I was born in the bar trade. My old man Steve, who is one of the partners, opened his first bar the year I was born. I started when I was 16 as a modern apprentice, 23 years ago. I have run venues all over the place, ending up in Bury St Edmunds. I ran Benson Blakes Bar & Grill here for 13 years. We won awards like Best Burger in Britain and got nominated for a Spirits Award. We sold that three years ago and the Stillery opened two years after that. I work as a brand development manager and do consultancy for other businesses, ranging from designing bar concepts to talking to sales teams.
I set up bars in New Zealand for the World Cup a few years back. My work with different people has taken me all over the country. The drinks industry is fairly small so we end up working in different places.
The Stillery was actually the function area for Benson Blakes. It doesn’t really have a front door in that it is not on a high street. It is a room tucked away and we share toilets and access with another bar, there is a buzzer and code to get up. It is in a space tucked away, you wouldn’t know it was there. There is no sign as such, just a very small one. We purposefully picked a space that was a not high-street retail space. We have a working distillery in the corner including a 6ft stainless steel still from Holland, and all the water purification systems. There is a bar that we use for education and sessions on teaching people about booze and drinks.
The word ‘pub’ has been redefined. I don’t know if there is such thing as a pub or a bar any more. We are very much not what you would call either. We are taking a bit of a different view on what we feel people need – it is slightly more experiential drinking. Part of our mission statement and remit is to try and further education about products, rather than people being forced to just drink whatever. We want to get people to try different things. We are a bar, distillery and education space. On Friday and Saturday nights, we open as a cocktail bar that predominantly does gin and cocktails with table
service. We have an educational programme where we offer tastings and talks about the drinks world. It is about opening up conversation about drinks and engaging with people.
We produce one gin at the moment and will do three within a few months. Plus we are working on a few other fun products. Our USP is that we are experiential, trying to get people to explore liquid rather than just ordering a drink at a bar. We do this by producing new things, talking to people, or engaging with customers when ordering a drink.
We are very much cocktail-based and our menu is ever-developing but based upon classics. We have a very small craft bottled beer section and a small concentrated selection of wine, using slightly different grape varieties rather than the norm. Our strong soft drink offering is built on flavour and taste rather than cola and lemonade. We don’t actually have anything like that. We just made a drink using burnt banana cordial, pecan nuts, and washed some Reese’s sweets with some rum to make a kind of daiquiri. Our drinks are trying to open up people’s minds to what drinks can be. We have a gin selection with matching tonics. We have been messing about with our still and flavouring up, steam-distilling water to impart flavour and create bases – using different textures and flavours.
We make our own syrups and juices. Rather having a non-alcoholic Mojito, we would much rather attempt to create a different texture and flavour, using unusual things.
We don’t have an all-the-time food offering. The only food we have at the moment is free popcorn. We make flavourings to go along with it, we dehydrate some stuff into powders like a curry powder, for a bit of fun.
Sometimes we do pop-ups with restaurants and bars, they come in and produce a tapas or bite-size style menu that we can match with drinks. I don’t know if we will introduce a food side. You can be all things to all people and we probably need to bulk up on that side of it a bit more. But the other side of it is that certainly now, in today’s market, I’m not entirely sure you need that. It is not going to be a chef in a kitchen, by any stretch of the imagination.
We want to open people’s eyes to flavour profiles working together.
We only open solidly to the general public two days a week and then hold regular and private events about four to five times a week. We pick classic cocktails and tell people where they come from and get them to make their own. We might take on bigger ideas like ‘where does this drink come from and how does it get here?’ which is a two hour course.
I would like to do music but we haven’t really got the space. All our events are fairly seasonal as we look to ingredients and what is going on in people’s lives to try to create that thing together. We had a local soapbox race last year and are probably going to do the same this year for a bit of fun and profile-building.
We do events every week and that is what the whole thing is, rather than putting on one-off special events like other pubs and bars would do. It is essentially a festival all the time.
We are looking at a few things products wise: more gins, spiced rums, craft cocktails. We work with other people and sometimes produce spirits for them. We are developing drinks all the time and trying to further the idea of drink making. With the courses, our goal is to continue in the same vein we are, but to engage more with media.
Our events cater for, generally, 30 people, but we are doing stuff that could engage further. Increasing that size of the business, in the sense of using online broadcasts like Facebook Live, and trying to find ways to shout our message out is quite exciting.
Our target customer is curious and interested in what they are drinking. That customer could be 18 or 80. It is a state of mind rather than an actual demographic. Of course, at the end of the day, we are the sort of venue where you will sit down and have a conversation. We are perhaps not the cheapest place in the world so will aim at people perhaps who have a bit more money in their pocket and who are looking for an experience rather than a busy, loud bar. Ultimately, it comes down to, are you curious.
The trade has changed – the first pint of Stella I sold was £1.69. We have gone through peaks and troughs but, fundamentally, we have always done the same thing, giving people a space to engage, meet their future partner or friends, or do whatever they do. That’s what a bar has always been since the start of time.
This trade has gone through ups and downs in this country. We went through the stages of it being very food-heavy and then all binge-drinking and ‘10 pints of lager, six shots of Jägermeister and throw up on your mate’s shoes’. Now we have come out into this area that is more discerning and consumers know a lot more. We have to up our game and that is fun. It is a good place to be. The industry has changed a whole lot and we need to recognise the areas we need to get better at – and do better at them. I don’t think the pub is dead. Put it this way – it needs to evolve and change the same as everything else.
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