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A Dram Good Bartender...

What makes a Dram Good Bartender? In our opinion somebody who is up for re-inventing the taste of whisky by putting it into a cocktail. Whisky and Coke, its time for a change. Whisky cocktails, are ye aff yer heed? We don't think so. Whisky cocktails are a new taste sensation, presenting exciting opportunities for bartenders to broaden whisky's appeal away from an older and ageing consumer base. We have visited the best bars to profile the leading mixologists who are pushing boundaries and creating innovative whisky based drinks.

Stuart Fritz, Manager of LAB Bar in London

Simon and Franchi dropped in on London based Australian Stuart Fritz, manager of Soho's LAB bar (London Academy of Bartending).  Stuart recently won the Domaine De Canton Bartender of the Year competition which took place on the Carribbean island of St Martin. $10,000 richer he is on a roll and so I ask whether he has any other awards he is planning on winning?

‘This year I would like to take out the Appleton Reserve Mixology Challenge competition, there is the Havana Club Grand Prix, and there is also the Jack Daniels Cocktail competition, so they are the three that I would like to do this year.’  Stuart appears to be in match shape, but are there any whisky based competitions to be won I wonder?‘ Another one that has come up lately that I’m going to put myself forward for is the Auchentoshan Switch, and it’s using the Three Wood, but its also using Bowmore…’ Tailing off he starts to envisage the prize... ‘The winning prize is a switch from a bartender in New York, so they will come over here [to work in 69 Colebrooke Row] and I would go over to New York [to work in Apotheke] if fingers crossed I win.’ 'How long would that switch be for?' I gently enquire. ‘2 weeks!’ 'And when does it take place?' (I’m starting to envisage the prize myself'). ‘Well, there’s an internal competition between our guys at LAB, and the winner of LAB will go through to the other 12 key accounts of Auchentoshan, up just outside of Glasgow at the distillery [where] they have the national competition and then that winner becomes a wildcard entry with another incentive scheme that they are running so its quite a complicated one and we will see how we go.’ 'Well good luck!’ I add while carefully filing the competition details in my mind.

“We are in the industry called hospitality and so we should be hospitable, not hostile.”— Stuart
Why did you decide to become a mixologist?

‘I was studying Chemistry at University and during my studies the hours to work were Friday and Saturday and that was either work in a kitchen or work in a bar.  I worked in a kitchen for a year and I didn’t like it too much so I started to, eh, work on the bar, and working on the bar I finished my degree and came to the UK to have a bit of a gap year, and I got stuck doing it and I just really enjoyed mixing and drinking and getting involved and being more of a character than being behind the scenes.’

So could one draw comparisons between a Chemistry degree and mixology?

‘Well, you can’t taste what you make in a lab, and there are a lot less fluorescent lights in a bar.  The age of the crowd is also a lot younger than what you will find in a lab, but in terms of a bit of this and a bit of that it does come into play, and it certainly helps out with product knowledge and production knowledge, so distillation, separation, ageing... to [help] understand those processes.’

'It is funny that you should end up working in a LAB nonetheless' I propose. ‘Yeh’, he laughs ‘that’s what my mother said.’

What personal qualities do you believe the job of mixologist requires; what are the main attributes or qualities that the person must possess?

At this point a rather loud Scottish lady starts to holler down the far end of the bar and somebody switches on some background music.

‘I believe they shouldn’t be a prude, they should be engaging, they should have the qualities to actually make somebody feel welcome, they shouldn’t be up themselves in their own right, yes they may know more than the customer but the point is to educate the customer, not to belittle them on front of their peers.  I think that you should possess an amount of knowledge you can pass on but not use it to better yourself or to make yourself seem better. I’m seeing a large trend at the moment where people are starting to …. No!’ (pausing Stuart is suddenly distracted by a waitress who has appeared on his right with a question from his girlfriend ‘Sorry’ she enquires 'What’s your Mum’s maiden name?’  Regaining his composure Stuart continues ‘So, I’m seeing a trend lately where a lot of bartenders, eh, feel as though the customers are beneath them and I think that is the wrong way to look at it.  We are in the industry called hospitality and so we should be hospitable, not hostile, so that’s my main thing, and I want the guys to have their head’s up, smile, and look at all of their customers and actually engage them and not be afraid of them.’

Tell us about your first whisky experience?

‘That was my mother, and her three whiskies in the cupboard at all times were Oban, Lagavulin and Taliske,r so they were her three, quite a difference when it came to the Oban and then the Islay and the Islander, but they were my first experiences.  It was the Lagavulin that really got me started.’

So what age would you have been and where were you at the time?

‘I was 15 and I was in the Bahamas.’ ‘Nice! That’s a’right’ pipes up Franchi, ‘I wish I was in the Bahamas at 15.’ So your Mum’s liquor cabinet is in the Bahamas aswell? I ask somewhat incredulously. ‘It was, although she is back in Australia now.’ ‘Oh, ok' (my face falls’. ‘It was also where I was introduced to rum, but that’s a side point.’

So is that to say that your Mother carefully introduced you to whisky, or that you…?

‘No, no I didn’t raid her cabinet when she went on holidays; it was her inviting me to have a drink with her during sunset.

Keen to understand a little bit more about Mrs Fritz I enquire as to her background, and why she had those whiskies? ‘She travelled Europe a lot more, she had a more discerning palate than my Father who always has a carton of beer in the fridge (Franchi murmurs approval), so I picked that up from him, but Mum was always along [the lines of] gin or whisky and I’m not entirely sure why that was.’ Well, that is a great introduction to whisky, I add enviously. ‘Straight into it!’ Stuart concludes.

Of the whiskies that you have here in the bar what is your favourite?

‘Different horses for different courses, there is never one but there is one I could always go back to, and that’s the Caol Isla Distillers Edition.  That is probably my choice, but I am tending towards the Hakashu Heavily Peated at the moment aswell.’

Why do you think whisky should be experienced in a cocktail?

‘It’s unlike a lot of the other categories; it has a greater flavour profile.  Considering all of the whiskies came from the exact same raw material… for them to be so completely different, not just on region but even within the region they are quite distinct’ he muses ‘you have so much play when it comes to the barley and how you toast it, how you distill it, the pots you use, and so I think those expressions should come through to the drink as experienced with cocktails.’  You can tell that Stuart balances his art with science.  ‘Considering it [whisky] was a very important part of the drinking culture, especially in the early 1800’s, I think it should be revitalised now, and it should not just be seen as a golfer’s drink or for after playing lawn bowls, or after hunting with your blood hound, I think there is a lot more to it than just that.’

So in terms of the flavour profile you believe whisky can add a lot to a cocktail?

‘Certainly.  A lot of people are experimenting with the heavier peated whiskies for their smoked elements but there is more to it. In one of our drinks we use Ardbeg as the base but it actually supports the other flavours rather than being the predominant flavour, so it actually balances a lot more than being a very strong, pungent, peated whisky.’ ‘Which cocktail is that?’ Franchi asks. ‘It’s called a “Smokey The Bear”, so it is honey and lemon, egg whites, Domain De Canton and Ardbeg with a smoked sea salt rim.’

Smokey The Bear
Stuart Fritz / LAB Soho, London

Ingredients of the cocktail
30mls Ardbeg 10 Year Old
20ml Domaine De Canton
20ml Lemon juice
1 Egg white
15ml Honey and water (mixture of honey:water 2:1)

Shake hard and double strain (with a tea strainer) into a Chilled Coupe

Chilled Coupe

Mauldons Smoked Sea Salt Rim

Comment Savoury with a smokey twang.

Do you have any other whisky cocktail receipe that you would recommend?

‘I do. One I made you last night, which was “The Brooklyn” which I have started to fall in love with, it consists of Amer Picon, dry Vermouth, and maraschino and then generally rye whisky, but in this instance I have gone for a Scotch, and a bit of a big boy as well; the Glenrothes Select Reserve.’ This sounds interesting. ‘I think that will work out very well’ Stuart decides.

The Brooklyn
Stuart Fritz / LAB Soho, London

Ingredients of the cocktail
40mls Glenrothes Select Reserve
15mls Dry Vermouth
15mls Amer Picon
10mls Maraschino
4 Drops of angostura bitters

Stirred down and strained into a chilled martini glass

Martini glass

Maraschino cherry

Smooth with a sweeter finish

Franchi has a question at this point. 'When you were creating these whisky cocktails what process did you follow, what inspired your creation of these drinks? And not only these drinks, when you are creating your cocktails?

‘You start with the base spirit, then it depends what it’s for, if it is for a certain competition and I have a theme to play with then I will sometimes base a drink on the theme. If I just have an incredible drink that I’ve come up with then I’ll base it on the drink, but I’ll generally try and start with the base and then work off the base and use certain flavour combinations that work, so if there is a greater honey content then I will tend to use (pausing for thought) a little bit of honey but then other flavours that match honey; ginger, lemon, tarragon, other bits and bobs, so it depends on the style as well, but also on the glassware.  If I would like a short drink then I will do certain combinations that can be used in smaller measures for a greater effect, or for a long drink then you will not want to dilute out your main spirit, you will want to use that to pull through any other additives.’

I’m wondering how important glassware is in the enjoyment of a cocktail?

‘I think it is enormous.  You have a brandy snifter which is a perfect example, or sample glasses for whisky which are a very small tulip shape so you can actually centre the focus of the aroma right before your nose, so I think that’s quite important.  A martini glass has a very flat surface area that you can put a zest on which will bring up the drink a lot more, whereas a long drink is a little harder to smell because, one you will have a big straw in your face, and two its generally going to be taken over by ice.’

So would there be a particular glass that you would recommend for a whisky based cocktail?

‘The majority would be a straight up style of drink for whisky, however you can get longer drinks with long fizzes or coolers or whatnot which is more for a long summer style drink which is also another factor.  If you would like a summer drink then you are not going to go for a short, punchy, stirred down classic, you will go for a long cooler or Collins-style drink.’

Your bar LAB has recently had a makeover, what has changed?

‘My protection over certain pieces around the bar since Kyle and I did a lot of the work ourselves, and the other boys helped us, but we’ve completely taken all the floorboards upstairs back to wood and recoated them.  We have taken all the bars back to wood and re-varnished all the tables, re-upholstered all the seats. We have wallpapered to give the space a little bit more of a design element so it is not so bland. ‘70s wallpaper,’ pipes up Franchi. ‘70s! and textured aswell’ Stuart proudly replies, ‘and it is also quite durable because I know it gets hammered. The ladies toilets got a very big makeover which we will hopefully carry over to the gents, but we figure 80% of our clients are female so if we keep the females happy… ‘As with everything in life, as with everything in life,’ Franchi chimes, repeating the point for any ears that might be unaware.  ‘…Exactly, then the guys will stay and they will put up with a little bit more’ agrees Stuart. ‘You’ve changed the name again as well’ Franchi points out. ‘And we’ve got the name back, which is one of our biggest points, back to LAB (London Academy of Bartending) after a year and a half.’  Stuart is clearly happy about this.

‘What about the menu, has that changed?’ (although to be honest I don’t often look at it, preferring to leave it up to the bar staff to surprise me).

‘It has, we have approximately 40 – 50 new drinks which is probably the largest change of a menu in the past four or five years. Eh, a lot of them are mine which only was due to current staff changeover and we did keep a lot from the other guys, but we wanted to make the drinks quicker for service, but also a little bit more playful, a little bit more enjoyable to the bread and butter crowd, rather than just the bartending society which will inevitably ask for what they want anyway, so they will look at our menu for inspiration, but in terms of actually selling the drinks it will be for the general public and so we made it a bit more entertaining with silly names, with some fun products like blue Curacao (Franchi laughs, ‘that is always fun!’). Exactly, I want to see people smile, I don’t want to see them cramped up in the corner with the same old drinks.’

So thinking about the customers, how do you read your customers, how do you make sure that they get the drink they deserve, maybe they don’t know what they want, maybe you think they would be better trying something that they are not asking for…how does that whole customer interaction work?

‘It helps to start…well, if they order first then the next round you would be able to gauge them a little bit better by knowing what they’ve had on their first round.  Obviously talking to them, just a quick hello (he pauses with a wry smile), their personal appearance often sheds a lot of light on what they drink as well, 

if they have a chain under their collar, well they will probably be looking for Red Bull

(I stifle a laugh), but it’s not always the case.  You have your Mojito crowd, which is obviously good for business, but you can turn them off that.  I’m not saying I will ever force somebody to drink what I want them to drink, but I will always give them the option to try something new, and whisky is one of those categories where I do try and enlighten people a little bit more than having the reputation as a Grandfather’s drink.’

What is the usual response when you suggest a whisky based cocktail?

‘It comes with a little bit of trepidation, but in the end a lot of people obviously come here for cocktails so if they know that I am suggesting them something then they will generally put their faith in my hands, and they will….well the response is that you know what you are doing a lot more than I do, so they are willing to give it a go, and I haven’t really had any drinks returned…, and eh, quite a few females have actually turned over to whisky which is a very good sign, and I will be honest when I say that I do high-five any girl that comes to the bar and asks for a sweet Manhattan with a cherry, I will give them a high five straight away!

The World is about to end, what do you drink?

‘I know it sounds silly but I could drink it until the cows come home and it is rum and Coke with a squeeze of lime, and I know it sounds really bad considering what I do.  I like beer, but in terms of spirits then… ‘ Stopping Stuart Franchi asks if there is any rum in particular, and reminds him that the World is going to end and that he can choose his rum. ‘Oh, that’s even worse now’ bemoans Stuart, obviously in a quandary. (Franchi laughs) ‘ooooh, it would have to be a …. it would have to be an aged rum in which case if I ran out of Coke then I could still go for it straight, so I’m not going to put a category on that one!'

Thank you Stuart! Pop in to LAB for a cocktail. You can find it here.