Monday, 7 June 2010

Brian Silva's Cocktail Masterclass at Rules, Covent Garden

Food bloggers are often accused of a herd mentality, of obsessing over the latest fads and new openings and of flooding the blogosphere with identical reviews at the same time. Of course, when the national critics do the same, as when Bar Boulud and Roux at Parliament Square opened in the same week and every single paper contained a review of either one or the other, nobody seems to care. I'd like to think it's because people are so used to the stunning variety and engaging, impartial comment on the best food blogs that any similarities in content stand out like a sore thumb, whereas nobody really reads the national press to find out what a restaurant is like; the actual subject matter is secondary to a good read.

I've been as guilty as anyone in the past for writing "Yet Another Lobsterfest Post" or "Yet Another Ham School Post", but the point is, I still wouldn't write about anything unless I really wanted to. After all, I'm not getting paid. And here is the fundamental difference in the way that professionals and bloggers operate - they write because they have to, and we write because we can. And if that means that you occasionally see the same event or restaurant written up across a handful of different blogs then it generally only means that it was really worth writing about - good or bad.

The reason I begin with this protracted bout of navel-gazing is because the last time a handful of bloggers were invited out for a class together (at Allen's of Mayfair), we all, each and every last one of us, wrote it up. The reason for this was quite simple - it was fascinating and enormous fun. We didn't co-ordinate our response or decide upon a collective plan of action, we just went home with our big bags of meat and sat down and wrote it up. And with that in mind, I expect this won't be the last post you read about Brian Silva's Rules bar. It's already not the first.

Brian Silva is, and I don't use this word frivolously, a legend amongst barmen in London. A few weeks ago I and a few other Martini fans embarked on a Martini tour of London, taking in drinks at Bob Bob Ricard, Mark's Bar at Hix, Duke's bar in St James and ending up at the Connaught. We deliberately avoided Rules that day as Brian doesn't work weekends, but in conversation with all the other barmen at these equally prestigious venues, including the highly-regarded in his own right Alessandro at Duke's, it turns out that Brian is regarded as something close to a god amongst those who do this kind of thing for a living. After a few minutes in Brian's company, it's hard not to see why. Affable and charming yet fiercely passionate (and frighteningly knowledgeable) about his chosen trade, the bar at Rules is an alchemist's lab of strange liquids from faraway lands, home-infused wormwood liqueurs and jars of multicoloured crystals. They're not just for show, either - each spirit, tincture and aromatic is used, either in one of the house cocktails (there is a very short list just as a prompt for new customers) or for use in anything Brian makes up on the spot. He does this a lot, and they're always brilliant. It's a gift.

But Brian isn't one to keep his gift to himself. On Monday and Tuesday afternoons from 2pm-5pm, he runs a cocktail masterclass, giving customers paying £135 per person the chance to get behind the bar and learn from the master himself how to mix the perfect martini or muddle a magnificent Caipirinha. Myself and a couple of other lucky bloggers were invited down to test out the course and spent a happy afternoon getting slowly sozzled on some of the best drinks it's possible to order in London, and to learn more about the effort and dedication that goes into running a bar like Rules.

As part of the class, Brian had organised a tasting by the guy who supplies many of the Rules spirits, Declan of Speciality Drinks. Declan had brought along an interesting selection of his products, including a gin-based liqueur from France, an English cherry brandy, a sweet vermouth and a rum from Venezuela. My personal favourite was the extraordinary cherry brandy, which tasted like Bakewell Tart.

As far as the rest of the afternoon went, it was divided more or less equally between us staring grinning and enthralled at Brian as he produced yet another stunning concoction, or being gently cajoled into coming around the back of the bar and having a go ourselves. The many drinks we got through would no doubt make a very interesting list were I able to remember them all; alas by the time I had a Black Mojito, a Blue Moon (using crystallised violet, very Tom Cruise that one) and a Tanqueray 10 Martini lined up in front of me my powers of recall took second stage to my ability to keep myself upright. All you need to know is that, if anything, Brian's own recipes tasted more exciting than age-old favourites like Margheritas or Caipirinhas, and that the attention to detail that goes into every drink is mind-blowing. To give you a small example - they have a special ice-making machine from Japan which produces not only perfectly clear ice cubes of uniform size but special crushed ice which won't melt before you've finished your drink. Clever stuff.

I can wholeheartedly recommend the cocktail masterclass at Rules, and along with the Allen's (and the Ginger Pig's, which I've also heard great things about) butchery courses and the Brindisa ham school it joins a growing list of interactive hands-on classes in London that are a fantastic way to spend an afternoon. £135 may seem like quite a lot to shell out in one go, but for 3 hours in the company of London's greatest barman and more booze than anyone should ever really expect to drink in the middle of the day, you won't feel short-changed. So before this becomes Yet Another Rules Post, and you get sick of reading about how great it is and wish all these bloggers would just shut up and start paying for things for a change, go and try it out for yourself. Brian is waiting.

I was invited to try Brian Silva's Cocktail Masterclass. Classes run on Mondays and Tuesdays from 2pm-5pm and cost £135 per person. Many thanks to Ben Bush for the photos.

Rules on Urbanspoon


Hollow Legs said...

Excellent post, Pople.

Emyr Thomas, Bon Vivant said...

I have to agree - great post! It also sounds like the masterclass is a great experience and one that's worth advertising.

You're probably aware of all of these cocktail bars, but I recently made a list of the best cocktails bars in London, which might be of interest:

Louis Anthony Woodbine said...

Great post. Really enjoyed it.

ginandcrumpets said...

You went on a martini crawl? jesus, that's no one for the occasional drinker, is it? The cocktail class sounds absolutely brilliant.

Gregory said...

Hi Chris,

Surely the fact that you were invited to this masterclass brings into question whether you actually sample the standard experience because it is a PR exercise.

While I enjoy your blog, I never take on board the views from "blogger events" because they are simply not the real experience and very tedious when everyone decides to write them up.

It is also why I don't take any notice of press critics who are likely to be recognised when they arrive at the restaurant. For example, how often would Fay Maschler ever be seated near the toilets ? As a result, it is likely that I rarely recieve the same experience that she does.

Ultimately, I like blogs because they are independent, I like them because they review restaurants at times the critics don't, and I like it that blogger's experience the venue like everyone else.

When bloggers cease being independent, follow the crowd and accept preferential treatment........they are no different to the paid press.

I really do love the work, just keep it independent.

Ben said...

Gregory, I'm sure Chris will reply in kind but what was clear about the Rules experience (and indeed was specifically made clear at the outset) was that it's different every time. I think the only significant departure from the norm was that a drinks supplier was there to offer some unusual spirits; the usual form is for Brian to offer a selection of, say, different gins or bourbons from his considerable collection.

I'm not saying we didn't get special treatment but if you've met Brian you'll know that pretty much everyone gets treated specially and I seriously doubt that paying punters would have had a materially different time of it.

Chris Pople said...

Gregory: Thanks for your comment.

Firstly, I am aware of the irony of extolling the virtues of food blogging in a post about a freebie. But I thought it was important to point out that even if we do go to comped events, and free meals, our experiences at those places are still valid.

Secondly, I think the days of bloggers not being recognised as such in restaurants are nearly over. As soon as you start taking photos, the game is up. But does that mean that the restaurant and food suddenly become a lot better? I doubt it. Look at my post about the Hillgate - it was free, but the fact they knew I was there reviewing it made no difference to the fact the food just wasn't up to scratch.

It's entirely up to you whether you don't take notice of reviewers or bloggers who get noticed, but that's more or less literally everyone (apart from Marina O'L) these days, and you'll be missing out on quite a lot of decent reading!

PDH said...

You are spot on with your comments there Pople, if you hadn't wanted to write about it you wouldn't. Fair play it was a freebie, but it looks like a really bloody enjoyable one and one I'd have definitely written about given half the chance. Though by the second or third cocktail my comments would have been along the lines of how ruddy shnice it alls ish...

Good work old bean!

Unknown said...

If I might say so, isn't the Emperor looking a little under-dressed today? In a long and disgraceful drinking career I've never yet met a cocktail barman who wasn't willing to tell me (one-to-one mind, not in a class) how he makes his cocktails, what spirits and unusual 'secret' ingredients he uses, and give out little (and not so little) tasters all entirely free of charge, for as long as I was propping up the bar and buying a few drinks. Usually, though not always (I'm recalling fondly one afternoon I popped into Claridge's for 'just the one Martini' and emerged five hours later) the bill for this comes to far, far less than £135.

I have no objection, and indeed am no stranger, to a freebie (e.g. but I wonder seriously in this case if if the paying punter would perceive the same value as those who enjoyed what I'm sure must have been a very agreeable afternoon for nothing. That said, if there are people out there willing to pay £135 to watch someone do their job for three hours, they probably deserve everything they get.

Neil said...

To Gregory, the link in my name (or this one: )show my views as a totally separate exercise (over 5/6 visits to Rules in the past year, all paid for, and still Rules comes out gleaming).

Whilst I agree with HW, the difference I guess is actually making cocktails, after all at Shakers (cocktail barstaff trainers, and open to publlic) a cocktail class can be £80 for a few hours.

I've had many a time discussions with the bartenders at Rules, and other bits but never had the advice of Brian whilst making them and the more technical discussions.

Gregory said...

Hi Chris,

I think I am pretty much set in my sceptical ways on "advertorial" (freebie) pieces from group events in either blogs or the press.

I s'pose I just prefer the independent posts such as those you wrote on Zucca, Canton Arms and Fat Duck.

and even though your cover may be blown when you pull the Kodak out, most establishments would find it difficult to rectify the situation when the plate is on the table....

So thank fully not all is dead.

and for what it is worth ... I am aware you have parted with your hard earned on a number of occasions at Rules and know your comments are based on more than this one experience.

Unknown said...

I always enjoy your posts and this post is no exception.

Keep up the good work.



Unknown said...

Chris - sounds like an amazing experience and I suppose this is the dilemma (and I hear you Gregory) (1) try out something like this although you may not otherwise have gone and may get a better experience than your average punter or (2) just don't go at all.

For me the best blogs are the ones that get the balance between those two things. It is something I aim for myself. Keep up the good work and reviews Chris I think you have the balance right and Greg keep up the good comments (and blogging as well!)

Sally @ My Custard Pie said...

I visited your site via a link from the Food Stories review of the same experience. I enjoyed both accounts as they were different interpretations and both well written. Both made me want to visit Rules at least for a cocktail (live in Middle East so slightly problematic) due the genuine enthusiasm of the writing. Was this due to it being a freebie - maybe 1%. I think readers can spot fakery a mile off. I've read those posts "it's all free and aren't we all having a jolly nice time." The pretence is tangible and I navigate away sharpish. PS Martini comparison crawl...good idea...!

gastrogeek said...

Dearest Christopher. I would write something nice, but I seem to recall that you are in fact completely and utterly dead to me. Kind regards, Rejina

Anonymous said...

Several years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Brian and having him make a concoction for me based on my love of Scotch! Genius!!! He also created a drink for a friend and it the nail on the head.