Chief Wriggler Rob popped round the corner to Small Bar to have a drink and a chat with Annie Mason, the brain behind Bristol Cocktail Week and bartender at the Milk Thistle to find out a bit about the week-long festival of cocktails which showcases the skill and quality behind Bristol’s best bars and bartenders. Have a gander below, and get yourself down to some of their amazing events!
How did you get into the Bristol Cocktail scene? I started off working in the local pub after my 18th birthday and moved onto cocktails a few years later. The scene back then was tiny – Hausbar was there, The Rummer had just opened, but since then Hyde & Co opened, then Milk Thistle, and then it’s gone nuts with Red Light and Doghouse, Goldbrick House and Harvey Nicholls.
Please tell us about some of the events on for Bristol Cocktail Week. We’ve got some great events lined-up throughout the week. Tuesday evening is a tasting with local drink, Somerset Cider Brandy and Wednesday night we’ve got a Harvey’s sherry tasting and food matching evening. Then on Friday we’ve got the Bacardi “1930s Cuba” party at the Mauretania and on Saturday we’ve got a Hendrick’s gin event which is half-price with a wristband (£10 normally).
You’ve also got the Bristol Bartender of the Year award. How does that work? There are 5 rounds, each round judged by a different expert (we’ve got a few big names coming down to judge it this year). The idea is to test every aspect of bar-tending, everything that makes you a good bartender.
So what makes a good bartender then? Speed and efficiency, knowledge, creativity and keeping it cool under pressure. It’s going to be interesting – it’s knock-out heats one-on-one, so if you get a hard draw in the first round, you could be out! The rounds are secret. Each round the bartender will have to make at least one drink sponsored by a different brand of alcohol, which will be incorporated into the drink.
So what’s your speciality drink? I came up with one for the new menu at the Milk Thistle the other day. It’s called the Autumn Lily – tequila, yellow chartreuse, somerset pomona and chocolate buttons. It tastes like autumn!
Sounds delicious! How do you go about creating a drink like that? Sometimes it takes a lot of work, trying things out and checking different combinations, but I think once you’ve been working with certain flavours long enough you get the hang of it. I think it’s similar to if you gave a chef a series of ingredients they’d go “bosh bosh bosh” and knock something up. I draw a lot of parallels between being a chef and bar tending.
So is the Bristol cocktail scene different to other cities? Yes, definitely. The drinks in Bristol have quite a different style, they tend to be stirred and quite bitter. I’m not sure whether this is because of the consumers or the bartenders, but it’s quite an old style. In London they use a lot of citrus, lots of very citrusy cocktails. Oh, and the bars in Bristol are known for all the bartenders being friends!
So what trends are you seeing in cocktails at the moment? Gin has been massive for a couple of years now. It’s absolutely huge and there are lots of new gins on the market. Our Thursday event this week we’re seeing the pre-launch of a gin that was invented by a Bristol bartender, Dee Davies. It’s called Jinzu – it’s Japanese inspired so contains saki and other Japanese botanicals, but you’ll have to ask Dee for more details!
Do people come to the bar and ask for help choosing a drink, or do they normally know what they want? One of my favourite things to do as a bartender is to help out a customer who looks a bit stuck and looking at the menu with a confused expression.
So what do you ask them to find out what they want? My tactic’s to ask them what their safe drink is – what they’d have if they go to the local pub, because you already have a flavour profile for them. It’s different if they like lager, ale, stout. If someone likes a guinness, they probably want something quite rich, quite full-flavoured, smooth with a bit of sweetness. If someone drinks IPA they’re probably going to want something fresh and sharp.
I normally ask for a light refreshing ale. What’s a good cocktail for me? A good one would be a drink that I was playing around with the other day – it’s not quite finished yet, but I think it’s a good starting point. It’s a twist on the Silver Fizz. It’s gin, lemon, sugar, soda and egg white. I’d replace the soda with raspberry syrup to give it a little bit of fruitiness, and give it a Campari float to give it a bit of bitterness.
Sounds delicious. I’ll have to check it out. You must be around drinks a lot – does it put you off drinking?The problem I have is that a lot of the cocktail bars tend to be open and lively and fun when I’m behind the stick myself – so a lot of places are shut on a Sunday. A lot of the time we come here to Small Bar. It’s really nice to have a beer!
Is there a cross-over between enjoying quality cocktails and other quality produce like beer and coffee?I think the whole thing goes together – cocktails aren’t cheap but you pay for what you get. It’s the same for quality coffee, good food or good beer. There’s more and more appreciation of quality produce and an understanding that it might not be cheap, but it’s going to be so much more enjoyable and every single sip or bite is going to be worth it. I love getting down to Full Court Press for coffee – it goes without saying how good it is! The cold brews are just fantastic.
Agreed! We love FCP! So, to round up, what’s the big vision with Bristol Cocktail Week? A lot of depends on what goes down well this year… We’re trying to make it more accessible for the general public so let’s see what happens!