If you didn’t know that Burnley Miners’ Social Club is the world’s largest consumer of Bénédictine, then you obviously haven’t read That’s the Spirit! the latest book by Jonathan Ray, the drinks editor for The Spectator. In the book Ray looks at how some of the world’s most famous spirits brands came into being but also sheds some light on some of the more obscure beverages such as Tuaca, Bobby’s Schiedam Jenever, Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin and Spirit of Hven Organic Summer Spirit – and also throws in some obscure morsels like the ‘Burnley Benedictine conundrum’ and how it came into being.
Apart from being a writer for many years Jonathan Ray is also a director of Brighton Gin
Tell us about your latest book That’s The Spirit!
It’s something of a follow up to Drink More Fizz! which came out last year and which was a gentle trawl through my 100 favourite champagnes and sparkling wines. This time I’m looking at my 100 favourite spirits, liqueurs and digestifs to drink with style. The next book will inevitably focus on my 100 favourite hangover cures.
Who’s the book aimed at?
At anyone who likes a drink and who is curious about what they drink and want to know the back story. There are plenty of familiar names in the book, such as Grand Marnier, Cointreau, Green Chartreuse, Glenmorangie and so on, and I try to put these in context and explain a bit about how they came into being. But there are also plenty of drinks that are a bit more niche such as Tuaca, Bobby’s Schiedam Jenever, Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin and Spirit of Hven Organic Summer Spirit, say, which I also love and which I’m desperate to tell everyone about.
Will bartenders and others in the on-trade find it useful do you think?
I hope so! Although almost every bar professional plying his or her trade will undoubtedly know more than I do about the subject, I like to think I’ve ferreted out some fun facts and anecdotes that will be new to them and will make them smile.
Is this a project that you had to specifically research or is it an accumulation of lifetime stories/ tipples?
A bit of both. I’m all too easily led and, egged on by my late father and various precociously louche drinking buddies at school, I started knocking bottles back at an alarmingly early age, and there are spirits and cocktails in the book that I’ve known and loved since my mid to late teens. I’ve also been in the drinks trade or writing about the stuff for almost 35 years and there are many long-standing favourites in the book. Some, though, are comparatively new to me and required dedicated research. At one stage I did a bit of a head count and realised that I was sitting at my desk surrounded by 356 bottles of spirits and liqueurs. It’s fair to say that my liver is shot to pieces.
So why is it that Generation Z are drinking more cocktails and spirits?
Because they’re so darn tasty! There’s just so much delicious stuff out there to drink these days and, as we all know, we’re in the midst of a fabulous cocktail revolution.
Why is Burnley Miners’ Social Club the world’s largest consumer of Bénédictine?
It’s a wonderful story and just one of the fascinating nuggets I turned up while working on the book. Benedictine has been made in Fecamp on the northern coast of France since 1863 (allegedly to an original recipe dating from 1510). During WWI, the East Lancashire Regiment was stationed there and to keep the cold out and to keep their spirits up the soldiers were in the habit of having a ‘Bene and Hot’, that’s to say a mix of Benedictine and hot water. After the war, those lucky few that returned home to Lancashire kept this habit up and that’s how they drink it in Burnley today. It’s estimated that the Miners’ Club gets through around 1,000 bottles a year and that Burnley FC gets through around 30 bottles at each home game.
What is your favourite tipple and why?
It depends on so much – what time of day it is, where I am, who I’m with, what I’m about to eat or what I have just eaten. I do, though, have a particular fondness for Mentzendorff Kummel. A luscious, caraway seed-based liqueur first distilled in Holland in the late 16th century, it’s the perfect digestif and pretty much my go-to after-dinner or – if the whole day is to be written off – after-lunch tipple.
What’s the oddest drink you’ve ever had?
A shot of neat Pimm’s at a hotel near Tewkesbury, Glos. I’d been on a mammoth, all-day walk along the River Severn in searing sun and for the last three hours of my wanderings had been fantasising (in Ice Cold in Alex-style) about a large glass of Pimm’s, crammed with ice, mint, cucumber and borage, condensation dripping down the sides. I ordered my Pimm’s and sat at the bar in salivating anticipation. Imagine my distress when the barman put a sherry schooner to the optic and presented me with a double measure of neat Pimm’s. He insisted that this was how Pimm’s should be served. I insisted that it wasn’t and, after some stern words had passed between us, I wrestled the fool to the ground, locked him in the cellar and took my time making a fine pint of Pimm’s, lemonade and prosecco. Bliss.
In your opinion what’s the biggest ‘Marmite’ drink?
Single malt Scotch whisky. Those who love it, adore it and those who don’t, loathe it.
How do you help make Brighton Gin?
Although I was there at the very beginning and helped devise the original recipe and have done my fair share of labelling and waxing the bottles (it’s still all done by hand) and knocking on potential customers’ doors, I’m ashamed to say I now do very little. Kathy Caton, our founder and MD, has built a wonderful team around her and she and they all work so hard making and promoting our gin and to good effect too, as we’ve won some wonderful awards and sales are going really well. I simply drink it and tell anyone who will listen how delicious it is.
When do you think the Gin bubble will burst?
When I took my first job in Oddbins in 1979, just about the only gins on offer were Gordon’s, Beefeater, Booth’s and Sir Robert Burnett’s White Satin. Just look at what’s available now! There are so many and it’s clear that not all of them will last. Quality will out, though, and the good ones will survive as the category expands to include fruit gins, pink gins, oak-aged gins and so on and so on.
What’s your favourite ‘Man walks into a bar…’ joke?
It’s not exactly ‘Man walks into a bar…’ more ‘Man knocks on a door…’ but tough. And it’s not a joke either, but a true story. So, man carrying a box of chocolates, bottle of fizz and some flowers knocks on a door. My Uncle John’s door. My Uncle John opens said door and looks somewhat surprised. Man notes my uncle’s surprise, ponders and says: “Ah, John, how embarrassing, I guess I’ve got the wrong night.” “Yes, replies my uncle. “The party was last night. And you were here.”