Katharine Gemmell will be following our DRAM Mixxit Bar Apprentices of the Year 2016 each week as a quasi-contestant to experience the competition and let us know what they have been up to.
Today’s session turns our attention to a more in-depth look at certain spirits on Maxxium’s drinks catalogue. To my disdain, we are greeted first thing in the morning with the bar lined up for a vodka tasting. My stomach churns at the thought of vodka at 10am, but my fellow apprentices are made of sturdier stuff and throw themselves right into the smelling of the ‘little water’. As I take a sniff, I immediately knock my head back and flinch at the smell. David tells us that I have committed the mortal sin of tasting spirits – in knocking my head back I have also essentially knocked out my sense of smell as it is a very delicate. He stresses that you will get more out of it if you give it a chance, as tasting is primarily ruled by our sense of smell and only secondarily by our taste buds.
The apprentices are well aware that vodka is an important spirit in the cocktail business; it is immediately agreed that it is the best selling spirit in most establishments and popular for its minimal taste and alcohol content. But there doesn’t seem much excitement from anyone at the prospect of a vodka tasting. David laughs as he explains the American legal definition of vodka is a drink with ‘no distinctive flavour, taste or character’. We all look around at each other and wonder what the point of a vodka tasting actually is? However, David convinces us that vodka is actually a very interesting spirit and the legal definition does not do it justice. It immediately becomes a lot more interesting to everyone as we learn about the different types of grain that can make vodka and how this affects the flavour.
Maxxium’s three vodka products are Stolichnaya, Elit and Snow Leopard. The products have extremely interesting background stories, which we all furiously note down on our notepads. This is some great knowledge to talk to customers about and help upsell the products. So how, then, can bartenders upsell vodka when there is this myth surrounding it that it is all tastes the same? David stresses that with vodka it is all about the branding and the marketing – people buy it because of what it says about them. This makes it the perfect product to up-sell as it’s not about gaining more flavour, but about gaining more status. We then turn our attention to an attempt at making the classic vodka Martini. Top tips include the difference between wet and dry, and that James Bond was all wrong when he asked for shaken not stirred. All of these tips are now little weapons in our repertoire which we can use on our customers.
The next spirit in the spotlight is rum and we explore and taste a variety of Brugal products: Añejo, Especial and 1988. The bottle of 1988 is quite a treat to my fellow contestants as their eyes sparkle at getting to try the very expensive bottle. Interestingly, we find out that compared to the 5% angels share that comes off of Scottish whisky, Brugal loses 10% to the angels due to the temperature in the Dominican Republic.
To finish off the afternoon our cocktail making session focuses on ‘The Essential Stir’. This is used for some of the world’s most sophisticated cocktails and is apparently where drink making gets its Zen. Loren is first up and uses the vodka Martini build and recipe that we learned earlier and substitutes it with gin, exhibiting nice versatility with the recipes. I start to feel very special as it seems the contestants keep picking me to be the taster – I don’t think they realise that I’m even more inexperienced than them! Sandy is then given a hard challenge: to make David’s favourite cocktail and get him to judge it. The hardest challenge is remembering what it was, but Sandy takes it in his stride and serves David a beautifully crafted drink up to his standards. We finish off by being given homework for the rest of the week. Each contestant has to take a Maxxium product and compare it to a similar product and then present their findings to next week’s master mixologists.
Until next week!