To continue with our series of conversations and try to gain some insight into the on-trade, it was only natural to talk to one of London’s most frequent bar visitors – the ever charming Emma from Gin Monkey, whose website is currently continuing its rapid climb to the top of every drinks enthusiasts must read list.
Hello! Let’s get stuck right in… Gin Monkey started just over a year ago and has grown to be unbelievably successful – what made you want to do it in the first place and why do you think it’s taking off so quickly now?
I’m completely overwhelmed with how things are going. I started the blog because when I moved to London I struggled to find a good cocktail bar. Websites tended to review all bars, and certainly didn’t review the bars primarily based on the quality of the cocktails. I therefore saw a gap in the market and started writing, but I never had any idea it would take off quite as well as it has done!
Most people come across my site when looking for reviews of the bars I’ve written about. What I’m thrilled about is the fact that these people increasingly seem to be coming back to find information about other bars to go to. I think the cocktail culture boom has a lot to do with the fact that the website has taken off quite so quickly over the last few months. Also, there have been a lot of new bars opening which helps me to drive traffic to my site by reviewing them.
Without a doubt these are all true, and obviously you’re not going to blow your own trumpet but the amount of content and effort that goes into must also count for a lot of the success. Do you find it hard to keep the reviews impartial and avoid preferential treatment now that more people know who you are?
It’s definitely more difficult than it used to be, especially due to the fact that I like to go along to spirit tastings… but there are a few rules I try to stick to, which includes not going to bar launches for press. To be honest that’s pretty much common sense for me though, as I’m never going to get a true impression of the bar at these events anyway – much better to give them a few months to settle into things first.
Talking of reviewing – what’s the best bar menu you know of for gin based cocktails?
In terms of the knowledge of the staff, the range and the cocktails (both on and off menu) if it’s gin cocktails you want then there’s no better than Graphic. Whilst I’ve had marvellous gin cocktails elsewhere (Callooh Callay , Hide Bar, London Cocktail Club) I’ve never come across a decent gin cocktail they don’t know how to make at Graphic!
Sarah and the team always have our vote too. Apart from bars you also go to a lot of brand lead events – do any stand out?
For me there are two different types of events one for trade and the other for the public. First there are the ones that give you a lot of interesting information about a brand that you otherwise wouldn’t come across. A good example of this for me was a recent Beefeater Gin tasting at Graphic with master distiller Desmond Payne. A lot of this is dependent on the quality of your speaker though, which is why brands such as Four Roses and Bloom Gin are also lucky to have great master distillers: Jim Rutledge and Joanne Moore. Both are brilliant craftsmen, passionate about what they do and therefore great speakers. Other brands have fantastic brand ambassadors to do some of this role, great examples include Stef from El Dorado, Xavier from Hendrick’s – they have put on some of the best consumer focused events I’ve ever been to.
The second type of event that brands get involved in are more ‘showy’. With a lot more money and staging involved these tend to be one off or short term ventures aimed at making a big bang and giving people more of an experience. Very good examples of this have been the Hendrick’s courtship clinics and Horseless Carriage, Courvoiser’s Complete History of Food with Bompas and Parr, and Absolut “I’m not here” screenings. Very difficult to pull off well, they are a bit of a gamble as for as many great nights I have been to I have encountered many more average and downright terrible examples too…!
I think each type has value in their own right and offer something a bit different to the consumer experience and education, both are equally important for brands in their marketing.
Completely agree, finding the right balance is key. Whilst we’re on the subject; mixing brand education with interesting campaigns is difficult as it can sometimes be either really dry and predictable or creative but confusing… Which (gin) brands are getting it right?
I love the quirkiness behind the Hendrick’s campaigns. I guess its easy if you choose such a specific theme, but everything they do is done to a fantastically high standard. Then there’s Sipsmith who I love because of their passion for making truly great products. It’s such a small operation that everyone’s involved and everyone loves what they do. In many ways they are similar to Chase – they both have such personal ties to the brand that they’d never release anything they weren’t completely happy with and that wasn’t exceptionally brilliant.
However things can go wrong very easily and for me Bloom has unfortunately gone a bit too off the beaten track in their advertising for my liking. Their most recent campaigns have involved giving out face packs and pampering products as competition prizes… whilst I know this gin is mainly targeted at women I don’t think it’s appropriate or good business sense to primarily direct all of their marketing to just one sex… it only re-inforces the stereotype that gin is a womans drink and is not for men which is pretty irritating.
Continuing on with this differentiation between brand and spirit – Taste aside, what’s your favourite gin brand?
Ooo, tough to choose between the three I mentioned in the last answer,..but I think it has to be Hendrick’s Gin for their wonderful quirkiness.
Popular choice and rightly so! Which is your least favourite gin brand?
Probably a toss up between Hoxton Gin and Bombay Sapphire. Hoxton is too weird and out there for me, I have no idea who thought gin and coconut was ever a good idea… it’s not!
How about the opposite (based solely on taste) – do you have a particular gin flavor profile you go for – London Dry, Sweeter, more citric notes/ floral etc…?
A a rule, London Dry with a nice hit of juniper. The more citrus gins are also good. I enjoy how some of the interesting New Western styles of gin can instantly give more interesting and unusual flavors to a cocktail too. I guess for me I choose gin depending on the cocktail and the occasion rather than just one style as a rule.
What’s you favorite G&T gin and why?
Enough with the difficult questions!!! Erm… I guess something like Gordons Gin or Beefeater. Not too fussy but nice and ginny. Gordons was the first gin I ever really drunk so it’s as much nostalgia as anything for me, plus pretty much anywhere you go they’ll have a bottle. Any of the entry market 40% gins as a rule I guess, except Bombay, please don’t give me Bombay!
Onto the more complicated stuff - What’s your favourite classic gin cocktail?
Ha difficult question for a gin monkey!! It changes on pretty much a weekly basis. As a rule you can’t go wrong with a well made Martini, but at the moment I’m obsessed with the Last Word.
Very nice! It’s been a busy year for you as along with a few others you also founded the London Cocktail Society – in a snapshot what is it?
It’s a group for amateur enthusiasts that like to drink cocktails. We offer the chance for ordinary punters to try out new brands and learn about techniques in a way usually only open to journalists and trade. It’s a lot of fun and everyone who loves cocktails and lives in London should sign up! (you can do so here)
We’ve been asking around with a mixed response, usually dependent on the level of cynicism about marketing… however given that you’ve founded an entire group around cocktails, it would be great to hear your thoughts… There has been a strong cocktail resurgence in the past 2-3 years (arguably longer) and the same has been happening with gin – the two are obviously benefiting one from another’s renewed interest but do you think one caused the other?
It’s been really nice over the past few years to see may mainstream cocktail menus moving from long vodka drinks to more interesting spirits and a larger variety of styles. In the past year or two I think TV shows such as Mad Men have had a huge impact on cocktail culture, suddenly bringing cocktails such as the Old Fashioned, Manhattan and Martini into fashion once more.
I think the cocktail resurgence has also had something to do with people exploring and appreciating different flavours in their drinks. For a long time we have experimented with, and come to expect interesting flavours in our food, however drinks (as ever) have been a little behind. We have bartenders like Tony from Colebrooke Row to thank for bringing culinary ideas and techniques to drinks. I think that this in turn led to people looking for interesting flavours in their drinks rather than just in their food.
Gin shines through in this respect as there is no other spirit category that is as diverse, especially with all of the New Western styles which sit alongside the more traditional London Dry’s, Genevers and Old Tom styles.
Finally – What’s next for Gin Monkey?
This year I’m hoping to focus more on a site called Cocktail Monkey. Its in collaboration with a very good friend who works behind a London bar and aims to be more of a cocktail repository and spirit information site. Its been a long time in the planning, so hopefully we can get around to content asap.
Other than that I’ve recently been invited to provide coverage of this years G’vine gin connoisseur programme which I’m absolutely over the moon about (even though I’m having major issues spelling connoisseur!!). Not only does it mean that I get to spend a week in Cognac, but I’ll be hanging out with industry legends Gaz Regan and Phillip Duff and learning a lot about gin – exciting times!
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, it’s been great to have the chance to find out a little more about life behind the Gin Monkey scenes - oh, and see you at the next London Cocktail Society event!