The BarLife bartender-interview tour heads to the home of one of the UK’s biggest music festivals, as Connie Cain tells us what’s happening in Reading.
It’s been yonks (that’s a good word, we should all use it more often) since I last went to Reading, and all I can remember about that visit is missing two trains back to London because Dan Bovey kept making delicious drinks for me to try. A lot has happened in the world since then, so I spoke to Connie Cain, now co-owner of landmark Reading venue Milk, to find out the current state of play.
BLUK: Hello Connie, can you give us a bit of bartending back-story. How long have you been in the industry and where have you worked?
CC: Like many people in Reading, I started at the Purple Turtle which is an institution, I think they must be coming up to their 40th birthday soon. That was in 2012 and I really enjoyed working in nightlife, and got involved in doing weekly tastings. I went from there to Milk, but wasn’t there for very long as they only had a part-time spot for me. So I moved on to Mix Bar, which has sadly closed now. That was the place I always wanted to work when I was at Turtle, but there were a lot of management changes happening when I got there and it wasn’t the experience I expected it to be, and then Rynd opened and I started working there in 2014. That’s when I started doing more comps. I worked at Rynd for a year and half, then went back to Milk, and in 2019 me and my partner Andy took over 40% ownership each of Milk, and have been doing that ever since.
BLUK: I haven’t been to Reading in five or six years, so can you describe the cocktail scene as it is now?
CC: Disappointingly there are a lot of chains. When I started in the industry there were quite a few independents. Now we’ve got B@1, LCC, two Slug and Lettuces, but the noticeable new-ish venues are High Spirits Cocktail Company and Corn Stores, they are the two venues that are arguably independent. There is still a really nice community among the hospitality people in Reading though.
BLUK: Reading is a university town, does that influence your clientele at Milk?
CC: Generally we get 25 and over, not by any rules we have put in, that’s just our general clientele. Occasionally some edgy third years might come and have a look, but student-wise we don’t really get many. So 25 to 80, some of our regulars are.
BLUK: In my mid, there has always been a link between Reading and Bristol, in the past bartenders seemed to move between the two cities. Is that still the case?
CC: It definitely was the case, not so much any more. Since Covid there’s been a great new lease of life in young bartenders and people who turned 18 during lockdown. It’s a new wave of people coming up which is nice to see, because everybody did leave about five years ago, to either Bristol or London, and we were lacking for a minute.
BLUK: What do you think has caused the influx of new bartending youth?
CC: Everyone became a home bartender during lockdown, if you couldn’t go out on your 18th birthday because of lockdown then you are going to sit at home and try and do something with booze.
BLUK: Have you noticed a change in the type of guests coming to Milk since Covid?
CC: Yes and no. At the beginning when we were allowed to reopen, definitely yes. I think people wanted to try new things, book a table and try a new experience. But now I think it’s gone back to how it was. Reading is quite a small town, and I think it’s gone back to some kind of pre-Covid normalcy.
BLUK: Are you seeing more customers ask for low-and-no ABV drinks post-Covid?
CC: There is more interest than there was four or five years ago, but the majority of our stuff is still boozy. I think it’s important that there’s an offer that caters to it, we still have our alcohol-free section, but we’ve now also added low ABV drinks into the main bulk of the menu.
BLUK: If a group of bartenders come to Reading for a jolly, where are you taking them?
CC: Reading has an incredible beer scene, we’ve got so many micro-breweries and breweries which are getting a lot bigger, so I would take them to a tap room first. Phantom Brewery is near the station so we’d have a beer there first. Then meander back to town, there are a few pubs on the route, the Fox and Hounds where we do cocktail pop-up’s sometimes, then we would go on to Milk for cocktails. I would then say the Corn Stores which also has a really good wine section, it’s all local and English wines. It’s a lovely bar, really beautifully decorated. By that point we are probably a bit boozy, so maybe on to High Spirits which does cocktails but is kind of a party bar, and then obviously on to The Turtle until half three in the morning!
BLUK: And what’s the bartender-favourite food stop in Reading?
CC: It used to be The Shack, but that’s closed. It was awful but amazing. I’ve got to be honest, for late night food Reading is a bit lacking. But earlier in the day I would go to Clay’s, it’s been open for a few years but they’ve just moved into a massive site, it used to be a ‘Spoons so it’s huge, it’s very traditional South Indian food, which is delicious.
BLUK: Reading normally gets lumped in with Bristol when it comes to cocktail competitions. Would you like to see some heats come to Reading, and do you think they would be supported by the community?
CC: I’d love them to. I’m trying to get the ‘Win The Back Bar’ comp back to Milk, and I’m badgering William Grant about that. It would be great to have a heat come to Reading, our transport links are second to none now!
BLUK: Is there such a thing as a Reading-style drink?
CC: The community’s drink is probably the Daiquiri, it’s what we all the drink. As for customers, the Reading palate might not be as refined as London, in the nicest way possible. Although the trend has gone to less sweet drinks, we do get people asking ‘what’s sweet?’. We don’t do a lot of stirred-down-and-brown. We sell an Old Fashioned every day, but aside from that I don’t think there’s a trend as such.
BLUK: So when our fictional group of travelling bartenders arrive at Milk and asks for a dealer’s choice drink, what are you making them?
CC: Well that changes with mood, but at the moment we’ve got a drink called the Dameian’s Rum Punch, which is a classic rum punch with a bit of a twist, but it’s a secret recipe so I can’t tell you what’s in it. So if someone wants to try it they have to come to Reading, or Barbados which is where we first had it.
BLUK: Is there anything Reading community-related you would like to to say that I haven’t asked a question about?
CC: I would say that I’m feeling really positive about what’s going on in Reading at the moment. Although ten years isn’t very long compared to some people, it’s a third of my life, spent in the industry, and I’ve seen people come and go. We had a really good scene when I first started then it dropped off. And now it’s back with a bang, which feels really good. I think there’s a lot more going on here than we get credit for!
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