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Tales of the Cocktail

Tales of the Cocktail
Tales of the Cocktail Bartender's Challenge
Tales of the Cocktail Bartender's Challenge
Written by Olivier Ward

The 14th edition of Tales of The Cocktail has come to a close and hundreds of the most respected, dedicated and influential bartenders, drinks professionals, media luvvies and cocktail lovers have now left New Orleans.

Going home with many of them is a custom-made, dual gin pack made in collaboration with two of the brightest stars in the drinks industry, Ryan Chetiyawardana & Tristan Stephenson.

The Bartender’s Challenge pack presents two interpretations to a somewhat complicated question: what makes a gin perfect to use in a Martini?

Deliberately designed to be open ended and suggestive, the resulting gins never intended to provide a definitive answer. By doing so, they not only ask what type of gin is best suited, but also ask questions about what makes a good Martini in the first place. It is such an iconic and deceptively simple cocktail, yet so difficult to perfect. From specific ratios to mixing techniques and personal preferences - the perfect Martini is as ephemeral as it is elusive.

The gins, at 100mls each, may be small, but they pack a mighty punch and took months upon months to create. When we started the project we made a checklist of all of the hiccups that could prevent the gins arriving at their Tales of the Cocktail destination, a somewhat daunting 4000 miles away from the Gin Foundry office.

The list was alarmingly long, with 16 potential pitfalls ahead that could cause delay, cost and complication. We knew, though, that even if we struck out and every bit of bad luck happened, there would be enough time to get the gins to New Orleans. Just. Plus, how likely was it that everything that could go wrong, would go wrong?

Turns out, very likely. Not only did our list of potentials turn into a list of predictions, but a few more curve balls were added. When the gin finally arrived – a good 10 days after we’d hoped – all the help that could be found were called into action. With considerable assistance from Tales of The Cocktail’s agile Cocktail Apprentice and heroic efforts from the Uncorked import team, without whom it would not have been possible at all – the gin was unveiled.

Both Gins were made in London using separately distilled botanicals. Fractional method helped both Ryan and Tristan to tailor and tweak the recipe towards an end outcome without having to distil a new batch each time. For the sake of fair comparison, both were cut to the ABV of 45%.

A total of 30lt of each Gin were made, making this pack one of the smallest ever Gin releases in the US. While this wasn’t part of the reason for doing a small batch, the limited edition, one-off nature of the release combined with the quantity available (and the fact that the Gins themselves are phenomenal) has created a whirlwind that means that the majority have already been claimed by cocktail connoisseurs. Fair warning, snap them up fast if you are interested - they will not be around for very long.

So what’s do the gins contain?

Each gin in the pack tackles two elements of the Martini equation. The gin made in collaboration with Ryan (named Mr Lyan’s Icebreaker Gin), takes on the classic, stirred down and served with an olive version of the cocktail.

His gin contains a heavier dose of herbs like fennel to compliment a dominant trio of traditional gin botanicals like juniper, coriander seed, angelica and cassia bark.

To add to this, London borage honey was distilled and layered into the mix. As a distillate, honey doesn’t keep its viscosity, but it does help provide a rich mouthfeel. In the case of this gin, it allows the end Martini to have an enviable weight while also providing a smooth finish despite the relatively high ABV.

The last two ingredients are as different to each other as they are important to what makes the gin great in a classic Martini. Sumac & Lemon peel. The former provides a depth of finish that is hard to attribute to any particular spice, keeping you captivated, while the lemon peel brings some much needed lift and levity to the nose.

Tristan’s Gin on the other hand, (named Tales with a Twist Gin), takes on the role of being tailor made for a Martini that is shaken and served with a twist. As a zest was an understood part of the end cocktail, the gin itself contains no direct citrus and focuses on botanicals that can be accentuated by or help enhance a citrus garnish.

For example, there is a slightly heavier dose of coriander seed to provide that citric-yet-spiced depth, along side lemon-thyme for an upfront zesty and fresh aroma. Rhubarb, cranberries and blackcurrant form the heart of the gin, both providing an almost jammy flavour while also adding their unique dualities. Rhubarb can easily sway into flavours similar to caramelised orange peel, while the caustic flavours of cranberries can be reminiscent of lime. Blackcurrant is perfectly enhanced by a lemon peel and so formed the final berry in the medley. Anchoring the gin is black mustard seed, underpinning the juniper and angelica root and ensuring a depth of finish. Our preference is to serve it with a grapefruit peel, but having tried a few (for research we promise!) - there are many variations that work.

We feel they deliver perfectly in their respective fields, while also helping to promote further conversation around what an ideal martini looks like and why it is important to not only celebrate the subjective nature of both bartender and guest preferences, but to nurture this.

No-one expects two burgers to be identical in different restaurants, despite their inherent similarities. It is precisely this variation that makes us love one restaurant over another. For too long, standardised and often regimented opinions about how a martini should be made have been the norm. Many bars were trying to replicate almost identical formulas and in doing so lost many of the idiosyncrasies and personality they are now being admired for once again. There needed to be a backlash against the disco-tini era, where anything could become a “Martini“. That was certain.

In the counter movement, credibility was restored to the drink (and to the drinks industry), but during the course many forgot that there was never just one accepted way of making it. There has never been a perfect ratio and no one size fits all approach when it comes to the Martini. It evolved over the years, with no one remaining staunchly attached to one recipe. Moreover, great martinis have always been an example of how a spirit, a fortified wine and mixing method needed to be picked, paired and honed in order to create the perfect outcome.

The pendulum will always swing from one direction to another and 2016 may well be the year where there is a bit of relaxation about what can be served, without it progressing back into “appletini” territory either.

Hopefully these two interpretations of gins continue this much needed dialogue around what can be made and can prove that many styles, flavour profiles and ways of making a gin martini can be equally good. We hope it will allow many to question what they themselves enjoy about the iconic cocktail and encourage them to explore this further.

After all, Tales of the Cocktail shows each year that the industry is made better by the vibrant, diverse and inclusive nature of all those who work in it. It’s great because we celebrate individuality, but not at the expense of shared values around great quality, service and authenticity.

The industry is made better through more people respectfully challenging a status quo and looking to build upon what their peers have achieved before. Most importantly, it is made better by more Martinis.


The Tales of the Cocktail Bartender’s Challenge Gin is exclusively available from Keife & Co. in New Orleans and to Tales 365 members.

Our sincere thanks also goes to the Tales of the Cocktail team for inviting us to be a part of this project. It has been an honour.

Tales of the Cocktail Bartender's Gin pack