle but the quality of the vodka is still vital. Gareth took the Rookies through the different types of vodka out there and specifically the differences that the raw product can make.

It was through the raw product that the rise of new vodkas can be discussed, whether they be from more traditional vodka producing countries or the growth from countries such as France, UK and America. It is an interesting time for vodka, but an aspect of Gareth’s chat that was of particular interest to us was the look at the premium/super-premium end of the market.

1998 saw the emergence of the Super-Premium vodka category and arguably it has single-handedly done more to damage the reputation of vodka amongst bartenders than anything since the horrible drinks of the 1980’s. It is a point Gareth shares.

As he points out the issue is there is no control over the term, unlike London Dry Gin, Scotch Whisky, Bourbon etc, which has led to its abuse. Anyone can chuck the term Super-Premium on their over engineered bottle and charge a fortune with no guarantee the liquid will be any good. In actual fact if the bottle says Super-Premium, in our experience, it usually implies the vodka inside is anything but.

It seems the big brands have noticed this backlash and now market themselves as luxury vodkas. A term we are fans of as it has more in common with other markets that consumers are subject to every day.

All that talking had left Gareth a little thirsty so he moved the group the bar for a blind vodka tasting. If you are a young bartender, or have young bartenders in your team, then we can’t recommend highly enough doing this to understand the nuances of the different processes and raw ingredients in a category everyone, wrongly, assumes has no flavour. Of course if you can get Gareth or another brand expert to host it all the better.

The Rookies did a pretty decent job in guessing which brand was which in their glasses and were rewarded with a stunning Martini from Gareth that had us, begrudgingly, admitting he hadn’t lost his drink making chops since he moved to day walking mode.

Gin Face

After a hearty round of pizza’s for lunch the group were ready for more, and for the third time that day, were treated to an exceptionally knowledgeable and passionate speaker. This time we welcomed to the Rookie Programme speakers club Dan Warner of the 86 Co.

There are few people in the country that know more about gin than Dan (and they were all busy) and arguably none that can engage a group about it as well.

The history of gin in itself is a talk that could go on for two days (and what a dull two days that would be), thankfully Dan kept it brief concentrating on the key points including Dutch Courage, the 1690 Distilling Act and following gin craze, prohibition, World War 2 and the resulting vodka boom. It was however the focus on gin cocktail’s that caught our attention.

Dan survives the bald spot photo test
Dan survives the bald spot photo test

In the 1880’s the Golden Age of Cocktails began and there is no argument that gin was at the forefront of this movement. A look at just a handful of the gin based cocktails that came from this time is a real eye-opener into the importance of gin to the way we drink even now.

From the classic Gimlet, through to the substitution of fresh lime in the form of the Gin Rickey. Of course the bartenders nemesis (and the reason for so many bartender gym memberships) the Ramos Gin Fizz, with a lot less effort but equally as delicious you have the Aviation. One the most famous of the bunch is the Tom Collins which Dan shared with a limerick from 1892:

My name is John Collins head waiter at Limmer’s
Corner of Conduit Street
Hanover Square
My Chief Occupation is filling the trimmers
For all the young gentleman frequenters there

However when it comes to the daddy of the gin cocktail family there can be no argument that the Martini stands tall. Dan had this handy look at the rise of the Martini in the US:

1882 – The Manhattan, New York Sunday Morning Herald
1884 – Martinez, The Modern Bartender by O.H. Byron
1887 – Martinez, Jerry Thomas second edition
1888 – The Martini, Harry Johnson’s New & Improved Bartender’s Manual
1895 – The Turf Club Cocktail, George J. Kappeler’s Modern American Drinks
1896 – Marguerite Cocktail, Stuart’s Fancy Drinks & How to Make Them
1900 – The Puritan, The Cocktail Book: A Sideboard Manual For Gentlemen by Fredrick L. Knowles
1904 – Dry Martini Cocktail, American Bar: Recettes des Boissons Anglaises et Américaines (France)

After a look at the current gin market and the future of the category (it all looks rosy in case you were worried) it was time for the Rookies to get to sample some of the obscenely large current range that is on the market.

For their tasting delights we had ourselves Bombay Sapphire, No.3 London Dry Gin, Beefeater, Gin Mare, Fords, Hendricks and Cremorne Colonel Fox’s.

As you would expect with such a wide variety of options there were plenty of different favourites picked, which just goes to show the difference in even bartender pallets. It was interesting watching the group volunteer the different cocktails that they felt each would work best in.

However everyone agreed at the end of the day that a round of Gin & Tonics was definitely the way forward.

So ended their second session of the Mixxit & BarLifeUK Rookie Programme. Another amazing couple of days filled with knowledge and fun. Not for the first time we looked back on what these 13 young bartenders have, and will be, learning as the programme continues and wondering just how far they will get in our industry. Our betting is a long, long way.

A huge thank you to all the speakers that once again gave up their time to give something back to the industry, and so generously passed on their knowledge and enthusiasm to our group. Also to the bars that hosted us and put up with having to get up early just to let us set up. Finally to Mixxit and Amanda, without them these 13 Rookies would not be on the year long journey they are experiencing.

Bring on August.