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Not Your Average Cocktail: An Interview with Ben Alcock

4 December 2017 | Nicola Freedman

Infusing an array of unusual ingredients with uniquely flavoured spirits, ‘Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ (HMSS) serves some of Bristol’s most innovative cocktails. To celebrate the launch of their new ‘Guide to the British Isles’ menu, which features a selection of drinks representing the wonders of Great Britain, we speak with founder Ben Alcock about his love of cocktails, presentation and why Bristol is the perfect city to open a bar.

Hi Ben, thank you for speaking with Culture Calling today. What inspired you to create this new series of menus?
 
We went back to the drawing board and thought about what needed to be on the menu and what the menu could do. And we were also aware that when people walk into a bar and see a menu it can be quite an alien thing - its normally saturated with drinks and the whole ethos can be quite intimidating.
 
We literally just made a guide for the drinks you’re having, what you’re expecting and the journey that you’re going to take whilst you’re with us, because it’s more of an experience than just going and getting a regular drink. But we wanted to base it around the sort of things people already recognise, to keep that level of accessibility. So if you’re English or British you’re going to know these things because they’re our cultural features, or if you’re here visiting you may have already looked at them. It’s kind of easy way in.


Image credit: HMSS

How did you choose the landmarks/locations to inspire the best of Britain menu? 
 
The whole team had a decision in that, so it wouldn’t just be one person’s creation. We thought about all different sorts of locations, everything that we could think of, and then made drinks for most of them. We did about 20 finalised drinks in the end and then we choose out favourite twelve.
 
The visual component of a cocktail is becoming increasingly important, particularly in the age of social media. How do you go about creating the look and presentation of your cocktails?
 
We’re known for visually innovative drinks and trying to do things a little differently. When making this menu, we wanted to take the customer to the location the drink was inspired by.  The actual presentation felt like the final piece of the puzzle because each drink has a little story to it.
 

Image credit: HMSS
 
Your cocktails also have a sense of playfulness – the ‘Loch Ness Mobster’ even features laughing gas. What do the more interactive and quirky elements add to the guest’s experience?  
 
I guess it’s the entertainment value. We didn’t want to give everything away, like with the pictures of the drinks in the menu or the description, so the final piece of the puzzle is having the drink in front of you. It gives them a memorable feature.
 
How important is the setting and atmosphere of a cocktail bar?
 
Atmosphere is everything. What we tried to do is make the bar feel cosy and interactive enough for it to still feel like its busy even when it’s not. The big focus is obviously the lighting and how the light and shadows move across the room, and then also the music. We need to keep a cool energy and environment without being too loud like you’ve walked into a disco.
 

Image credit: HMSS

How did you get into bartending, and opening your own cocktail bar?
 
It was with a bet with my friend actually. I ended up moving to London when I was eighteen from Worcester, and we shared a bedroom together because neither of us could afford to live in London. I just needed a job. One of my friends said his friend has a bar – the London Cocktail Club – and that I could get a few hours washing glasses there. He [JJ Goodman] took me in and I had no idea about cocktails or this world that existed, but I walked in and was kind of blown away by it all. I worked for him until I was twenty-four.
 
What made you open your own bar in Bristol then?
 
I guess it was just working for somebody else and I was kind of set that I wanted to do exactly what he had done. I planned for Bristol because it had good party and I had got a bit fed up with living in London. I didn’t want to stay in Worcester because it was too sleepy. I just thought I’d give it a go, and it’s been a happy medium.
 
What is it about cocktails that you love?
 
I think it’s the way it keeps me constantly guessing and on my toes. I like to keep myself busy, and there are so many different components that go into making drinks and that’s what captivated me because it challenges you on so many levels. You have to look at the flavour, the food, what’s fashionable, what’s in trend, what do people want and also the history and science behind it all, and then also the logistics. It’s so dynamic.
 

Image credit: HMSS

Drink of choice?
 
I think because I make drinks all the time, it changes all the time. But my consistent go-to is just a nice scotch.
 
Favourite things to do in Bristol?
 
Eating and drinking. The city is so good for it.
 
Do you have any recommendations?
 
Well I do have some in the back of our menu. When customers come in and ask where to go to next, you end up just scribbling the name of a place and what to have there on the back of a napkin. Instead of doing that we print our favourite places that we go to in the back section of our menu, so customers can check them out.
 
Favourite thing about Bristol (besides the food and drink)?
 
I think it’s both the structure of it and the people that are within it. Its big enough that you don’t bump into people that you know all the time, but it’s also small enough that everything’s within walking distance. Also, if you want to meet your friend for a half hour lunch you can - it’s not like London where you spend that half hour travelling. It’s just friendly on all levels.


Her Majesty's Secret Service can be found at Whiteladies Gate, Whiteladies Road, Bristol BS8 2PH.

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