The renowned bartender speaks to Port about distilling gin, creating cocktails, and his perfect martini
Nick Strangeway is fun to interview. Down to earth, unpretentious and outspoken, Strangeway tells it like it is, or at least how he sees it, which is often the same thing. Whilst this could explain why he doesn’t like working for others, “I tend to piss people off and they piss me off,” it’s still easy see how he has become renowned not only within the London bar scene, but internationally. He’s curious, innovative, and he knows his stuff. Since starting his career under Dick Bradsell (creator of the Bramble and the Espresso Martini) Strangeway has helped set up the hugely successful Hawksmoor, various hotel bars (including the Bulgari Hotel London, the St. Pancras Hotel, and Punch Room at The London EDITION) and developed a collection of small-batch vodkas for Absolut. He also has a long-standing partnership with Mark Hix. He might not like describing himself as a mixologist, “it’s bit of a pretentious word for being a bartender”, but he’s picked up awards along the way for being one. Nick’s latest role is co-founder and designated cocktail and spirit creator at Hepple Spirits, which produces gin, amongst a few other things, in a remote part of the Northumberland National Park.
I caught up with him to find out what inspires his cocktail recipes and whether gin is a spirit that is here to stay.
What drew you to Hepple Spirits?
I met Val Warner, he’s one of the partners, and he called me and said, “I want you to come up to this place that my friend Walter owns up in Northumberland and have a look around.” I was like, four and a half hours on the fucking train to go to the middle of nowhere, I don’t really like this! But when I got there, it was lovely, really lovely. We went for a two hour walk across the moors and it snowed, it rained, it hailed. The wind was blowing. The sun came out. It was a properly wild place to be. And by that point I’d been living in London probably for 30 years I think, and I’d started to use London like a village. I think you should use London correctly, which is that you should go out all the time and you should enjoy everything it has to offer and you should travel from one side to the other side and from North to South and East to West. By the end I was travelling from my house in Hampstead down to my office in Borough Market and I was going into Soho to meet Mark Hix, and I was doing like, just two square miles or something. So, I was really attracted to doing something out in the middle of nowhere, because I like it out there as well. But the thing that inspired me the most was the juniper that was growing there because I’d already helped work on things like Beefeater 24 gin with (master distiller) Desmond Payne and at Hepple we have these juniper bushes that we can use, and they’re ancient. And I met Walter, thought he was fantastic, and so we basically decided we’re going to make a gin then and there.
Can you tell me about your special method of distillation?
My business partner at the time in London was a guy called Cairbry Hill and he is a very good scientist. In fact, he trained as a scientist. He had introduced me to the rotovap, the vacuum still system, I think in around 2000. So quite a long time before, like 14 years earlier, I’d been messing around with these things. And when we’d been working with Absolut he had mentioned this other piece of science, the supercritical gas extractor, and when he said it, it went straight over my fucking head. It really didn’t make sense to me. When we came to the gin distillery, he mentioned it again and I took it onboard a little bit more. You know, all the great gins, or the ones that have survived the test of time, the people who set them up were pioneers. They weren’t traditionalist. They used the most modern equipment possible. So Cairbry’s idea of this vacuum distillation, this CO2 extraction, I thought maybe we could make a gin in a way that was very different to anybody else. It was a question of using technology to create better flavours, but not necessary to create radically different flavours. You can’t be that refined when you use a pot still. But when we run something like Amalfi lemons in the vacuum still, because of the technology we can capture that very distinct perfume and aroma that gets lost in a pot still. And it doesn’t matter how you run your pot still, you would never notice that it was an Amalfi lemon. So by using technology we can really be very precise on the flavours that we’re putting into our product and that is quite modern. But the overall flavour is fairly traditional in terms of that it puts juniper at heart. Juniper is the plant that inspired us on the moor and we want to celebrate it. And I love the idea that there’s the juxtaposition at Hepple of this pristine wilderness that sits outside the window of the distillery but when you’re in the distillery, there is this cutting-edge equipment that nobody else has, right? So that juxtaposition of the wild and the untameable, and then the equipment to tame it, sitting next to one another is really interesting.
And how do you go about creating a cocktail? Do you take inspiration from anywhere?
It will vary. I mean, it will vary on whether I’ve been out walking and seen something that I liked, you know ingredients.
Because you’re really into foraging, right?
Yeah, Val and I have a common passion for growing things or finding things that taste good at the right time of year whether it be foraging for it, or I grow things, or I visit people who grow things. There are shelf lives on certain ingredients at certain times of year, so therefore that’s an inspiration on how to use them. When it comes to what the recipe might end up being like then I think, like most people, you look back at what was previously being done and what you liked. Back in around 2005 there was a boom in purchasing old cocktail books via eBay, whereas in the past it was very hard, with the exception of The Savoy Cocktail Book, to find a good cocktail book. I purchased as many as I could and then used them as a sort of back catalogue on what happened in the past and what succeeded. And so they are sources of inspiration. The food business too, whatever chefs are doing is a source of inspiration in terms of flavour combinations and things like that. So I enjoy cooking, I enjoy growing things, and I think the more you enjoy that whole flavour category then the easier it is to make drinks. Nowadays the information on the chemistry of a flavour is also much more readily available, you can start off with an ingredient and work out what it might work with or contrast with by looking at its chemical makeup. And if you’ve been doing it for a long time, which I have, I’ve been making a lot of drinks and I’ve drunk a lot of drinks, then you start to have an intuitive feel for what might work.
I think gin seems very fashionable right now, well, it has been for a while. Do you think there’s another spirit which might come along as the next big drink?
I think they’re always talking about spirits that will come along, you know. They’re always going, next it’ll be this or next it’ll be that, but they never do tend to do it. I think gin will be around for a long time. I mean, there’s never been a better time to drink gin than now, because if you can’t find a gin out there that you like then you don’t like drinking. There’s so much gin out there that doesn’t even taste like gin in some respects, it tastes of rhubarb and ginger or raspberry and whatever. It doesn’t taste of gin but it’s labeled as gin and so therefore it’s very difficult, I think, for other categories to come in and take that share now because they would have to do similar things. Whereas with another spirit, whether it be tequila or rum, it’s not legal to call them tequila or rum once you start messing around with them, it has to be something else at that point, agave spirit flavored with whatever. It’s not quite as romantic. I also think gin is a good gateway for people, you know if you enjoy gin and you find a gin that you like then it may be that you find something else mirroring that which you also like. If you like Miriam, our gin which has been aged on wood, then you might like certain whiskeys or certain aged tequilas. It can transition you through things. There are also lots of drinks that are in the gin category that you can move people to, like if a cocktail works with vodka it would probably work even better with gin, it would add more flavour. So gin is very useful like that. It’s very easy to go, OK, if you like vodka, I can find you a gin drink that works, or if you like rum, I can find you a gin drink that works. Whereas it’s much harder for the other brands or the other spirit categories to do that, I think.
What’s your own favourite drink?
A martini. I like drinking martinis. There are other drinks, you know, a daiquiri, at certain times, is a delicious drink. But if it’s a desert island drink then I’d probably have a martini. In fact, I’d probably have a really nice bottle of wine over anything but if it were a cocktail, it’d be a martini. If my desert island could happen somewhere else, like maybe in another bar, then it might be a martini at Boadas in Barcelona but a daiquiri somewhere else. Because I quite like going to certain places for certain things. And you know, soaking up the ambience of a certain place and drinking a certain drink in that place because it’s relevant to that place. So you know, a daiquiri in the Floridita, just after it’s opened in the morning. Not one of those shit whizzed up blended ones which they give to every tourist but you know, ordering a shaken one when it’s 11 o’clock in the morning and the sun’s coming through the shutters. That would be a lovely drink. But a martini I think would be the default.
What’s your martini recipe?
It’s 10:1 essentially and if I can choose then add 25 percent dilution with water and put it in the freezer, so then I know it’s at the right temperature and everything is controlled. So if it’s a desert island one, then I’d want a small freezer on the island and I’d have my martini tucked away in there for three hours with my glass before drinking it and I’d have an olive and a twist because I can because I’m on the island. The vermouth can be something off the shelf. It can be Noilly Prat, or Dolin Dry or something like that. It’s all about the gin for me. I mean, my martini can change everyday, I will fuck about with it and dilute the different things. But I normally go back to the 10:1 martini, kept in the freezer, with vermouth that was easy to get, and with Hepple gin.