In the history of cocktails, we’ve spent more time trying to mask the taste of spirits than we have actually celebrating them. But recently the intricate marriage of unexpected flavours has not only become fundamental to cocktail making, but also to the distillation of the various spirits we put in these drinks.
Add to that, the number of techniques that bartenders have borrowed from the kitchen. And it’s surprising that we’ve not seen more chefs, not only behind the bar but also beside the still. One such chef that has stepped forward to transfer his culinary skills into liquid is renowned celebrity chef Robert Irvine.
We talked to Robert about the inspiration behind Irvine Spirits, the vodka and gin he has produced and, of course, the cocktails that you can make with it.
For more information, go to irvinespirits.com or connect with the brand via @irvinespirits on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Tiff: In the history of cocktails, we've spent more time trying to mask the taste of spirits than we have actually celebrating them. But recently the intricate marriage of unexpected flavours has not only become fundamental to cocktail making, but also to the distillation of the various spirits we put in these drinks.
Add to that, the number of techniques that bartenders have borrowed from the kitchen. And it's surprising that we've not seen more chefs, not only behind the bar, but also beside the still. One such chef that has stepped forward to transfer his culinary skills into liquid is renowned celebrity chef Robert Irvine.
We talked to Robert about the inspiration behind Irvine Spirits, the vodka and gin he has produced and, of course, the cocktails that you can make with it.
Thank you for joining us, Robert.
Robert: Thank you. Thank you. Exciting times
Tiff: Now the obvious question is why would a chef want to create a spirits range?
Robert: What chefs do is create food and flavours and textures. So for me bringing out Irvine's just takes us to the next levels. So chefs are always trying to create experiences and we obsess and that's a big word, obsess, over flavours and textures. So cocktails and spirit pairings have always been there.
So now, I see, we're trying to curate or control that experience. I often talk about food's power to bring people together. If you take away food, good drinks do the same thing. So I've been thinking about this for a long time. How do we take the next step? And here it is.
Tiff: Your spirits are produced by a distillery called Boardroom Spirits. You've been a co-owner in that distillery for the past four years. Why bring the liquids out now?
Robert: Yes, it's actually five years. I've been with Boardroom now, but when I got into it, it was really interesting, I met Boardroom Spirits folks at a veterans event in Philadelphia, there was doing a fundraiser. Loved them, loved their products. So I bought into the company.
Since then, we've done an awful lot of growing, bigger stills getting ready for basically taking this to the marketplace. And we've utilized a lot of market research and tapped into the distillers, the master distillers that we have.
we started to develop the products, the gin, and the vodka-based on my flavour profiles and what I wanted to bring to that market. So it's ready now and I couldn't be more excited for sure.
Tiff: So this was definitely a pre COVID plan and not something you just came up with during lockdown?
Robert: That's correct.
The difference now between coming up with the idea before COVID and after, obviously we're all in the same issues now with supply chain logistical issues, but overall we're getting there. We began during COVID, manufacturing hand sanitiser and giving that away free, once you've purchased a bottle of the spirit, but yeah now we've got the same issues, obviously, with bottles and things like that, but we're getting through it. I think for us, our shiny moment in the distillery was helping our first responders, our military folks with sanitiser and we were the first in the country to do that. It's exciting.
Tiff: It must be incredibly difficult to actually launch a spirit at this point, in terms of being able to get your hands on raw materials, as well as send the gin or vodka out to the world.
Robert: It is, like everything else, we're in the food business, we're in the protein bar business and they're having the same problems, but, once you find, and you can commit to volume is a lot easier to get the product in, then if I'm saying, 10,000 bottles, we buy 100,000, 200,000 bottles at a time, it's a lot easier that way. Same with our ingredient list.
Tiff: Do you think that people are more experimental, with what they're willing to taste and try post-COVID, than they might've been before.
Robert: Absolutely. I think what COVID taught us was the meaning of family and life again, I think. But I believe that also taught us to test the waters in different areas, like different drinks, different foods, curate more stuff at home. And that's why obviously liquor sales went through the roof here in the states, and I'm sure it was around the world. But yes, I believe that people are more willing to try things they've never done before post COVID because they've enjoyed them or they've heard about them or they've read about them.
Tiff: Now with your gin especially, do you think that being a chef gives you a better sense of botanicals and how they can be used?
Robert: Chefs are a weird bunch of folks. We're crazy. We're like the mad scientists, and we want to create something that's cool. So, being British, I grew up with Gin. And being a chef, I'm very picky about what I think it should taste, like, I don't want to drink a gin that tastes like Christmas trees. So we created this amazing Gin and I call it the non-gin drinker's Gin because you can love gin, and you can hate gin. When you try the Robert Irvine gin, both the astute gin drinkers and the beginners or people who don't like it, are going to love it for sure.
Tiff: What sort of flavours will they experience?
Robert: It's interesting because we've got tea; we've got blackberries; we've got cinnamon, Ceylon cinnamon. I actually went to Ceylon to look at the cinnamon being harvested. So there's a lot of thought into the blend for sure, and it's very ... I would say more floral and lighter than anything else. And if you think of Gin being the heavy Juniper base, mine is not.
Tiff: So it's more a modern style than, let's say, traditional London Dry.
Robert: Oh, absolutely. It's more of an American gin. In the twenties, America was famous for Gin, believe it or not, not so much now, but I think there's definitely a Renaissance coming there, but going back to, I think the world is thinking about healthier ways of living, healthier food, and this Gin is definitely a lighter version of that.
Tiff: When you say healthier, how does that come through the Gin?
Robert: It's all non-GMO products, it's all fresh products. We use infusion when we distil, as opposed to when I first got into Boardroom, we were using in our Vodka, 13 pounds of fresh cranberries, 8 pounds of fresh citrus. And obviously, it's great if you're a small distiller to do that and I really wanted the sediment in the vodka and the line itself, but then when you go on a mass scale, you can't do that because it looks weird with bits floating in it, basically the cranberries or the lemon or the ginger, but we've figured out a new distilling method.
Tiff: Explain more about that then.
Robert: When you distil there are many ways first of all, the distilling process you look at what I call the heads, so with distilling something, we can't use the head or the top of the distil. We get rid of that, the hearts, which is in the middle. And if you think about somebody that was drinking homemade moonshine and you've heard, 'oh, we drink homemade moonshine, you go blind', it would probably be drinking the top of the still, which is the worst you have to discard that. We discard that, we use the hearts and then what's left at the bottom of the tank, the residue, the sediment, you can't drink that and lot of people use that, we don't, we get rid of that. It's an interesting process of infusing and traditional
Tiff: You mentioned earlier that you thought that the US was going to possibly go through a Gin Renaissance, what do you think its future is there?
Robert: I think, and it's happening right now I believe, and we're in the midst of it. I think for decades and decades, Vodka has been the drink. And I think here in the states, the Renaissance of gin from the twenties is coming back. We've got a lot of the gin bars, cruise liners are really heavy into gin programs now. So I think we've hit the market at the right time with a very unique product. And I say unique because it is an American style Gin, not a British style Gin ... Lighter, more flavourful I believe, so I think we're going to see in the next couple of years, I don't think Jim will overtake vodka, but I think it will be a very close second.
Tiff: Now, speaking of the vodka, what is it about your vodka that stands out particularly.
Robert: It's all made with non GMO corn. We focus on, obviously, fresh product, which is just like I do in the kitchen. And we're doing a lot of variations of vodka, not just a straight vodka. We do a ginger vodka, a citrus vodka, a cranberry vodka, all those kinds of things. So I think what people will expect from us is a fresher, more vibrant taste.
Tiff: Do you believe that the two expressions are filling a gap in the market?
Robert: I think they're creating a different segment, believe it or not? Yes. We've all got vodka, there's potato vodka, corn vodka. I think these are very unique in flavour profiles. If you look at the gin, I've used 13 botanicals, Elderberry, Black Current, tea. There's a very distinct flavour based on my profile. And we think of chefs - and I keep going back to that because we have a very different nuance of flavours, as we get older our taste buds change and obviously the younger we are the better or more tastebuds we have. So I think we're marketing to a, 19 to 63-year group of people that are dabbling in stuff that they've never dabbled in before. So I think we're creating a niche. The complexity of the drinks themselves are new and every time you sip something, you taste a different flavour, which is to me, exciting.
Tiff: Are they flavours that are going to feel familiar to people or are they incredibly new?
Robert: I think there's somewhat familiar but incredibly new and that's an oxymoron, isn't it? Really? But when you think of Gin, you think of Juniper? Yes, you're going to still taste Juniper, but you're going to taste elderberry, you're going to taste Blackberry and you never taste that in Gin because the Juniper overpowers it. And it took a couple of years to develop this, what I consider the perfect profile for me. And when I say me, I normally cook the way I like, and people love it. And this is the same with when I drink or create things. Hopefully, they'll love it. Again it's a different approach, if you think about I dunno elderberry, right? It's a great jammy flavour. But you don't want too much jam. You don't want too much Juniper. Do you want the tea? What type of tea? English Breakfast, Tea, Jasmine Tea. There's a blend of things in there that are very different. So, while you might be able to pick out the Juniper, even though it's not very intense, you'll be able to taste the other flavours and you can't say that about any other Gin, that I've tried anyway. So again it's new and, the way which we distil in the pot and we vapour infuse, it creates a very different profile.
If you vapour infuse, think about this, it's not like when we put something into a pot and we boil it, we can't control the flavour profile. We get whatever we get from that. With vapour infusing, you can literally put the amount of flavour you want from each of those ingredients into that gin or that vodka. And I think that's a key element here.
Tiff: It sounds like it's very much a balance of the flavours that you've tried to create.
Robert: Absolutely. And that's a great word balance. You don't want one flavour to overpower another, and that's how I find a lot of gins, a lot of vodkas, and you said a great thing when you open the show. We've spent decades and decades of trying to cover the flavour of alcohol. We don't need to here, it literally is crisp, it's clean and it's pure. So I can taste everything that's in it, I don't need to cover it up. We have a ginger vodka as a hundred proof. I can add a diet seltzer and it's perfect. The same with any of the drinks. Think about, I dunno, give me one of your favourite gin drinks.
Tiff: Alright. Bee's Knees.
Robert: Okay. I can literally take a dropper of honey, add two drops of honey, make a bee's knees and you wouldn't need anything else in this drink. And the honey wouldn't overpower that drink. It would accent the rest of the botanicals in the drink.
For me, and I'm not a mixologist, I'm a chef, but we are so similar in the fact that we can tweak and talk and touch and smell. And it's amazing how we are so much alike, yet so different.
Tiff: Would you say then that both the gin and the vodka have actually been developed with cocktails in mind?
Robert: For sure. I would absolutely ... I don't know anybody that does shots of vodka. I'm sure there are people out there. But we want to enjoy, we want to take time. It's like food, it's an experience. A cocktail is an experience. When you go to one of my restaurants you go there for the ambience, you go there for the service and you go there for the food. It's not just one thing. We don't just go there for food, because the service could be bad. We don't just go there because the food is great and the bar is bad. We go there for a total experience, and that's what you're getting with these two spirits. You sit, you saver, you enjoy, you taste, you think and then you continue to drink. And I think that's what we do in the restaurant business is we create an experience of food, drink and service.
You go to a bar because you may like the bartender, you may not even know the bartender, but you want a great drink. And these two drinks, the gin and a vodka are going to create great drinks.
Tiff: Now I know neither of the expressions has been out for very long, but what is the reaction?
Robert: The reaction is unbelievable. We're in about 12 states right now. Hopefully, in the next three or four months, we'll be in 40 states. I think it's, it's like everything else. When you launch something, you have to be in the space. People know me on the TV space as food and saving restaurants and fitness and all those kinds of things. And we're getting a great name in spirits because people are loving the flavour profiles.
Tiff: The distribution system in the US, even for seasoned professionals, it's quite a maze to navigate, I suppose it must have been quite a learning curve
Robert: The good thing is we have a lot of retail distribution in what we do in food and nutrition products and we're known for quality. So when we decided to launch Irvine's we had a little bit more of a bump or an easier life because people know what we did from those products.
When we took the gin and the vodka out first, everybody was like okay, is another gin, another vodka? And unfortunately for them when he tried it, they're like oh, this is not another brand of vodka. This is not another gin. These are special. And that's been the impression in major retailers and major liquor stores, we have not gone yet into bars and restaurants and that sort of thing. That's phase two. We're really in retail right now. But every bartender every mixologists that I've given this to created amazing things and been really impressed, I would say at the profiles. And again, I keep using that word profile, the flavour profile, because that's how we work as chefs.
Tiff: You've said that some of the bartenders you've given it to have created amazing things. What sort of cocktails have there been working on?.
Robert: Oh, I can send you a list. We have probably, I dunno, 20 or 30 different products that we've been using or that we've created vodka martinis, which are not new drinks. But if you mix red bull with it, different, right? So I'm just using some of those kinds of traditional things that we do that we put twists on. We have we're the only ones right now, that I know of that have created a gin and tonic with a diet tonic that we make that's in a can that has zero calories in it. Things like that, but I can send you a list of all the things that we've done.
Tiff: Have there been any drinks that you didn't expect?
Robert: Yeah. I There's been a lot of smoking, funny enough, and we have a barbecue line in food. And we think of smoking with whiskey and scotch and bourbon, but we don't think of it with gin. And we've looked at right now, a grapefruit gin, which I'm excited about at the moment. But nothing crazy, but a lot of smoking stuff has been done and that's new to me cause I've never had a drink with vodka or gin that has been smoked before.
Tiff: Did you like it?
Robert: It was unusual for me, but it was good.
Tiff: How do you like to drink either the vodka or the gin?
Robert: So I'm a straight-up gin and tonic kind of guy. I'm old school vodka, and cranberry but very little cranberry, a splash of orange. So I'm an old school guy, my dad was a gin drinker. He passed away a couple of years ago, but yeah, so I grew up in the Hendricks kind of world and he was a hardcore Hendricks guy.
How do you drink it? Tell me how you drink.
Tiff: I drink whiskey most of the time.
Robert: Oh, we will have one of them. We'll have a bourbon and we'll have whiskey soon, but
Tiff: well look forward to that. Now, if people are buying a bottle, how do you recommend that they first experience it?
Robert: That's a great question. How do they experience it?
I think, first of all, I think, again, I go back to being the chef. The first thing I do is smell everything. You buy the bottle, you open it, you smell it because you'll be able to smell the flavour and then drink the way you want it, drink it. It's very hard to change somebody's habits of drinking. You can change a brand, but the drinks, pretty much stay the same. It's not like a restaurant, where you go in and look at a menu and say, oh, let me have one of them. Most people know what they want to drink when they walk into a bar because they're used to it. Yeah, I don't think we're ever going to change that.
But what I would like to say to them is, Hey, listen, instead of trying another gin or vodka, give Irvine's a shot, the way you drink it, but smell it and taste it neat before you actually mix anything with it, because it is great on its own. It really is. A cube of ice, either one and then drinks it the way you want to drink it.
Tiff: Now you've hinted to a bourbon and a whiskey being in the future. What are the plans for the brand?
I would love, so a lot of what we do in fact, most of what we do is built around charity. So all my restaurants, all my food and et cetera, there's a huge component that goes to our foundation, the Robert Irvine Foundation. That takes care of first responders and our military veterans and active duty men and women and gold star families.
Everything you buy, a huge portion goes to those, to that charity. And we build homes, we buy post-traumatic stress dogs, and we train them and give them away. So I think continued philanthropy is all about that. It literally is. It's not about making money.
We all have to make money, but to me, that's not the forefront. I think if you put out a product or products that are amazing they stand on their own, the name can open the door, of course. But then, if you buy it once and you don't like the flavour, you never buy it again. And for me, all the products that we do are tremendous flavours, tremendous profiles. And you'll go back not only because you're doing good for communities and whatever, but also because you can buy a luxury product at not a premium price. So it's not going to break your bank.
Tiff: You mentioned that you will be in 40 markets shortly. Where are the gin and the vodka available now?
Robert: So right now is available in Maine, New Hampshire, California, Oregon, Pennsylvania. And if you go to. irvinespirit.com, you'll be able to see where they are. But that is a work in progress. It changes every day because we have a disruptive model. We're trying to own the licenses in each of those states, instead of, going through a third party, which is a lot easier, But we're in big control states right now, obviously California and Philadelphia and New Hampshire. But that changes literally every day.
So by the end of this year, hopefully, 40 plus markets.
Tiff: And do you have plans to export?
Robert: We do, not till next year. Hopefully, we're in talks with a lot of folks right now. And hopefully by the beginning of next year, if the supply chain eases up, obviously right now as we discussed earlier, it's a little tough. But I do believe by Christmas or the first quarter next year, we'll have plans set, and hopefully, we can send you that information that when we get further on with that. But yeah, I just want everywhere you see a liquor, you'll see Irvine's,
Tiff: What do you want people to take away from their experience with any of the Irvine spirits?
Robert: I think I want people to take away the feeling of uniqueness, great quality for a great price point and they're doing something good, no matter where it is. Okay. Right now is in the states then. And we're building homes here, but as we started to venture out worldwide, then we will start to partner with local charities in those areas.
And give money to those charities from the sales of Irvine's Spirits. And that's my hope. It's all about philanthropy. How can we make a difference in the places that we go. Right now it's here in the United States, but it'd be England, France, Germany, Italy, and so on Australia and New Zealand, and we will partner with those charities based on where we are
Tiff: Now if people want to find out more information, they can, as you mentioned, go to the website, which is irvinespirits.com or connect with the brand via your socials.
Robert: Yeah. They can go to @irvinespirits on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Tiff: Excellent. Look, Robert, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.
Robert: Thank you. Take care.