What unites Catriona Felstead, senior buyer at Berry Brothers & Rudd, England’s oldest wine and spirit merchant, with Dave Broom, the Glaswegian sage of spirits?
For starters, both are successful and respected members of the drinks trade with a good few years of hard graft under their belts. On top of that, they both joined a panel of drinks experts at Borough Market for the latest in the Borough Talks series of food and drink-related discussions, entitled how to join the drinks revolution.
Naturally the terms “craft” and “drinks scene” bounced from the market’s iron tracery during the debate, though not without careful scrutiny from the panellists. Felstead also touched on the ubiquity of the term “artisanal” for describing wine, and the pull of a story for a breed of shoppers who “don’t just care about the wine, they want to know the name of the producer’s dog.”
The discussion turned from provenance, to providing nuggets of wisdom for those starting out in the drinks industry. Many will be heartened to hear that both Felstead and Broom cut their teeth at high-street wine shop Oddbins (as I did).
The phrases “do your time” and “get stuck in” stood out as simple but practical tips for those trying to get into the industry. Felstead credited her experience as a store manager for confirming her enthusiasm for wine, allowing her to taste widely and to fraternise with fellow oenophiles.
Selling wine aside, the similarities between panellists didn’t seem to end. Spirits expert and author Dave Broom told us that he left university with a languages degree, unsure of the next step to take, but keen to give the drinks trade a shot. Catriona Felstead read French and Spanish and packed in a lucrative career in petrochemicals to make the brave leap into the wine trade.
What of our other panelists, Dan Tapper and Tony Conigliaro? The former, before foraging raspberries around Leeds to create a sour beer at his nano-brewery the Beak, was studying a sociology degree. Conigliaro, the wizard of the London cocktail scene and mastermind behind three acclaimed bars: 69 Colebrooke Row, Bar Termini and Untitled, was an art student.
So, these are the fertile minds shaking up the drinks trade.
Then the key to success in the drinks trade is a leap of faith and an arts degree? Well, perhaps not, but it’s sure to come in handy when you’re puzzling over the liquid in front of you; considering its origins, opportunities for development and creativity. At the end of the day, drinks are pretty conceptual, aren’t they? There is a lot to be found in a glass, if you look hard enough and taste hard enough.
Yes, there is art in it, and science too. Innovation in drinks, as Dave Broom put it, is “the science of flavour” and our panellist Tony Conigliaro is no stranger to that. A cocktail inspired by the sensation of eating a falling snowflake might seem pretentious to some, but there’s a beauty in the combination of science and flavour in the name of an artistic vision.
Conigliaro offered us a glimpse into his world at Borough Market, and showed that there’s a sense of fun at the heart of the Drink Factory, his flavour workshop. From the outside, standing at the gates, we can only imagine what goes on as this Willy Wonka and his madcap drinks-scientists cause chaos in the lab:
“Needs more chalk” one might shout, “… and can you pass the clay?”
I’ve no doubt that Tony Conigliaro’s Drinks Factory is ten times more orderly than my imaginings. With fewer Oompa Loompas. After all, Conigliaro assures the audience that “to create chaos, you need a lot of order.”
Perhaps the reverse is true for starting out in this industry? Insight from the Borough Talks panellists might well encourage those with a curious mind and keen tastebuds to enlist and join the drinks revolution to fight in the name of flavour. Not a bad idea, as our panel agreed, this is an open and exciting industry to work in. But be wise, you’re going to have to get your nose in a glass, and get stuck in.
Sooner or later you’ll find some method in the madness.