As one of the largest cocktail festivals in the world, London Cocktail Week has been a mainstay for the past 11 years. But even though London has now opened up, bar owners across the capital are still finding it tough.
To help encourage people back to the bars, this year’s festival has again been extended to run for a month over the whole of October.
Offering masterclasses, immersive pop-ups, bar takeovers and cocktail dinners to name but a few of the highlights, the event is set to see the return of favourite bars like Tāyer+Elementary and Lyaness, as well as some new names including Park Row and Hacha Brixton.
To find out more, we speak to organisers, Hannah Sharman-Cox and Siobhan Payne, about how the land lies and what to expect from this year’s event
Tiff: As one of the largest cocktail festivals in the world, London Cocktail Week has been a mainstay for the past 11 years. But even though London is now opening up, bar owners across the capitol are still finding it tough.
To help encourage people back to the bars, this year's festival has again been extended to run for a month over the whole of October. Offering master classes, immersive pop-ups, bar takeovers and cocktail dinners, to name but a few of the highlights. The event is said to see the return of favorite bars like Tayor + Elementary, Lyaness, as well as some new names, including Park Row, and Hacha Brixton.
To find out more, we speak to organizers, Hannah Sherman- Cox, and Soihban Payne about how the land lies and what to expect from this year's event.
Thank you for joining us.
Hannah: Hi how are you.
Tiff: Now, when we last spoke, the UK was under restrictions, and of course, since then you've gone through a whole full lockdown, a year later how is the bar industry looking in London?
Hannah: Yes, it has definitely been a challenging few years for all of us. Right. but we currently, we are open with almost no restrictions. Our biggest issue in the UK at the moment is staffing. Which has been the reason why actually, thankfully not very many, but some of our venues haven't been able to take part this year, just as staffing issues in the UK at the moment are really tough. But actually in terms of kind of coming through the other side of the pandemic quite specifically, yeah, touch wood, that's not the problem, this time.
Siobhan: Yeah. I mean, we've, we've noticed that the consumer confidence is definitely up compared to last year and you can feel that in the bars themselves. Last year when we were doing bar visits in advance of the festival, to go meet the bar owners and things, it just felt completely derelict to be honest, especially in the center of town. Whereas now when you go into places like Covent Gardens and Soho the city, it is a feeling of life coming back, which is nice actually.
Hannah: And we're not spending the whole time glued to our phones, waiting for a government announcement as to how the rules will change.
Siobhan: Although we've got to be careful about that because literally anything and we're not putting anything past any government
Hannah: Currently no lockdowns.
Tiff: Well, that's, something. Yes.
Hannah: For now. Yeah.
Tiff: Now what are the biggest changes that both of you have seen over the last two years? Are there any things that have been brought in or any attitudes that have changed in the way people are doing business?.
Hannah: I tell you something that is so encouraging is actually how many new venues have opened. We were really, really surprised. Often we get a snapshot of what's happening in the industry once a year. And normally, you know, lots of the old favorites and they come back on and we have long standing relationships with our bar partners. But actually this year, there's quite a big list of new venues that are brand new openings and opening kind of about now. So kind of over the summer, August, September into October. So as much as, of course, there are some horrible stories and, you know, it's dreadful, you know, people have lost their businesses and, and people have had to scale back, but there, there is a flip side that is positive. And I think it's probably, it's easy to get a bit overwhelmed with the glum, but actually there are some good stories in there too, which is encouraging.
Siobhan: Yeah It's nice to see the positive, I think.
Hannah: Now our social, physical distancing is kind of, that's no longer necessary. That 's kind of the biggest thing really, because it all just felt so spread out and all a bit separate for last year. And now that's where that's calming down. I think that. It's a change. Going back to how it was. It's not necessarily a change that's going to stay from last year, but it feels like it's going back, which is better than you have a bit more interaction, especially even with people at the table next to you, which we've not had for ages
Tiff: Of course. Now when you talking about new venues opening, are we talking about half a dozen? What sort of numbers?
Hannah: More than that, we've maybe got 20 venues on the list this year. So that's sort of vaguely 10% of brand new venues and not just neighborhood, not just owner operated. You mentioned in the intro Park Row, which is an enormous undertaking. It's vast that building, that restaurant, that offering, you know, and to see stuff of that kind of scale opening is so encouraging, actually.
Tiff: Talking about encouraging, I suppose the reaction to the event has been different this year for both venues and the public.
Siobhan: I think probably from the venue side of things, we're so fortunate that the bars of London are really, really supportive of London Cocktail Week. And they're always very enthusiastic to be involved. With regards to the public, again, the people that did come last year, were just so pleased to have something that they could engage in that was within the restrictions that was, that was safe, within your bubble that the enthusiasm was fantastic. Obviously this year, there's just going to be more people that can get involved. Because last year there was that people that didn't feel comfortable going out, when able to go out, couldn't socialise outside their household, et cetera, et cetera.
So it's just kind of on a bigger scale, but I wouldn't necessarily say that that it's different because it's always been so positive, which we feel very, very grateful for.
Hannah: We did a little thing in the summer, actually, because o ur restrictions lifted in July. July or August maybe. And that meant for a lot of our venues that are, and these are just intrinsic to London, are those little clandestine basement bars. Their first opening service was right in the middle of our summer. I do realize were not our summers aren't marvelous, but when you do get some sun in London, you do want to sit just grasping for it desperately. So we actually, we did a smaller version of the, of the festival in the summer. We called it the warmup and we only partnered with venues who had no outdoor space and no secondary drivers. So no restaurant bars, no hotel bars, no bars where you can go bowling or play darts or that kind of thing. Just those sort of old fashioned, probably a speakeasy cocktail bar. And it was actually, it was only 30 that qualified for it. But those 30 took part in a little mini London cocktail week in the summer. And, again, we had to be a little bit limiting on tickets because the physical distance thing was still in place to a point. But again, it just shows you the enthusiasm from the bars and the consumers, to be honest, those tickets went really, really quickly and they were our real diehard fans, the people that have been every single year and keep their wrist bands and pop them in a drawer and save them up as mementos. But it was those people that came to that. And it was great because everybody just was so grateful to be out and doing something, and that kind of all followed on from last October.
We'd finished cocktail week, last year on the 31st of October. And we went into full lockdown, I think the 2nd of November. And we were then in lockdown until basically April. So the last time anybody had any fun was with us. And then the first time they could have some fun was again with us. Now it's October with, hopefully, fingers crossed, no restrictions. We're just hoping that they come out in droves and enjoy it, really.
Tiff: Now let's talk about the extended month that you did last year. What was the reaction? And I suppose more importantly, what was the impact of extending it?
Siobhan: Well, actually, we surveyed our guests after the festival last year and 96% said that they preferred it as a month.
Which I suppose go figures because we didn't increase the price, so people just got four weeks for the price of one. We just felt that it would be a shame not to do it again for a month, if the consumer feedback was so high. Also something that we were quite committed to this year was to keep things very similar, so that gave everyone a little bit of confidence and that's specifically our brands and bar partners, because. You know, the conversations that we were having with, with those partners was 'Look we made it work last year. It was such a success. And that was at the height of things, when the restrictions were at their highest while still being open. So it gave the brands, the confidence to invest in some nice activities. And it gave the bar's confidence to really push the boat out with regards to their serve and create enthusiasm around it. So there was two layers to keeping it as a month, which we feel pleased to have done that.
It's just, it's just difficult with the messaging because obviously our brand name says week in it. So that's just been the main challenge, but we're working our way through it.
Hannah: We quite like it as a month because normally with Shiv and I running about like lunatics, trying to get to everything. But actually over a month it gives everybody a little bit more breathing space. It gives all those activations their own day, their own real estate within the timetable. It just means that people can do more and experience more. What used to be really fun when it was a week, is that everybody would fly in and so everybody would turn up and you'd see people from all around the world and all our pals would come, and it was very obvious when you'd see people, obviously that's a bit more difficult with a month but even like, this, there's one week where someone's coming in from Singapore, and there's a couple of weeks where a lot of people are in for the US, so it just does give you a bit more space to enjoy it and slow the pace down a bit, so we quite like it.
Tiff: Sounds as if it's something that you're thinking might continue for future years.
Siobhan: I think we kind of want to see how it, how it pans out this year, and then we'll start making decisions with regards to keeping it extended. Cause obviously there's quite a lot of implications. I mentioned the brand name before. I think if we're going to extend it long term, we probably have to look at changing that. We're going to hold back judgment until a successful festival this year. And then we she'll make the decision.
Tiff: Of course. Now you were talking about the brands earlier and their activations, what sort of activations can people look forward to?
Siobhan: We've got a really nice mix this year, actually, a really good mix of international bar takeovers and popups. Something we're really looking forward to is that obviously last year we couldn't have any central hub, as it, where, because, you know, we weren't encouraging people to all come to the same place, but this year we've got a pop-up in Covent Garden, which on the ground floor is going to be a London Cocktail Week bar where we've got bartenders from around the UK and Europe coming to do guest shifts. . And then upstairs, the London Essence Company Luxury Mixes are doing a immersive experience, for consumers about their taste profile and creating cocktails based on their individual tastes. So that's something that we're really looking forward to because we did miss that last year, having a base, where Hannah and I could say, we're going to be at the London cocktail week, main bar at this time, and people can drop by. So that's exciting. And there's some other really cool popups happening, for example, Discarded Spirits Company, who use waste products to create their liquid, are creating the world's most rubbish bar. So that's quite good fun. And that's going to, again, lots of bartender takeovers, taking waste from their bars and turning them into cocktails for the pop-ups. That's really exciting.
And then actually along that zero waste theme, another brand brand called Brew Dog Distilling Company Distilling Company, are launching their new range of spirits with a forest pop-up. They're turning their bar in Covent Garden into a lost forrest, with living walls and that's a zero waste as well, so even the cups in that pop up are edible.
Another is the Buffalo Trace bourbon Empire, and that's a takeover of a bar in east London and that's going to be various whiskey tastings, cocktail, master classes, fun parties, all sorts and again, it's just that coming back to having face-to-face events where consumers can really get their hands into liquids and making and, and learning and all of that sort of thing, which we didn't get to do last year. So again, the popups I've mentioned really celebrate that, which I just feel so excited to see, come to life.
Hannah: I think as well, where people have had a little bit more time on their hands, the creativity is really gone up, you know, that world's most rubbish bar has had so much press coverage over here because it's silly and it's fun and it's irreverent and I don't know, the creativity has gone up and some of the liquids they're bringing over, you just wouldn't get to taste them otherwise. And so I think this celebratory feeling is definitely prevalent through everything, which is brilliant for us.
Tiff: Now talking about people having term on their hands, obviously consumers have been mucking around with home bars while everything's been shut down. Do you think the masterclasses will therefore have a different feel to them this year?
Siobhan: Yeah, it's going to be interesting to see isn't it? I think, you're right, consumers have been at home, mixing up their own cocktails. I was speaking to someone at an event last night, actually, and she was saying that she just loves Pornstar Martinis, and she's been trying to make them at home, but she just absolutely can't.
And so now she's ready to go to a masterclass. Whereas before people might've thought, oh yeah, I can probably do that at home. Now they've had the chance to see that actually a little bit of education would probably be good, but they're going to be coming at it from a place of some experience, which does just change the vibe, doesn't it? People, asking different sorts of questions, coming from a place where they've tried a certain technique before and it's not worked and why has it not worked? And what difference does the different spirit make in it and all that sort of stuff. So again, we were interested to see, because there's not been much of this yet. Over the summer, the bars had just been focusing on opening and, and getting a few months under their belt. And there's not been many face-to-face events, so we're really interested to see the dynamic and the vibe.
Tiff: Yeah, I suppose if you suddenly have a much more educated consumer base, it does change the way things go forward.
Siobhan: For sure. And it's exciting, but the thing we've actually experienced that all the way along, because obviously we're, this is our 12th year of London Cocktail Week and the difference of consumer knowledge now in 2021 versus in 2010, for the first festival is just out of this world.
We were educating people about what Gin was in 2010. And now in 2021, those same people have their own collection of 30 different types of artisan gins. So it's really interesting to see the progression of consumer knowledge and consumer interest, I suppose, in the cocktail scene. And yes, the last two years have propelled that in a different sort of way. And you're right. It's about actually, going beyond just knowing about what gins they like, but actually knowing that they like their gin in a martini, and I know how to make that home, or a negroni and I know how to make that at home. And it's exciting and interesting in equal measures.
Tiff: Now you've mentioned brand bar takeovers, but are there any bartenders from any major European or us bars that are coming over to do takeovers during the month.
Hannah: Yes, there are. So we've got on our main bar, we've got a rolling roster of people. So that's people coming from Paris, lots of people coming from Barcelona. We're really trying to get the guys over from Moscow, but their visa situation is being a bit tricky at the moment.
Athens they're on their way. So yeah, there's, there's lots and lots happening. One of the, one of the most fun things is that we met the guys who run Blue Blazer in Italy. And John Pero really flies the flag for the country, especially internationally. And so he and his team have organized maybe 30 Italian bar teams who are all descending on London in the third week and they're all coming taking over other people's bars. Some of them are coming to us on the main bar, I think we've got drink Kong and 1930 are coming to us. And then all the others are kind of partnering up with venues in the city, it's really great actually. And the other thing in terms of kind of overseas, and this is a real shame that this is it's just shifted slightly, which is such a shame, but Singapore cocktail festival should have been exactly the same time as London cocktail week extended. They've also gone out to a month, so for the same reasons that we did, and we've been in comms with them for years now, just talking about how we can work together obviously the dream idea would be that we'd all get on a plane and go and have a lovely time in each other's cities, but that's not quite possible. And actually their COVID situation at the moment, means they've actually put their festival back a couple of weeks. So our dates don't quite marry up, which is a real shame, but again, we've done an exchange program with six venues in Singapore and six in London, and then these guys have been collaborating over zoom and over email and whatnot. And they've each created a cocktail that will each be served in each other's bars, as part of both the festivals. So it's, it's a really nice, it's really lush actually. And the girls that run the festival over, they're just really get it too. And so we've had, we've had some really lovely conversations. The tourism board has really been really supportive. So yeah, there's some really nice overseas stuff happening, more than we thought would be able to happen. So we've really chuffed actually.
Tiff: Now, let's talk a little bit about Covent Garden. You're making the West End much more of a focus this year. Why is that?
Hannah: The West Ends had it really tough, the city as well. It's kind of, it's all those places with those big offices and big shops, where people just haven't yet really gone back to, so the bars in those areas have been a little bit decimated throughout all of this. So we had the opportunity to do some more meaningful work with Covent Garden. We have actually worked with them a few times before, but we had a really Frank conversation that was like, we, you know, we have tens of thousands guests, do you want them? Um,
Tiff: So yeah,
Hannah: Covent Garden is such an enormous tourist driver anyway for the capital. Anyway, so they've helped us with the big space, It's beautiful actually, it used to be a retail shop, but it's a sky-lit building and that's, that's where our main bar is.
And then we've got some things going into the piazza, so there'll be some little pop-ups happening sort of throughout. And it's nowhere near that kind of level we used to do with the cocktail village, just because there's not been enough support around organizing events of that size until a little bit more recently. And obviously, as you can imagine, that takes months to put together but within reason Covent Garden, will have hopefully a little bit of that buzz and vibe that we always used to have. Just again as always a little bit more spread out just to be safe.
Tiff: Can you run through the COVID safety protocols that you guys will be implementing?
Siobhan: Being part of London cocktail week as a guest is one of the safest ways to enjoy cocktail culture in London, because obviously it's happening within the bars. It's all self guided, so you get a London cocktail week wristband, and then you can go to any one of the bars and taste their signature cocktail for seven pounds.
And so you can do that just with the people in your household if you want to, you can make sure you have a seated reservation. Obviously all the bars are following certain protocols in line with the guidelines. And so, because it is completely at your own pace and you can. You can really pick and choose how you engage with the festival, it is really, really safe way to get back out there and enjoy what the city has to offer.
Tiff: Now, I believe you're organizing cocktail delivery and also staycation initiatives.
Siobhan: Yes. London Cocktail Week all about inclusivity, and we wanted to just make sure that if people didn't want to go out or they couldn't go out because especially with relevant last year, that they could still engage with the festival. And so we introduced London Cocktail Week At Home. That's in partnership with a company called the Drinks Drop. And what they do is re-imagined recipes from bars across the country, actually, usually, but obviously our focus is London bars, into pouches that can be delivered to people's homes, through their letterbox.
So it's a really nice way to bring the experience into people's living rooms. The other really nice thing is that a proportion of that revenue from those cocktails sales goes back to the bartender who created it or the bar that created it. So that was something that, yeah, it's nice. It's, it's something important for us to continue.
So that will be once again, happening. We've got, I think around 12 cocktails available for home delivery this year, as well as a Singapore tasting box and also a CBD mixer tasting box with a company called Intune Drinks, who's one of our lovely partners this year. So that's a really nice element and it was a great success last year, and so we're hoping that that success would be repeated again this year.
And then with regards to the staycations. Yeah. Again, London tourism, actually all tourism, who we kidding, has taken obviously a huge hit, but London's our city. And last year we wanted to champion hotels within the Capitol and encourage people in the UK to say, you know, you can't fly abroad this year. Why don't you visit London? And try out one of the fantastic hotels in our city. So we did that last year. We just shine a spotlight on some of the hotels that are participating on the seven pound signature cocktail initiative. So, people can go, stay at an hotel, try the seven pound signature cocktail there, perhaps explore the local area and the bars around there. And it's just a kind of a nice little bonus, I guess, so as Hannah mentioned earlier, we've got a number of new bars on the list and they're not all new openings that some of them are just new to London Cocktail Week. And we're going to be updating the list with even more features about the different hotels that are open, I'm ready to welcome guests in London. Cause they've all got such different personalities, that's the thing. So we're hoping to bring that to life in our, in our comms and encourage people to really make a night event.
Hannah: And the really, really terrible part. And I know you're going to feel really bad for us about this, is that we have to go and stay in all of them.
Tiff: Oh I do feel bad for you. It was a hard enough job to start with
Hannah: yeah, we have to drink the drinks and we have to stay in the lovely hotel beds with the lovely hotel sheets. It is, it is true. So yeah. Tough job, someone's got to do it. We're carrying the baton for everyone.
Tiff: Now, it might be my imagination, but having a look at your website, it seemed that there was much more of a focus on groups this year.
Siobhan: I think that's really clear in the vibes in London. It's obviously people getting back together that they haven't seen for a really long time. And I think the line that we've been using is get the gang back together and actually a couple of times Hannah and I've been sitting in a coffee shop, watching the world go on the side of the street. And it's just so nice to see people reunite
Hannah: yeah, we were at the station. What made you remember the other day? These girls were like, do we do we hug? And they both were like, we do.
And then they had this like lush cuddle, and they're both like beaming. We were like, oh, look at this. Oh more of this. It's so nice
Tiff: well, what do you guys have planned sounds amazingly exciting, if people want more information, they can, of course go to your website, which is London cocktail week.com. And I imagine connect with you on your socials.
Hannah: Yes, please.
Siobhan: They can. So London cocktail week official is Instagram. or if you want to get in touch with Hannah and I directly, we actually have a joint Instagram account, which is, Hans underscore London, if you want to get in touch with us directly, although we do also run the London Cocktail Official accounts. So you've got a choice
Tiff: Excellent. Well, thank you very much to both of you for joining us.
Hannah: Thank you so much for having us, we loved it
Tiff: and it sounds like it's going to be amazing.
Siobhan: Maybe we'll be able to do this podcast in person
Tiff: yes, that would be lovely. All right, girls. Well, thank you both.
Hannah: Thank you so much.
And thank you for joining us. If you like what you've heard, please leave a rating and review on iTunes. Otherwise we will see you next time and make sure you're living a life of intelligence.