Since I’m back in my hometown of Birmingham for about six weeks before I move back to the US, I thought I’d better make the most of being here by exploring the local drinks scene, and finding out what it has to offer. Despite being the UK’s second city, Birmingham has an unfortunate reputation for being a bit underwhelming in the cultural department, and has trailed behind other cities like Manchester, Edinburgh, and Bristol in the variety of entertainment and nightlife it can offer. Whenever I mention to another English person that I come from Birmingham, I’m inevitably met with a raised eyebrow and a slight, but unmistakeable air of discomfort. But the city has been hauling itself up over the last decade or so, and for a cocktail enthusiast like me, there’s a lot going on around here – local distilleries, a profusion of new cocktail bars, and some excellent specialist shops. In an effort to better acquaint myself with the local scene and the drinks industry in general, I lined up a few drinks professionals to talk to about their jobs – all of which I’m very envious of.
First up, I met with Carl Hawkins, a gin expert, bar consultant, and brand ambassador for the locally made Martin Miller’s gin, who runs popular gin masterclasses and workshops in Birmingham under the moniker ‘The Gintleman.’ Hawkins has been in the business, running cocktail bars since 1998, well before the current trend for craft cocktails got underway. He worked firstly at the Terence Conran-run Zinc Bar and Grill, moving on to Red, one of Birmingham’s first speakeasy bars, and was instrumental in the formation of the Birmingham Association of Bartenders, an industry networking group which is still going strong with over 1000 members. In 2009 he set up Jekyll & Hyde, an award-winning pub and gin parlour in central Birmingham which capitalised on the fledgling demand for a more theatrical and spirit-focused type of cocktail. “Looking at gin, it appealed to all age ranges, both sexes, and from a demographic point of view, rich and poor alike,” Hawkins says of the gap in the market which allowed Jekyll & Hyde to become such a success – one of the first dedicated gin bars in the coutnry. The name was doubly fitting – both for the ability of alcohol to change a person’s personality, but also because Sir Joseph Jekyll, whose family name was used in Robert Louis Stevenson’s book, was the sponsor of one of several eighteenth century Gin Acts in 1736, which aimed to crack down on gin consumption by taxing it out of existence. The act was eventually repealed by a later, less harsh law, but overall the Gin Acts did have the fortunate side effect of raising the quality of gin. The setting and surroundings of the pub, in a part of the city centre dominated by the law courts, police station, and children’s hospital, lent itself nicely to the idea of a “Victorian gin palace,” or gin parlour, as he rechristened it. Hawkins’ interest in gin coincided with a rise in awareness of the traditionally British spirit in the early 2000s, when new brands were starting to come into being which placed an emphasis on associations with England’s history. The emergence of companies like Plymouth Gin, which was at the vanguard of gin’s surge in popularity, sparked his “small collection of around 30 gins” at Jekyll & Hyde, which of course only grew from there. Undoubtedly the bar has been influential in Birmingham, which now boasts three dedicated “gin spaces,” (soon to be four with the opening of the Langley’s bar in January) as well as numerous other cocktail bars.
The changes in the drinks industry since his start in the late 90s have been tremendous. “Obviously there’s been the craft cocktail movement, a lot of which is down to deregulation, allowing manufacturers to be a lot more independent,” says Hawkins. Meanwhile the last couple of decades have also seen the explosion of the internet: “people are doing a lot more research online. In theory, you don’t need to leave your own city – the world can come to you. Bartenders are being inspired by cities like London to create more outlandish drinks.” Since Facebook and Instagram have become the means to document exciting food and drinks, there is much more of a demand, Hawkins notes, for drinks with a theatrical serve. With the explosion of the market for gin, social and educational events are also becoming incredibly popular. “Gin festivals are selling out on a regular basis, and we’re seeing more and more pop-up gin festivals,” joining the ranks of food festivals and those held for spirits with a more long-established fanbase like whiskey.
Hawkins’ own gin classes and talks offer gin flights and tastings of various permutations of the gin and tonic, which also pick up on the longer tradition of wine and whiskey education. People are now taking the kind of attitude to gin which they did to wine in the 1980s – everyone wants to have a base level of knowledge so that they can approach the vast gin market with some confidence. Hawkins’ genial raconteur persona allows him to regale his audiences with the historical anecdotes and fun tidbits that the story of gin has in abundance. “I try to cover the historical timeline, from genevers to Old Toms to London drys, to the renaissance of the gin industry with Plymouth gin in 1999. It’s about weaving that story tapestry – how gin has woven itself into the fabric of British history over the last 300 years – in an adult version of school, and giving them alcohol along the way!… A lot of people have grown up with Gordon’s and Schweppes and those slices of lemons you get in a jar, so that’s the reference point for a lot of people. It’s all about teaching people – why do you put ice in your gin and tonic? Why do you serve it in a balloon glass? There are all sorts of stories about gin, and the beauty of the gin category is that you can throw loads of interesting facts at them, and they can then tell those stories to whoever comes over for a G&T.” Indeed, Hawkins explains to me why gin and tonics are now commonly served in balloon glasses, an anecdote which has emerged from his researches for a Spanish gin tasting – apparently the chefs at El Bulli used to drink G&T’s in the hot kitchen as way to cool down, served in burgundy glasses with tons of ice. Spain, he goes on to tell me, is one of the largest gin consumers in the world, with teenagers drinking gin and coke on nights out, and the history of gin in Spain goes back to their production of it for British sailors stationed in Menorca in the 1800s. I can certainly see why his talks have such appeal – he weaves a fascinating narrative out of these stories.
As an expert on a spirit which has seen such a meteoric rise in popularity over the last decade or so, Hawkins inevitably wonders about the future of the trade. Although he admits that the explosion of gin shows no signs of stopping. “I do think we have reached saturation, and you wonder where the next big thing is. Of the gins which have come out in the last couple of years, there will probably be one or two which attain a level of buzz and will make it through. A lot of gins simply won’t be there, especially since it’s now being done as a sort of craft project in small batches, and they just don’t have the marketing. So they’ll become farmers’ market gins. If you take a look at the Ginventory app, there are over 2000 gins on there – you’d have to be Rain Man to be in control of all of that. What I think about when I do gin tastings is the flavour profile – are they spicy, or are they citrus? Is the packaging high quality? Can it stand up in a G&T?”
So what’s the next big thing in the world of gin? “The rise of tonic waters! The market is no longer just Schweppes and Britvic as it was prior to about 2005 – we’re moving into flavoured tonic waters. There are distinct camps in terms of flavour profiles – the next generation is now starting to drink premium gins and they want the tonic to go with it.” Hawkins is evangelical about the importance of mixers, especially since the gin and tonic, which he sees as the test of a good gin, is 75% tonic water. He’s currently got a collection of around 80 tonic waters, testament to its importance in his work. 1724 Tonic Water is a personal favourite, and he’s also a fan of ginger beer as a substitute with certain gins. It’s also possible, he explains, that people will start to think of gin as being more like whiskey, and get into aged genevers, which might be substituted for whiskey in many classic cocktails. On a related note, Hawkins is also hot on the trail of the ascendant Japanese gin industry; Japan’s first gin distillery has been granted a license only this year. The brand new release from Kyoto Distillery, Ki No Bi (“The Beauty of the Seasons”), uses a rice spirit base, with botanicals including yuzu, Japanese cypress wood, bamboo, and gyokuro tea. Will this herald the beginning of a Japanese influence akin to that of Nikka and Yamazaki in the world of whiskey?
Beyond the G&T, Hawkins is of course experienced with more elaborate cocktails from his own work with Jekyll & Hyde and other Birmingham bars, so we eventually moved on to the subject of cocktail menus and what goes into creating them. “I think there are two main camps, really, the ones that are relatively easy to make, where you’ve got three or four ingredients and they are classics for a reason. But then you’ve got the other more theatrical side of cocktails, where it becomes a Michelin star serve – this is made famous by places like Nightjar, and the Edgbaston hotel in Birmingham, where it really becomes an immersive experience. When you’re spending that much on a cocktail, it becomes a real investment for people. I like to see creativity, I like to see theatre, and one of the keys with a cocktail bar is the interaction – you can’t get too pretentious or stuffy. I’d like to see it come full circle – bars should be like a second home for people, you should feel comfortable in them.” I mention the tendency to use increasingly obscure ingredients in cocktails, and to make drinks which are to many people’s tastes quite unapproachable – extremely bitter, for example: “I call it the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome, where you pick these obscure ingredients – angel’s tears and unicorn saliva and so on. I think they’re trying to copy the high end restaurants, but from a consumer point of view, there’s that risk of disparity, where you feel like you’re getting mugged off. Lots of fancy ingredients but it doesn’t necessarily translate to the overall experience.”
So with all these various strings to his bow, what’s the best part of being a gin expert? “It’s so rewarding to get a room of 20 people, and two and a half hours later, they’re a bit tipsy, and they leave able to create a really good G&T at home, with confidence.” What better teaching experience could there be?
Thanks so much to Carl for sitting down and talking to me about his (amazing) job, and if you’re in the Birmingham area and fancy a gin tasting, you can find all his details at his website, http://www.thegintleman.com/, or on Instagram as @thegintlemanuk.