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Interview with bartender Matt Whiley

Interview with bartender Matt Whiley

by Ella Timney 10 August 2014

Top bartender Matt Whiley, of Bethnal Green's Peg + Patriot, shares some signature cocktail recipes for Christmas and discusses how he uses his own spirits and infusions to create innovative concoctions.

No longer are cocktails seen as just a Friday night tipple, but an art form in their own right. Partly, this has occurred in line with the molecular movement in cooking. Harnessing technical equipment such as the rotary evaporator to distil your own alcohol, for example, has become quotidian for many of the world's most adventurous bartenders.

Bartender Matt Whiley is one such pioneer - the founder of Talented Mr Fox, a company that consults on cocktail menus for, among others, Simon Rogan's Fera and Tom Sellers' Story. He also runs Peg + Patriot, which is a mere drunken stumble across the hall from Lee Westcott's Typing Room restaurant at the Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green, and this pairing has shown truly how cocktails are happily being welcomed into the fray of some of the nations greatest kitchens. We spoke to Matt about his career so far, how he works with chefs and making cocktails at Christmas. He was also kind enough to provide Great British Chefs some more homely cocktails to try at home over the festive season.

First things first, are you a bartender or mixologist?

A bartender. I like to keep it simple. There’s no difference really, a bartender tends the bar and makes drinks for people and I guess a mixologist is just a bartender giving themselves a title to make them sound more professional! I think the title came about because people were trying to make bartending sound like a real profession and not just something casual you do at uni.

Has it always been a dream for you to put your stamp on a boutique bar?

Yes, this is my fifth bar and I’m happy as long as I can continue to progress and do things differently, I'm happy. The next bar I want to do will be like this but leaving all of the science behind closed doors because you get tired of being a “molecular” bar - we're not really molecular, we'd just distilling spirits in the same way all spirits are made. For me it should just be about coming to a bar, having great drinks, listening to great music, hanging out and having a great time.

You’re producing your own gin, etc. Would you like a bar stocked with your own spirits?

We definitely use the spirits we make but the drinks business is massive and what the bigger brands can provide for you is also invaluable. It’s about having a really carefully selected spirit list and not forgetting the small producers but also using the bigger brands. The bigger brands have done amazing things for our industry as well, in supporting bars and essentially helping us grow.

How integral is the rotary evaporator to your drinks?

It’s integral in every single cocktail on our menu. It goes pretty much all day every day. Our menu is as prep-heavy as any other cocktail bar I’ve worked in. The rotary evaporator means we can produce something different to set ourselves apart from everyone else. If everyone buys spirits from the same company, the playing field is very level. What we’re doing is changing the playing field.

How widespread do you think the rotary evaporator is now?

It’s definitely more prevalent now. I’ve helped set up two in the last three months for other places. They’ve been used in bars for a few years now and more and more places are using them. They’re really complicated but you can simplify it for yourself if you want to.

A sizeable amount of kitchens use them anyway, don’t they?

Especially if it’s a bar that’s attached to a kitchen, one of the first things we do when we start working with chefs is rummage around the kitchen and see what they’ve got so we can produce something truly amazing, and chefs are open to it, too. That's one of our first questions, 'what have we got to use, and what can you do in your bar that's truly exceptional?' And they were like, 'yeah, take it!'.

How are you inspired by what chefs do?

I think the biggest thing when working with chefs is their knowledge of ingredients and produce. Working with amazing chefs over the years and sitting down to talk to them to opens up a really wide range of herbs, flowers, and different ingredients. It opens up our industry, too - we can then search for things. The guys at Fera are growing stuff on their own farm, and it's crazy, I'd never heard of 90% of the things on their farm. That gets your creative juices going, and likewise a chef comes to our bar and we've put an ingredient into a drink that you wouldn't normally associate with food, and they think it's wicked.

Do you find customers are becoming more enthusiastic about unusual cocktails?

Yes, I think there are a fair few guests who will search you out because you do unusual things. Our biggest selling drink in the last year has been our pig’s blood Bloody Mary. People love it and some have read about it and will travel in just to come and try it. It’s amazing to see people so receptive to new things. The restaurant scene in London is so good now and people are wanting to search out different food and know where the products and produce are coming from and that interest is expanding into cocktails.

Talk us through “Grandpa’s Eggnog”

The Grandpa’s Eggnog is based around something from my childhood. My grandfather’s birthday was on Boxing Day and he’d come round to our house then. One of the things I loved was pouring him an Advocaat, and he would drink it all day on his birthday. The Eggnog is sort of the Bailey’s/Advocaat-y sort of eggy drink, served cold, and that’s from my childhood memory.

Do you have any advice for people at home for making cocktails at Christmas?

I would say the biggest thing is picking up your spices. I know it’s a stereotypical thing, using spice at Christmas, but it is the flavour everyone associates with the season. And secondly, just play around with it. Don’t be afraid to try things out and trust your palate and what you like, then you can create some great things.

Non-alcoholic cocktails: do you feel like there is a lot of scope for creativity in non-alcoholic cocktails? And are they sometimes not given enough thought on cocktail menus?

To be fair, I’ve been guilty of leaving them aside for all of my bartending career, up until the last 6 months. But we’ve developed non-alcoholics now and they’re becoming part of our thing. When people go out for drinks, it’s not just about people drinking alcohol and there are people who don’t want to do so, it’s about joining in and not just being a second thought. We’re offering drinks that are really well-balanced and have elements of an alcoholic cocktail just without the alcohol.

Where do you go to drink wine or beer?

Mother Kelly’s, The Fox, Euston Tap, Sager & Wilde - I love what those guys are doing.

You clearly like beer - what’s your favourite brewery?

Probably Beavertown, because their beers are a little bit out there. I love The Kernel, just because it’s like the birthplace of UK craft beer. But there are loads of new breweries I love like Brew by Numbers, Partizan, Fourpure…it’s hard to pick one favourite. Redchurch... oh, and Magic Rock - Highwire's my favourite beer. Cannonball's amazing as well, and Salty Kiss... it's so weird, so great.

And favourite destination for cocktails outside of London?

I’m going to be controversial and say somewhere that’s outside of the UK – definitely New York. London is as good as anywhere in the world for cocktails, there are some great bars in Edinburgh. If I was to be pushed to give somewhere in the UK, I’d say Edinburgh, like Brambles - which is amazing. There are some great places in Leeds too. But New York, like London, it’s only a small place but there are great bars everywhere.

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Interview with bartender Matt Whiley


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