Having the right drink for any season or occasion can increase a liquor company's visibility and encourage higher sales.
Tim Etherington-Judge, brand ambassador of Diageo Reserve, speaks to Business Line about how a bartender makes the cut to become an acclaimed mixologist, and how focusing on creating seasonal liquor offerings can help a brand appeal to a wider audience.
Driven by passion for innovation, Tim believes that bartending surpasses the regularities of a job, and is more of a lifestyle. With bartenders earning around half-a-million dollars a year, the humble art of mixing drinks is actually big business.
Why exactly are you in the country for?
I am here to promote the single malt culture. For Diageo, it was the right time to indulge Indian consumers’ thirst to experiment with global brands.
Diageo has the biggest portfolio of single malts. India is the biggest whisky-drinking country in the world, but few malts are well-known. The existing, varied tastes among the single malts can be attributed to the ancient distilling processes of various regions. The Indian programme aims to bring out the intricacies behind these distilling processes.
But more importantly, the idea is to engage with the consumer, which also provided me with an opportunity to hear directly and immediately what they have to say. Consumers here are treating super-premium imported spirits as high-profile and visible segments that allow them to demonstrate their improved financial and social status.
I have just returned from a recently concluded competition, which is a global platform where 50 of the most elite bartenders from around the world compete to win the highly acclaimed honour of ‘bartender of the year’. Actually, the term is ‘mixologist’.
What exactly is a ‘mixologist’?
It is just a fancy name for a bartender. My job is to make people happy. People should leave happier than they have arrived. Mixology is the craft of creating great tasting drinks using spirits, juices and whatever else is available.
Making drinks is a part of that, but there are several that are made up on the spur of the movement. I actually made a drink called ‘I say Bombay, you say Mumbai’.
How did that come about?
I was working at the Taj before I joined Diageo. The drink was a trade-off of a conversation with a taxi driver. It was Christmas in 2009. At that time, the city had two names. The cab driver was using the two names interchangeably — people can’t stop calling it Bombay. So I created a drink that was one serving of two different drinks.
One was an old-style martini with gin, sweet vermouth and Indian spices like cinnamon, cardamon, cloves and orange zest. This was a tribute to the old Bombay and old-style drinking, which would have seen the turn of the 20th century.
The Mumbai side of it was Karavan vodka, cardamom and other spices to represent the modern city. It was garnished with a chilly stuffed in an olive. We served it in half-portions and it turned out to be a very popular drink, both with the youngsters and the older generation.
Incidentally, even in the case of whisky, though maturation stops at bottling, the year and the age are significant.
Are you saying that whisky goes through its own ageing process?
Whisky ages differently. Two barrels sitting next to each other with the same whisky put in them mature at different speeds. It depends on many things, and some which we can't control. Of course, there is fermentation and distillation, but what happens in the barrel is magic.
We can't fully understand what happens inside the barrel, especially once the wood has started taking effect. One should try and taste and see the effect of the wood on the whisky. It is incredible. There are chemical compounds and rye, but it still is magical. It makes for a beautiful story.
And every malt has its own story?
Yes, it does, for whisky matures at different ages. In some cases, it is vibrant, intense and powerful. A younger-aged whisky is fruity and light.
A 30-year-old whisky is very powerful, aggressive and incredibly intense, but a 16-year-old malt is refined, elegant and complex. It is a sophisticated maturity.
There is a balance of ageing. In the case of whisky, in a particular cask it will reach its optimum maturity and from then on, it will lose freshness and vigour. And this happens at a surprisingly young age for a majority of casks. The maximum is eight to 12 years, and only a small percentage of whiskies are capable of, and benefit from, longer ageing.
What is interesting is that people in India want to know the ageing process. I have had many people coming up and asking about the exact barrel and location. People love stories. If you could combine a good story with a good drink, a little bit of theatre, people love that. And everyone is the wiser.
Does your mother know what you are up to?
I was in the UK earlier, working at a resort. The general manager asked me to look at ideas to develop the restaurant in the summer. It was a beachfront place — I used to serve cocktails — and here I was scratching my head as to how to increase business. I wrote my first cocktail list as a simple summer promotion.
In the course of my research, I fell in love with the stories, history and creative artistry of cocktails. So I got together with the then brand ambassador for Diageo and we created a cocktail menu. In fact, the more I read about cocktails, the more interested I became.
My mother passed away at that time — the saddest part of my life — but it made me chase my dream. I moved out, bought a plane ticket to New Zealand, and became a bartender.
The role of a bartender has changed drastically in the last five years. Bartenders get half-a-million dollars a year. The profession has become legit.
It is not just a job anymore. They get to travel the world and there is a new celebrity status attached to it.
The production company Shine, which is famous for its Masterchef Australia, is to roll out the first TV show on bartenders soon. The fate of bartenders is changing.
How about your actual role?
The role of a bartender is akin to a psychiatrist. People come to the bar to have a drink for many reasons – they could have had a great day or a rubbish day at work; some come to make new friends, others celebrate with their old friends.
You are actually a judge – you don't just give them a certain service. You are supportive, you show empathy. Other times, you join in the celebrations. It can be very exhausting, but at the same time, it can also be extremely rewarding.