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Behind the Carta Switchel: A New Drinks Movement

Jane Ryan | 04/02/2016

Iain Griffiths' journey to better drinks and how it led to an international competition and a bartender academy.

Creativity starts before putting shit in a glass.

So says Iain Griffiths, cutting straight to his rather blunt point. Iain, for those who have never heard of him, is part-owner of Dandelyan and White Lyan and is one of the more forward-thinking creatives in the drinks industry. We might even push that to most, in cahoots with his talented partner Ryan Chetiyawardana.

For the record Iain is also the type of person who is totally at liberty to say words like shit because he has a wonderful and robust vocabulary which he superbly peppers with profanities. Also he’s Australian.

We’ve come to meet Iain in the early hours of a Friday morning (10am for bartenders might as well be like scheduling your first meeting at 5am) to discuss his progress in the mammoth global competition known as Bacardi Legacy. It’s extremely prestigious and competitive and not the sort of place you’d expect to find someone who is already as well-known, or as out-spoken, as Iain.

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But here he is, nearing the end of a worldwide campaign to promote his drink the Carta Switchel as part of the top three in the UK. His point of difference, as ever, is his creativity and his belief that the only way forward is to start facing the future of drinks.

“It’s time to stop looking back and start looking forward. We’ve explored everything that’s been done before. We’ve done Jerry Thomas, we’ve done sours and punches and super bitter drinks. We’ve even done disco drinks. We’ve repeatedly looked back on ourselves.”

But the Carta Switchel isn’t a brand new type of cocktail. In fact in September 2015 the Guardian published this heading ‘Switchel: the new (but really old) apple cider drink hipsters can't get enough of’. It’s basically a drink made with apple cider vinegar, ginger and a sweetener. It was all the rage in the 1800s and as the Guardian astutely pointed out “is becoming popular again with the types of people who ride vintage bicycles, raise chickens and keep bees on their roof. Those are the same people who wear their facial hair like woodsman pioneers in the 1800s, with plaid shirts and suspenders. People with tattoos diagramming cuts of beef. People who live in New York City in the borough that’s connected to Manhattan by the Brooklyn Bridge.”

This is, for the record, the non-alcoholic version which is tart, effervescent and absolutely delicious. It’s mind-bogglingly refreshing. And then it goes well with vodka, rye, bourbon and, of course, rum.  

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Iain’s journey to the switchel, however, wasn’t as simple as Googling it and clicking on the first Guardian link (that’s just for lazy journalists). In fact it was a deeply personal journey to understanding history and tradition as two separate entities. “I’ve always despised tradition – it’s a default safe mode, it breeds blandness and a lack of true creativity. But then I read an autobiography of Vivenne Westwood which was hugely inspirational. The book taught me there’s a difference though between history and tradition, and that I’ve been ignoring a huge opportunity for creativity.”

And so, dear reader, I immediately went out and bought the book, because if one of the most creative people you know says something like that, you go and buy the book.

All of which leads to Iain tinkering away at a cocktail with apple vinegar. He’s trying to adjust the PH in the vinegar and can’t find information anywhere. History provides in the form of old cook books, which tended to have a little section in the front for drinks to make before serving dinner.

“That was where I found the switchel. It’s not a new drink but that was my process of discovering it.”

Iain is completely honest about the fact he’s never read a cocktail book cover to cover. Instead he turns outside of the industry bubble for motivation and inspiration, from cook books to sci-fi. “The only way to get a fresh perspective is to get outside the industry. I try and get my bartenders to not think they have to go home and work on skills but to get them to go to a bar and talk about anything else. Cocktails are great but you can’t chat about them too long. Realise that and put the cocktail book down. Read anything else, art, fashion, whatever it is you’re interested in. Of course I believe we need to continue to produce cocktail books, and people like Dave Broom will always be looked at as having contributed so much in 100 years time, but it shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all.”

A NEW CLASSIC

Bacardi Legacy is completely outside of what the Lyan bars normally do – which is more challenging drinks, things that are weird or knock your socks off. Yet Legacy asks bartenders to create the next modern classic, which could be found in any bar across the world (although Iain did manage to sneak apple vinegar in there).

“For me the Penicillin is the single best contemporary classic and it works because Sam (Sam Ross of Attaboy, NY) just made it up and put it out there. It was authentic and genuine,” says Iain.

His plan is to get the drink made over 5000 times across the world before the end of the campaign. As he says, the bars reaching World’s 50 Best, Tales of the Cocktail awards or polling as best place to drink in Time Out are great, “but to kick arse you need bars who crush volume.”

undefinedHe’s also bringing the best of the world to London to educate young bartenders. In an initiative called the Carta Switchel Academy he’s flown in the brightest and most talented bartenders to sit down and talk, about humble beginnings, about culture and bringing that into your job, about why we shake as we shake, pour as we pour and learn the basics.

“I don’t want to say you have to do a certain amount of time or a certain job before becoming a bartender – that’s a luddite notion – I would say there are different experiences out there.”

Chatting with Iain is certainly one of them. Even if he self-depreciatingly says “I’d like to claim some part of me is punk even though I’m probably just another white guy with tattoos.” Tattoos and skin colour aside, no one is ever just another guy when they’re asking us to think outside of the industry and the world which surrounds us. If a Vienne Westwood autobiography can inspire the re-emergence of a style of cocktail, just think, what could all those books gathering dust on our shelves do for the rest of the industry?

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