Sipsmith Gin master distiller Jared Brown joins me in this Season Two finale episode.
But we’re not talking about Sipsmith this time (see S1E2 for that!) , because Jared has another, far more interesting title, that of cocktail historian.
With his wife Anistatia Miller, Jared has written more than 30 books on drinks, bars and cocktails.
He’s an absolute encyclopaedia on these topics and a fascinating fellow to chat to, so settle in for a great interview.
As mentioned, this is the last episode of season two. We’re already working on new content so we should be back bigger and better very soon with season three – help us fund it by purchasing your limited edition podcoasters here.
Thank you to our major partner Bintani, Australia’s leading supplier in ingredients for the brewing and distilling industries.
And thanks also to Fever-Tree Premium Mixers for their support of the spirits episodes in this season.
Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Rudists.
Cocktail historian Jared Brown on highballs, vermouth, Brexit and more: Full transcript
JAMES ATKINSON: Jared Brown, thanks so much for joining me on the Drinks Adventures podcast.
JARED BROWN: Wonderful to be here with you.
JAMES ATKINSON: You are a master distiller, but also a cocktail historian. Now, I can imagine that wasn’t really a very established career path before you embarked on it.
JARED BROWN: Well, that was an accident. 1995, the wife and I were travel writers ensconced in Vancouver, BC, where we wrote six books about the area. A friend of ours said, “Hey, you know this internet, I think it’s going to be big. You should get on it. Build a website.” Halloween night, the wife sat in front of the computer. I walk in, she says, “What shall we build a website on?” I was holding two martinis. We put up a martini website expecting to get at least a dozen visits. 2,500 emails that first month, which back then that kind of traffic was enough to crash our service provider four times.
JARED BROWN: The site snowballed in six months. A young editor from HarperCollins publishers in New York, Jeremie Ruby-Strauss, emailed and said, “I love your website. I want to turn it into a book.” That was how the world’s bestselling book on the martini, Shaken Not Stirred, was born. Came out in ’96. It’s done a half a million copies. But before we would let that website go out as a book, we ensconced ourselves in the rare book rooms at Vancouver Public Library and New York Public Library into the historic archives in San Francisco, etc. to ferret out as much as we possibly could on the Martini.
JAMES ATKINSON: You’ve busted a lot of myths along the way. I was reading before this interview about, for example, the origins of the word mixology, which has been credited to Dale DeGroff, but apparently you discovered that it had a much earlier application than that. Funnily enough, Dale DeGroff was just in Australia, and people are still saying that it was him who came up with the word.
JARED BROWN: He was a precocious kid then because I did find it used in print, and I believe defined already in 1948 or thereabouts. I spent… oh, I used to bug the monthly Webster’s dictionary online, and they used to promise they’d fix this, but after about three years, they’ve still got it credited to Dale DeGroff in 1987 or something.
JAMES ATKINSON: Well, I thought it went back to even earlier than that, maybe the 19th century.
JARED BROWN: Mixologist.
JAMES ATKINSON: Right, of course.
JARED BROWN: Mixologist goes back to June of 1857, I believe it was, and it was the Knickerbocker Monthly magazine, a pseudonymous writer, called himself Mace Loper, I give it about a 92 per cent chance that was actually Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, who was writing for them, and he used it as a disparaging term. Anyone would call barkeep a mixologist of tipicular fixings, has a waxed handlebar moustache, a mole skin vest, and a very high impression of himself.
JAMES ATKINSON: Now it’s probably not used as a put down like that.
JARED BROWN: No, now it’s simply used interchangeably but to apply to someone who is devoting themselves to more than just slinging drinks, to someone who is really diving in. It does have a bit of a scientific ring to it, a professorial ring to it. I don’t think that’s inappropriate. I think that’s pretty spot on for a lot of the guys who were out there with a Rotavapor just to work out a top note in their house bitters and that sort of thing. They’re not really just a barkeep.
JAMES ATKINSON: When we last caught up, which was in 2015, you were welcoming the return of simplicity to cocktail making. Has that continued three and a half years later now?
JARED BROWN: I am seeing a lot more simplicity coming up. My guiding quote in all that I do comes from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, who said perfection is achieved not when there’s nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. That really guides the structure of making products that I make. Making drinks, designing cocktails, menus, even venues. So, yes, I am actually seeing a lot of places where they’re cutting back on the gratuitous ingredients.
JAMES ATKINSON: Are there any specific trends that you’re seeing that sort of embody this move back towards simplicity?
JARED BROWN: Definitely. In recent years, even in Japan, they were just re-embracing the highball, and now the highball is everywhere. I was sitting in a restaurant here in Sydney the other night and I glanced over and I saw somebody drinking a highball. Then I looked around and I realised half a dozen people in the room were having whisky highballs, just whisky and soda, perhaps a bit of lemon, frozen mug and a couple of ice cubes.
JAMES ATKINSON: Maybe you could tell us about where the highballs come from originally.
JARED BROWN: The history of the highball is still murky, I’ll say that. But best of the knowledge that we’ve got, did come out of America and it took it’s name from railroad signals where there’s literally a big metal sphere that was next to the track. If it was sat low, you had to stop the train and wait because it meant there was an oncoming train. When it went up, that meant it was all clear. You had a high ball, all systems go. The bars along the rail lines begin serving drink, ice cube floating up in that it was all systems go.
JAMES ATKINSON: You seem to be very much drawn to classicism and classic cocktails and uncovering drinks the way that they used to be made. Are there any contemporary trends that are genuinely new that you’re really happy to embrace?
JARED BROWN: Yes, there are some, but there are a lot that we’re eventually going to discover they did 150 years ago as well. One way or another, of course, they still had to abide by seasonality and regionality. One of the most interesting trends I’m seeing today in this world where we can have the same rum and coke in every on the planet is reaching back to that seasonality and regionality of that localism that previous generations gratefully gave up to have what they’re having across the world. Now, have what’s right here right now in season, and that is what makes things truly special these days. It’s great to see that intruding rapidly behind the bar as well.
JAMES ATKINSON: What are some of the examples of the bars that are really championing that approach? In Sydney we have, I don’t know if you’ve been to Bulletin Place, but they have a seasonal cocktail menu. They come in and write up the cocktail list based on what ingredients they have on hand at that particular time.
JARED BROWN: No, I haven’t checked that one out. Actually, the first one that came to mind was a little bar in the west of England called The Dark Horse on Kingsmead Square in Bath, which is all about seasonal and local, but that’s my wife’s bar. She and her business partner, Louis Lewis-Smith, they’ve just opened a second one in Bristol called Crying Wolf. Both of those focus entirely on this, which is a problem for me because it means I’m losing all the currants from my garden for her creme de cassis for the bar. Any amount of cider that I produce from the garden, it disappears eventually off to the bar. Though right now she’s waiting anxiously because I’m putting in another Rotavapor in the house vacuum still, and she’s got her eye on the cider just ’cause she needs to extract a couple of notes from it.
JAMES ATKINSON: Tell me about the new house, because you just told me you’ve moved. You’ve been living in the Cotswolds for a few years and now you’ve moved to a new location.
JARED BROWN: We were really fortunate to find this 400 year old thatched cottage on an acre out in the countryside that we could actually afford. In 25 years of marriage, we finally got a toehold on the property ladder, and what a toehold. The previous owner lived there 30 years, all his adult life, and when he wasn’t on the road touring, he was Peter Gabriel’s lead guitarist, he was keeping himself sane by throwing himself into the garden. Planted 40 fruit trees, which are all now mature apples, pears, plums, cherries, quinces, meddlers, old rare heritage species there of… He planted two kinds of hops. So, I’ve got huge harvest of Early Bird and Fuggle going, plus wild hops that comes up all around the property from when it was cultivated there a century or two ago.
JAMES ATKINSON: What are you doing with the hops?
JARED BROWN: Oh, I bring it into the office and hand it over to my production team, and they hand me beer back. It’s a very effortless exchange.
JAMES ATKINSON: It hasn’t ended up in gin yet?
JARED BROWN: Oh, it’s ended up in so many different gins. And you know what? It breaks one of my fundamental rules. There is a simple question that I work with of no matter how interesting the idea, how historic the concept, how trendsetting, got to answer the question, is it good? Is it good? Could someone who has no idea what it is sit down and have three of them in a bar, or will they need a load of explanation upfront to have one and then they’ll say, “Well, that was interesting. Can I have a beer?” The sound of ultimate failure. Hops, at least to my experience, has always come across badly in distillation.
JAMES ATKINSON: Now, when you and Sam and Fairfax sat down and made a decision to resurrect London dry gin as it had originally been made, gin was in a very different place then to what it is now. You must look at what you’ve achieved with Sipsmith and say, “Well, job done.” Are there any other underrated or misunderstood spirits that you think are due for a comeback?
JARED BROWN: Wonderful question. There’s one that I’ve been championing for quite a while, but I think it’s nearly job done there as well, and that’s a vermouth.
JAMES ATKINSON: I’ve heard your vermouth rant before and I was going to get onto that, actually.
JARED BROWN: Yeah, it’s a fairly extensive rant on vermouth, because vermouth was absolutely disrespected, misunderstood. There were a few misquotes out there. Winston Churchill liked his Martinis so dry that he would just bow toward France with his glass of straight gin and that was enough, or Noel Coward would raise his glass of straight gin toward Italy. From what I understand, both of them did those motions, but not for the reasons they’re credited with. During the war, the Vichy government was prohibitionist, so there were no vermouth exports out of France. Italy, Mussolini was teetotal. There were no vermouth exports out of Italy. Churchill and coward were raising their glasses toward those countries, not because they didn’t like vermouth, but in the hopes that vermouth would one day return to their martini, that product they couldn’t get at the time. So, that was as close as they could get to having it there.
JAMES ATKINSON: But not only that, it’s been a badly mistreated drink by bars.
JARED BROWN: I thought we’d seen the last one thing, and then I was in Les Arcs in the French Alps, or maybe it was Geneva airport, and behind the bar in this little airport panini shop, I saw a couple of bottles of Martini, of dry and rosso on the back bar with pour spouts, speed pourers stuck with them or stuck in them, breathing. You open a Chateau Margaux, you perhaps let it breathe for 20 minutes. You serve it. If you leave it to breathe for another six months, it’s dead. It’s compost. It’s breathed, it’s rotted, it’s died. Well, I just picked the Chateau Margaux because it’s 0.2% ABV off of Martini. They used to be identical and then Martini beefed theirs up that tiny bit. But vermouth is a wine, breathes, rots, dies. People ask me which is my favourite vermouth. I’ll inevitably say, “The freshest one.” My two favourite sounds in a bar, the pop of a champagne cork and the crack of the seal on a fresh bottle of vermouth, because that means the martinis, the manhattans, will be the best they can possibly be in that bar.
JAMES ATKINSON: How fast does it degrade?
JARED BROWN: You can definitely notice the difference within about a week if it’s sat just out and closed. If it’s sat with a pour spout in it, it’s really going in a week. A recent study on this showed that not just vermouth, but any wine, can be maintained 10 to 15 times longer by putting it into the fridge when not in use. So, for a busy bar, sure, pour spout in during service. But keep it someplace cool. Then after service, cap it into the fridge. You’re still extending the life up to about seven to 10 weeks.
JAMES ATKINSON: There’s a lot of new vermouths coming onto the market. Are they being done as well as… I know you’re a fan of the Martini vermouths.
JARED BROWN: The newer ones, you’ll find young bartenders, young producers, get this idea that more is more. Where a drop was concerned, it becomes a dash, it becomes a dollop. They find if I’m mixing with some of the newest vermouths, I can’t add bitters because they’re already bittered over that point. Because sure, I understand that there’s a love for playing around with the botanicals, but one of the most important things in making vermouth is to remember it is a wine, and add botanicals only to the point where it still highlights the wine and not the botanicals.
JAMES ATKINSON: One of the biggest trends in the world of distilling, and in your particular area of distilling is pink gin. What are your thoughts on that?
JARED BROWN: Oh, I love a good pinkers. A hot afternoon, just that bit of gin and Angostura bitters, stir it down, remarkably savoury. Really, it doesn’t look pink. Oh wait, you’re not talking about that, are you? You’re talking about these bright pink, which doesn’t occur in nature…
JAMES ATKINSON: Not a fan of the contemporary, if you want to call it that, pink gins that we’re seeing on the market now that are strawberry or whatever led?
JARED BROWN: I really like any one that is still juniper led, because if it’s not juniper-led, it’s not gin. It’s just wearing the gin badge because gin is popular.
JAMES ATKINSON: You’ve talked about how over the course of history, the availability of drinks to bartenders has shaped the history of cocktails at the time. Your country is currently going through Brexit. Could that have an impact on the cocktail scene in the UK?
JARED BROWN: Brexit has definitely had a load of different impacts. Already one, I seem to be producing a fair bit of gin for parliament. I’m actually the distiller for House of Commons.
JAMES ATKINSON: Yeah.
JARED BROWN: And I make a bespoke gin for that building. It was a lot of fun making a classic London dry for a single building, old stone building a river. I made it for a space that was cold, damp and mineral. I gave it a touch of warm wood paneling, deep carpet and a bouquet flowers in the corner botanically, and you get just this veneer of mahogany in the background as you’re having your martini. It’s little details like that that I get to play around with with that one building. Yeah, I was over there I think budget day before last, pouring myself, not for myself, for them. Yeah, quite a few takers.
JAMES ATKINSON: The amount of time they’re spending in there at all hours, maybe a spike in sales, I would have thought.
JARED BROWN: Definitely, but not just in parliament, but in Britain widely. No matter which side you’re on, exit or remain, it’s driving a lot of traffic into bars right now because people could definitely use a drink in the midst of this madness.
JAMES ATKINSON: When we last met up, you were telling me about your recent creation at the time, which was meat smoked gin. Now, with this array of this cornucopia of ingredients that you’ve got in the yard there in the Cotswolds, has there been anything else that you’re working on that’s going to be equally surprising for people?
JARED BROWN: Oh, this year I’m really hoping to have a bumper crop of red and green shiso, which the wife turns into shiso syrup for our drinks, but then she’ll freeze it into cubes. She can get this shiso syrup frozen into cubes so that you drop one into the shaker when you’re making a gimlet, give it a really hard shake, and people will see, load up the normal gimlet fixings. But if you’ve dropped a red shiso cube in there, you strain it out and the drink has gone red. Beautiful flavour from that. I’m just getting my artemisia game back up and running. This year I hope to grow artemisia absinthium, pontica, genepi, artemisia alba, the Moroccan mountain wormwood, working again towards some vermouth… but also you can take a sprig of this, drop it into a bottle of gin, leave it for 24 hours exact, take it out, and you’ve really hit the zen of the martini cocktail of that gin and wormwood. That one came out of Jerry Thomas‘ 1862 book, but dearly love playing around with that.
JARED BROWN: I’ve also got a load of walnut liqueur on the go, mucking around with that. Then I’ve gone back to what I did at age 10, which was actually doing freeze distillation, where to make that apply brandy, I was using a technique that used to be called jacking, and this is where applejack came from, of taking that cider and putting it out in the snow overnight. In the morning, lift out all the ice, put it back out, lift up the ice, put it back out. So, the wife and I committed a few litres of cider to producing that, and then another bunch, I’ve still got apples from the last harvest in the deep freeze to work on an ice cider.
JAMES ATKINSON: Fantastic. You and your wife Anastasia Miller, you’ve got quite the canon of literature on drinks. I mean, I think there’s 30 something books or something like that.
JARED BROWN: That’s my count.
JAMES ATKINSON: What are you working on now?
JARED BROWN: Actually, last night, if I sound a little fuzzy today it’s because two o’clock in the morning I just put my computer down doing what I thought was final edits on Sip: 100 Gin Cocktails with only Three Ingredients. Though it’s aimed at consumers, it’s got a lot of history that has never been released before. It does correct the history of gin. Gin didn’t come over from Holland after the three years war as jenever, and it wasn’t that King William of Orange launched jenever and it eventually evolved into gin.
JARED BROWN: In researching this book, I found that in London, they were already working juniper-led Spanish orange and lemon peel backed and spice supported. I mean, that’s the London Dry recipe right there. It should not exist in 1600. There’s a bunch of correcting Wikipedia that’s going to be done when this book comes out, the origins of a bunch of cocktails as well. Oh, I had fun with it.
JAMES ATKINSON: Well, Jared Brown, I think I’ll let you get about your day. Thanks so much for your time.
JARED BROWN: Oh, thank you. It’s been a real pleasure as always. Good to speak with you.