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Interview with Raj Nagra, Global Brand Ambassador, Bombay Sapphire

At the end of last year, Gary Mehigan joined Bombay Sapphire to create the Project Botanicals pop-up gin bar, during which I got the unique opportunity to interview with Raj Nagra, their Global Brand Ambassador!

How long have you been working in the industry?

From a very young age, over 25 years..

Behind the bar?

I was initially exposed to various aspects of front and back of house focusing on events before I really stepped behind the bar. I had been quite partial to Black Russians from the ripe age of 15 or 16.
It was while working at a notable Sydney hotel around studies, that I got to work with three old London bartenders who taught me about real bartending. I learnt a lot from those guys and it was an important step in my evolution within the industry.
From there I went on to the club scene and ended up running a few bars at quite a young age, trendy places, that was a lot of fun!
I then moved back to London and ran a club for a couple of years before coming back to Australia for a short stint before moving to Dubai in 1999 to work for the Sheik and consult on the Emirates towers hotel with a team of old friends. A move back to Australia, more consulting and bartender training led to Bacardi approaching me in 2001 for a ‘new role’. I had grown up surrounded by Bacardi and had a keen interest in the brand.

How did you become Global Brand Ambassador for Bombay Sapphire?

Being involved in some innovative bars, I became quite well-known in the industry. Bacardi asked if I was interested in working with them. Initially I worked on Bacardi Rum and Bombay Sapphire and had two separate business cards. It was a lot of miles and lots of hard work and even more fun! I wouldn’t trade those memories.
I was travelling around Australia more than half the year doing training and events and was one of the first ambassadors in Australia. I won Brand Ambassador of the Year for Australia in 2006. I travelled overseas, visiting bars and training bartenders as the role developed over the next six years. It got to a point where I was spending more time across Asia than back in Australia, when the opportunity to move to Shanghai came along to focus on the region. After a couple of years I was offered a national US role which saw me make a move to work in Miami. I became the Global Brand Ambassador for Bombay Sapphire about 4 years ago and have been based out of New York.

It sounds like the best job in the world!

It’s definitely a lot of fun and quite a diverse role. It also happens to be a very exciting time to be involved in the Bombay Spirits Company given the recent opening of our new distillery and as we look toward the future. I work with some incredible people across lots of projects and programs. Our new distillery Laverstoke Mill opened in 2014 and that propositions the brand a great opportunity to innovate. It’s going to be really exciting to explore our potential over the coming years, working with the likes of our Master Distiller Nic Fordham and our Master of Botanicals, Ivano Tonutti.

What’s a typical day for you?

The great thing about this type of role is that its very purpose leads to a great amount of diverse locations and engagements. One day you might be at a trade show in New Orleans or Berlin, the next you might be judging a cocktail competition in Tokyo or Montreal. As I’m based in the States I take an active role in the NY and US market. I also lead our Global Cocktail competition that is now in its 4th year: The World’s Most Imaginative Bartender competition. It centres on pushing the levels of creativity, while being exposed to exotic locations that are linked to Bombay Sapphire. So far we’ve been to Morocco where we source our coriander, Tuscany where we source our juniper and orris, and most recently we previewed our distillery. We have some incredible new plans for 2015.

Do you get involved with the strategy for the brand?

Yes, being part of the global marketing team and with the high level of exposure I have to markets and the trade means I have an important role to play within this context.

The best thing about the job?

It’s not stagnant or idle; I love the diversity of my weeks and experiencing so many different things while being privileged to represent such an amazing brand.

Bombay Sapphire has to take credit for the gin renaissance, how do you feel about the explosion in the gin category? Is it good for Bombay?

Innovation is something that has been a part of Bombay gins throughout our entire history. From the creation of the 1761 recipe to the launch of Bombay London Dry gin in 1959 in the US. It was Bombay Sapphire that was launched in 1987 when gin was in decline that revitalized the category, and more specifically thanks to Michel Roux working with Ian Hamilton our master distiller at the time to create a modern classic gin, placing it in a groundbreaking blue bottle. You can’t ignore the fact that Bombay was the gin that made gin cool again. It singlehandedly opened the doors for all modern-day gins to exist. It was the first super premium gin and has its place in gins modern history. For the 5th year running we are the fastest growing gin brand in the world, we’re the number one gin globally by value so we are in great shape as a brand. Bombay Dry is very much a bartenders gin and expanding to new shores this year.
I think it’s wonderful that people are either exploring peripheral new gin brands or drinking real gin martinis again. It shows that consumers are becoming more discerning and educated when it comes to their palate choices and social drinking experiences. Gin is hot right now, and innovation rife.
It’s healthy for the category and great for bartenders who of course love pouring gin!

Do you think people are steering away from mass-produced and more towards craft products?

I think there is definitely a trend toward supporting locally produced products, and a great way for these small brands to gain traction. Smaller however does not always mean better! What is craft? Craft only means ‘hands on’.

We have just opened our new distillery which I would encourage anyone to visit. Laverstoke Mill is situated in rural Hampshire and has the cleanest chalk stream river in England running through the heart of it. The distillery is sustainable and boasts a 60% reduction in carbon emissions and is 85% more improved than the benchmark set by the building research establishment’s environmental assessment method. With this type of care and attention in everything we do, I think we very much embody terms like craft!

Do you only deal with exclusive suppliers?

Unlike other gins that buy botanicals on the open market, when we’re talking about producing a brand like Bombay Sapphire we’re talking about the only major gin brand to have its own Master of Botanicals in Ivano Tonutti, whose very purpose is to work directly with our farmers – some of whom he’s been working with for some thirty years – in gaining the finest quality botanicals from the source. He personally checks all ingredients and personally has them packed for distillation. It’s uncommon for myself to take guests to these locations to meet with our farmers.

So will there be any new products coming along the line?

Bombay London Dry gin will finally be arriving in Australia this year. We’ve had success with Bombay Sapphire East (with the addition of Thai lemongrass and Vietnamese black peppercorn) and Amber (black cardamom and bitter orange rested in French Oak) in travel retail of course. With the new distillery we now have the means to venture into the future. Stay tuned!

How involved were you with the Laverstoke Mill project?

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We needed a full-time team to work across a project of this scale. Lavertsoke Mill has been around for 1000 years and produced bank notes for up to 100 territories and colonies for the British Empire from 1724 and during the reign of Queen Victoria (who of course features on our label). Digging up artifacts and re-gentrifying the River Test, as well as accommodating the various local flora and fauna took a lot of time. In all we spent four years bringing Laverstoke Mill back to life. It is breathtaking.

We have Will Brix who is the General Manager. Nic Ford our Master Distiller had the enormous task of overseeing the refurbishment and move of our aging stills and runs production. Thomas Heatherwick designed our magnificent Victorian inspired glass houses and oversaw the design aspects of the build. Sam Carter is our designated Lavistocke Mill Ambassador. And of course we have our full-time on site horticulturalist Chris Cotterall.

What’s your favourite gin cocktail?

I am in fact quite partial to a classic Bombay Sapphire martini. We are seeing a lot of interest around this drink by consumers and for the right reasons.

I also enjoy a good Negroni. We work closely with Luca Picci, a friend of mine from Florence, who’s probably the foremost expert on the negroni and through my time with him I’ve come to appreciate them with just a dash of soda which adds the dilution and helps bind the ingredients. I also like them with a big slice of orange!

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Meet Mike Enright, owner of The Barber Shop

The Barber Shop in Sydney is one of my favourites. It’s been open for just a year and has already made an impact, being both shortlisted for Best New International Cocktail Bar at the world renowned Tales of the Cocktail 2014 and winning Bar Operator of the Year at the 2014 Australian Bartender Magazine Awards.

It was a pleasure to meet Mike Enright, owner of The Barber Shop to chat about his career, how the idea for The Barber Shop came about and most importantly, gin.

How long have you been working in the bar industry?

25, 26 years, although I took two years off when I when I went to Uni.

What do you like about it?

It’s anti-social but also very social! I meet so many people, that’s the best part.
When I was a lot younger living in London, it felt like I was living a very different life to the normal average person working 9-5. As I got older I wanted to be at home at 5 on a Friday evening like normal people, but I decided to stay in bar management because I enjoy meeting people.

So what do you hate about it? The anti-social hours?

As you get older it’s pretty taxing on your body. However, as a bar owner it never stops it’s 24/7 52 weeks of the year, but I like the flexibility. I don’t have to be at my desk at 9 am.

So why The Barber Shop? Where did that concept come from?

Originally when I left school I was a hairdresser. I was really interested in the barbering side back in the mid-eighties when there was some really cool old school barbering schools. I was a bit too young to move down to London where they were so; I got involved in pubs, as a second job.

When I was thinking about opening a bar, I saw an opportunity to combine men’s grooming and good drinking, something for the modern gent. There are many similarities between the craft and skill of a bartender creating a cocktail and the art of a haircut.

Obviously, I fell in love with The Barber Shop because of the great range of gin, but you also have a wonderful collection of whisky. So which are you? Gin or whisky?

Gin.

As I’ve got older my appreciation for whisky has grown but I find gin more because of its history. Going to a distillery and smelling the gin in the still is an incredible experience. Gin is an awesome spirit to play and make cocktails with. It also has so much history for me as my mum and my first landlady used to drink it. To me it’s the quintessential English spirit.

I’d never seen gin and juice on tap before I came to The Barber Shop

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We installed the gin tap to promote gin in a different way. The tap attracts people’s attention and gets them to try something they may not have experienced before.

What’s your favourite gin?

A tough one. I like Plymouth because it’s a great, full-bodied gin. I like Fords, which I think is exceptional. I used to work for Tanqueray when they launched No. Ten in Australia, so that was a passion of mine for a while. It’s hard to pin point just one. There are so many and they each have their own characters.

Which gin cocktail are you asked for the most?

We sell a few more martinis than most other bars I’ve been to. One of our signature cocktails, The Fleet Street (chartreuse, angostura bitters, gin and pineapple juice) is very popular as it’s so drinkable. Gimlets are popular too.

What is your favourite gin cocktail?

Easy. A Gimlet. In my opinion, the less you mess with a drink the better it is. I like producing a drink that is quick, fresh, and cold. The Gimlet hits the spot.

If a customer comes in and has never tried gin before what would you serve them?

I’d offer them one of our signature drinks like the Fleet Street cocktail, because it’s so approachable. Generally I like to get some more details. I might ask them what they usually drink, if they like citrus? Or fruity cocktails? Do they prefer something neat and boozy or long and tall? I take their answers and often make something off the bat.

Your Vintage gins are a fantastic point of difference! Do you sell much?

Gin connoisseurs come in to try two different gins and two different tonics for comparison and then finish off with a taster of one of the vintage gins. So, yes, we do sell quite a bit.
I never expected to make money from them; I just wanted to have them for people to try. I’d love to cellar them but they are too expensive so I’ll probably expand the collection instead.

Off duty where do you like to drink?

The Lord Dudley (Sydney) , The Rook (Sydney), which has a good gin selection and Duke’s Bar (London).

If you could work anywhere else, where would you work?

I’d love to do a stint somewhere like The Connaught, because I’ve never done it. Anywhere old school: The American Bar at the Savoy, or The Artesian,  I have a massive appreciation for the old classics and techniques.

You can follow The Barber Shop on Facebook or visit their website.

How to make The Perfect Martini with Greg Sanderson, Eau de Vie Melbourne

One of the best things about working on the Gin Queen is meeting some very interesting people who are more than generous with their time and knowledge about gin and cocktails.

Greg Sanderson, owner of Eau De Vie Melbourne, kindly sat down with me for an hour last week to chat cocktails and during our discussion about cocktail lists, signature cocktails and what inspires him, he showed me how to make the perfect martini. It’s his favourite : Tanqueray 10, Lillet Blanc, a dash of bitters and an orange twist.

I’m formulating another larger post on martinis in general but I wanted to share Greg’s tips. They are definitely going to improve my martini making and general cocktail making skills at home.

How to Make the Perfect Martini

Liquids in FIRST.

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For this version Greg went for a 4:1 ratio. 60ml Tanqueray 10, 15ml Lillet Blanc, a dash of bitters.

Often in our desperation to get our drinks as chilled as quickly as possible there is a temptation to throw the drink over the ice. Greg kindly pointed out that in doing so, we’re diluting immediately. So to avoid that. Liquid in FIRST. Then add ice.

DON’T over stir (or overshake)

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OK, I’ll admit it. I’ve been over stirring my martinis and negronis. Greg says 30 seconds stirring is plenty. Just enough to remove the ethanol but not too much that you’ve over-diluted. Try to move the ice together. (Re: shaken cocktails. 15 seconds is plenty.)

Don’t remove your bar spoon before you pour.

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You want to avoid chipping any ice and them ending up in your drink, so keep the bar spoon in as you pour. This is a good one for me to remember as I’m probably a bit heavy handed with my stirring and the ice sometimes takes a battering.

Buy some dry ice

If only! I double-checked with Greg whether the addition of dry ice was theatrics over science, but during his time with Diageo, they conducted experiments on chilling drinks and discovered that adding your cocktail to the glass (even a chilled one) will increase the temperature of the drink. Eau de Vie get around this by adding dry ice. At home I do my best without dry ice by popping all the utensils and ingredients in the freezer 15 minutes before I need them.

Prepping the garnish

Once you’ve taken a slice of orange, make sure you remove as much of the white pith as possible. Cut to shape and finally twist over the drink to release the orange oils and then drop into the drink.

Greg Sanderson is a hospitality professional who is well known for his extensive experience in the bar industry and passion for all things cocktails and spirits related. After completing a Bachelor of Business Major in Hospitality and Tourism Management at the University of Queensland Greg relocated to the UK to pursue work within the cocktail and spirit scene. Greg prides himself on being a booze nerd and has plied his trade behind the bar in Australia the UK and briefly the US. Upon returning to Australia Greg has worked and run such Melbourne drinking institutions as Gin Palace, Murmur, Black Pearl and is currently the Co-Owner and General Manager of Eau-de-Vie Melbourne. Greg has won many competitions and accolades along the way however his most proudest accolade within the bar industry was winning the much sought after title of 2012 Australian Bartender of the Year at the Bartender Magazines Bartender Awards.

 

Interview with Sven Almenning

I met Sven Almenning, the brains behind Eau De Vie Melbourne, Eau de Vie Sydney and The Roosevelt, Sydney,at the beginning of the year when Eau De Vie launched their fantastic cocktail book. I was very excited that Sven had heard of The Gin Queen website and that he autographed my copy!

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I wanted to interview Sven to learn more about the brain behind some of Australia’s most successful cocktail bars.

GQ: How long have you been in the industry?

SA: I’ve been in the Australian bar industry for 15 years and prior to that 3, 4 years maybe, so altogether, almost 20…too long! My liver is 80 years old!

GQ: Why did you opt for the speakeasy type of venue?

SA: At the time when we opened Eau de Vie, I owned an agency (Behind Bars) consulting to the bar industry. We ran cocktail competitions, bar tender training, brand strategies for liquor brands etc.; and I always came up against this idea that Australian people weren’t going to really drink spirits or cocktails.  It was always about beer and wine and the spirit industry seemed to be content waiting for people to have their 3-4 beers before moving onto spirits.

I really wanted to prove otherwise and create somewhere that people would come specifically for cocktails. To do that you can’t be immediately visible. If you are an immediately visible venue, anyone who is up for a drink will stumble through your doors and because they’re not here for you, they’re here for alcohol they will drink what they normally drink.We wanted to be a bit like a restaurant where you book based on what you would like to eat, so if you are in the mood for cocktails, you come to Eau de Vie, if you are in the mood for a great spirit or whisky, you come to Eau de Vie. We decided to create a menu where people came for the cocktails and the experience and the only way to do it was to hide the bar a bit. 

GQ: Hence why it’s so bloomin’ difficult to find it!

{laughs}

SA:It almost killed me in Melbourne because it took so long for people to find it that we were getting really worried. We were getting emails and angry phone calls going “guys at least a street number or something, where are you?” but it certainly means that people who come there, come there to see us. We don’t get people stumbling in randomly, they are specifically out for a cocktail and that was the case here in Sydney as well. In Sydney we’re inside a hotel, but the same thing happened here with people calling us up from the back of the hotel saying ‘where are you?’.

GQ: So you were trying to make something exclusive?

SA:It’s not exclusive. We allow anyone in here, we don’t have a dress code, on weekends we sort of say “make an effort”, but it’s not about being exclusive it’s about people having the right intentions if you like, so we would like them to come because they want to indulge in what we do .

In terms of why we made it speakeasy it was not hidden for the sake of being cool, it wasn’t hidden for the sake of keeping out the riff- raff it was hidden because you wanted people to come here to enjoy good drinks. That’s it.You are going to come in if you’ve read about it online, someone blogged about it, one of your friends told you that had a great drink somewhere or you heard we have a big whisky collection and they think ‘hey I want to come to this bar and try what they do’ .

GQ: The service is what makes Eau de Vie stand out, in my opinion.

SA:THANKS!  We really wanted to have a bar where people get great service, great drinks and have a great time and that’s we are proud of, and that’s what we wanted when we opened up. 

There’s a lot more money to be made if you don’t roster on enough staff to give that sort of service. Physical staff costs are the biggest killer of the industry, but for us this is more than just a business. If you are doing it only for the money then you might as well become a lawyer or something! (which was my original career plan)

GQ: Why do you think cocktails are so popular these days?

SA:There are certainly more bars dedicated to the cocktail experience than you had before. I think people are coming into bars like this; and there are so many bars like these popping up in Sydney at the moment; that people are getting more and more into cocktails and are continuing to receive a better and better  experience.

As for making cocktails at home, I think just like home cooking shows off your kitchen skills, being able to make a cocktail demonstrates a certain skill level and gives far more satisfaction when you are complimented on something you have created for your guests versuss receiving a compliment for the caliber of wine you have chosen. 

GQ: So, obviously I need to ask you which is your favourite gin?

SA:Tough one, I think a Miller’s (Martin Miller’s) with tonic is something I love in summer. My default for a Negroni is probably a classic Tanqueray, in martinis it really varies on what martini I’m drinking. So it really depends.

I think the best gin is whatever is in my hand!

GQ: So in your opinion, what makes the difference between a good gin and a great gin?

SA:How it’s served? To me, a great gin should have juniper in it . It should taste of it, I should be able to smell it, it should be the lead flavor  for me.  All gin starts life as vodka until the lead flavor of juniper is distilled into it. The more the juniper disappears the more it becomes just a flavoured vodka.

GQ: Interesting point,  I’ve been wrestling with that with some of the things I’ve been tasting recently.

SA:You call it gin, because gin is the trendy thing to do now, but it’s a marketing decision which is great for gin as flavoured vodkas were great for vodka. I think Absolut sold 20% of their volume as flavoured vodka and probably 80% of their communication was about flavoured vodka. It gives them something to talk about and all these gins give the gin category something to talk about. It helps people get into gin but to me a gin is not about all these pseudo ingredients, it’s about the juniper.

GQ: So why do you think gin has taken off in the way that it has?

SA:I have a bit of a broad view on that, I think if you go back to the vodka boom (I used to import vodka in about 2002) and I look back then to a lot of fashion and all the guys wore the same shirt and it was very much about everybody fitting in,  so drinking vodka is “the fitting in” spirit right? You trade up on brand potentially to stand out a bit but that’s just like buying a suit and shirt that looks the same but is made by a more expensive brand.

Gin by definition is different. Each bottle of gin tastes different. To me, gin is more of an individual drink. Today people are becoming much more individual whether it’s with a beard or a moustache or a bow tie or where you buy your clothing from, people are standing out and have fun with individual tastes more now than they did 10 years ago and I think gin plays right into that.

Gin remains a super easy to drink spirit, it’s not too challenging, it’s not like scotch whisky! It goes great in mixers and cocktails, it’s not like your palate has to grow up tremendously with gin, but it allows you to make a statement about who you are and have some individuality. From the bars perspective gin has always been our no. 1 selling spirit since we opened 4 and half years ago.

GQ: Do you think there is room for more gin brands?

SA:I think as with vodka there is going to be a period of time where loads and loads and loads of brands come on the market which is great!  A lot of those brands are going to fail because there is only room for so many products in venues and only room for so many products in shops.  In the end I don’t think gin has the potential of scotch whisky where people are going to have 50 bottles at home because they’re not going to be that different. We are going to come to a point where all these gins are going to build up a lot of attention for the category and then with time people will consolidate their choices to  a few big ones and that’s the process we are in at the moment.

GQ : Do you think the Australian gins will make the cut or do you think on a back bar, it will always be Tanqueray,  Hendrick’s, Bombay…?

SA:There’s definitely room for local brands to shoot up and become a staple on a bar in Australia. Whether or not they make it outside the country is a different story, but  you don’t have to make it outside of Australia to be as staple here. But I’d love to see Australian brands make it internationally as well.

Thanks to Sven for giving up his time so freely. (Please note I was not paid for this interview)

Meet Sébastien Derbomez, Brand Ambassador, Hendrick’s Gin

 

I first met Sébastien at a fabulous Hendrick’s evening at The Gin Palace.

It was a great night and Seb was a fantastic host, sharing his knowledge about Hendrick’s and cocktails with so much passion that I wanted to know more about what being a Brand Ambassador for one of the most well-known gin brands is like. Luckily for me Seb was happy to be interviewed! 

How long have you been mixing cocktails?

For almost 10 years now                                                 

Who/what inspires you?

It was my family that gave me the taste of fresh produces and helped me to develop a palate that I now use to create cocktails. But the hospitality industry itself is inspiring every day; you have to be willing to push the boundaries to be successful.

This industry is always changing, packed with innovative people with strong personalities. I have met so many incredible individuals during my career; you need to act like a sponge and learn as much as you can from them trying to create your own ‘universe’.

What’s your favourite gin and why?

Hendrick’s of course! Hendrick’s has a less juniper-dominant flavour profile and uses Bulgarian rose and cucumber as its unique botanical ingredients. It is a superb and utterly unique gin, makes a fantastically refreshing Gin & Tonic!

I love the distinctive ‘medicine bottle’ design and the brand iconography.

What gin cocktail are you asked for most?

The Negroni, has always been a really popular drink at all of the venues I have worked at for all the good reasons, it’s a delightful libation.

Your favourite gin cocktail and why?

The martini, a perfect invention, gin and a touch of French vermouth stirred on ice, served straight up with your favorite garnish. What do I like the most about it? It’s the ultimate drink to start the evening and one of the only cocktail that people can personalise, choose your ratio of vermouth, your garnish, sit back and relax.

A customer has never tried gin before, what gin-based drink would you recommend?

I always check what they usually drink first, to find out if they have a sweet tooth or just like their drink on the sour side for example but I found that the ‘Southside’ cocktail or the ‘Gin Basil Smash’ are really refreshing & flavorful introduction to gin-based drinks. They usually both hit the spot.

What’s the best thing about being the Hendrick’s Ambassador for Australia?

Everything, everyday! Working with Hendrick’s makes each day uniquely different! This is not a classic nine to five job, your phone/email is always on; this is a big commitment. But what a way of living! I feel very privileged and I give 200% everyday as my job has given me an opportunity to travel Australia and New Zealand to establish a network to build the brand.

Hendrick’s gin has played an important role in helping consumers rethink the gin category, stimulating people’s minds as well as their taste buds. It’s a brand like other, and I get to work with such a creative team!

Which are your favourite bars (anywhere in the world)

So many to mention… I really enjoy visiting places like The Artesian in London, their bar team is incredible. I also recently enjoyed Salotto 42 in Rome, really cool place in a superb location. Employees Only in New York is also a long time favorite. In Australia I regularly visit the crew at Baxter Inn in Sydney and always end up at Black Pearl during my regular trips to Melbourne. Eau De Vie is also on my ‘go to’ list.

But if you’re after a world-class selection of Gin with a friendly service to match the experience, then you have to try the Gin Palace in Melbourne.

If you are in any doubt as to the fun Seb has in his day job, check out this promotional video he did for a recent Hendricks’ competition!