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The smell of the drinks lab, the roar of the crowd

There’s an element of theatre when any bartender gets behind the stick, but the team behind Purl and Worship Street Whistling Shop have taken it to new levels. Clinton Cawood joins them backstage


A piano’s being tuned in the background, a series of aromas wafts out of the kitchen, and a bartender preps furiously behind the bar, as two of the four directors of Fluid Movement talk at me, each speaking a mile-a-minute, animatedly discussing all aspects of their diverse operation.

We’re in Worship Street Whistling Shop between service – backstage at one of the most immersive drinking experiences in London. The Fluid Movement team set up this Dickensian gin palace earlier this year; it is their second bar.

‘Before we opened this place,’ says Tristan Stephenson, ‘I went to the Museum of London. They’ve got a replica Victorian street, with an apothecary, a barber’s, a sweet shop... As soon as I saw it, I thought that’s what I want to create.’

True enough, the bar even contains a ‘dram shop’, complete with an antique bathtub filled with botanicals, which additionally does service as a table.

In contrast, on the other side of the room is a glass-walled laboratory, filled with modern equipment that is used extensively in the daytime to create many of the unique ingredients on the bar’s list.

It’s hard to believe that the group’s first bar, the speakeasy-style Purl in Marylebone, only opened in June last year, so firmly is it established as an icon on the London cocktail map. To hear Thomas Aske speak of it, its success seems almost incidental.

‘We opened Purl because we needed an office,’ he says. ‘It was just a functional space that we could use in the day for meetings, but also use as a showcase for our consultancy work.

‘Purl really gave us the foundations for Fluid Movement to grow, as it provided a steady revenue stream. We weren’t worried about where our next consultancy job or event job came from.’ Dressed in a t-shirt and baseball cap, he looks as unlikely a businessman as he sounds.

Both possess an amphibious ability to talk either business or cocktails with equal ease – assuming the role of bartender one moment, and company director the next. Aske modestly concedes: ‘We struck upon a very good concept at just the right time.’

‘The speakeasy thing hadn’t been done for a while,’ adds Stephenson. ‘Everyone had forgotten about it. That, coupled with our use of the molecular side – that people were only using in industry comps, rather than showing off to customers – meant that we were cutting-edge.’

Speaking about Purl’s theatrical drinks offering, Aske, for a moment, is both creative bartender and hard-nosed businessman. ‘To have a drink that generates the same GP as a Daiquiri, but has visible aromas and fog and smoke, makes sense from a business point of view, but from the guest’s point of view, they’re drawn into this world of excitement, like being a child again.’

It wasn’t long before Stephenson and Aske – along with Fluid Movement’s other two founding directors, Bryan Pietersen and Matt Hoffman-Whiley  – had their eyes on another bar, all the while continuing to run the consultancy and event side of the business. Fluid Movement, according to Aske, was set up by the four without any supplementary financial backing.

‘We had an incredible consultancy opportunity, where we spent a month in Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea, doing an $8m restaurant and bar that was opening out there. So we quit our day
jobs, reinvested the consultancy money to open Purl, and expanded from there.’

Worship Street Whistling Shop followed not long after, and the result has been what Aske calls a ‘slightly altered structure’ compared to the early days of Purl, when all four directors worked five or six days a week, and the rest of the staff consisted of one waitress and one barback. Now, Fluid also has a creative beverage manager, Ryan Chetiyawardana, based at the Whistling Shop (who moonlights as an Imbibe columnist), plus Sam Watson, bar manager at Purl, each heading up a full team.

PAST PRODUCIONS

Thomas Aske: Started out glass-collecting at the Cafe Metz in Nottingham in 1998, before working in a series of other venues in the city. In 2005 he became Jose Cuervo brand ambassador, before moving to Reserve Brands in 2006.

Bryan Pietersen: Originally from South Africa, he worked as a bar manager in Nottingham from 2001 until entering the property game in London in 2005.

Tristan Stephenson: Has more than ten years’ experience in the trade. He set up the bar at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall in 2005, before becoming a brand ambassador with Reserve Brands in 2007. He came 3rd in 2009’s UK Barista Championships.

Matt Hoffman-Whiley: A former cricket player, he has worked in bars in both Nottingham and London, including Molton House and Zuma Knightsbridge.

One Bartender Required...

Talking about staff, Stephenson smiles wryly. ‘We’re hiring now, actually. We’ve got a good talent pool – we’re very happy with the staff we have. It’s finding new ones you’re happy with that’s the key.
‘The more we’ve grown, the more essential it’s become to have people in place. As much as you want to do things yourself, there aren’t enough hours in the day to do so,’ he concludes.

Not that this stops him from trying – he had to be dragged away from Purl for this very interview, where he’d been perfecting a liquid nitrogen Eggnog ice cream. ‘It’s the reason I was late – it was really thin and weird. When you make ice-cream you’ve got to put milk solids in there that aren’t fatty. I had to buy some powdered milk – and now it’s great.’

It’s this kind of coal-face involvement that seems critical to Fluid’s operation. It spans all the way from conceptual, creative elements of the business, right down to the day-to-day running of the bars. At one point, mid-sentence with me, Aske turns to a bartender and points out a solitary chair that needs rearranging before service, before continuing. These are  not your typical company directors.
‘For us, it’s a lifestyle, as opposed to a job,’ he says. ‘We spend our time outside the bar researching or reading about the history of drinks, because it’s something that inspires us, so it comes naturally to want to explore it, instead of looking at it as a way of generating money. It obviously makes financial sense, but it’s from an interest point of view that the ideas stem.’

When I point out that Fluid Movement seems so much better at the implementation of ideas than most, Aske is bashful at first, but soon finds the right way to explain it: ‘I don’t think we ever doubt ourselves. If we’re going to do something, we do it as well as we physically can, and invest money and time into creating something that hasn’t been done, rather than something that has.’

There’s another benefit of this degree of involvement from the company’s directors: cool kit – as is amply proven by Whistling Shop’s lab. ‘That’s the crucial difference,’ says Stephenson. ‘We work in the bars, and know what we’re trying to do, so we’re happy to invest money in things like that.’
Aske agrees. ‘It’s hard to justify to a director that you want to spend five grand on a rotovap when he hasn’t got a bloody clue what it is, let alone what it’s used for.’

Their latest such expenditure at Whistling Shop takes matters even further. The result is the Cocktail Emporium, a multi-sensory experience combining food, drink, aroma, sound, film and more, to take the immersive, theatrical approach that Fluid has always done so well, and raise the bar.

The experience is fully customisable, and is currently dedicated to The History of Rum. In it, six consecutive drinks are presented alongside six dishes, each representing a different stage in the history of rum in cocktails, and each prompting a costume change from Stephenson, who presents.

Innovation Station

The team, predictably, has no shortage of future ideas for the Emporium. ‘For example, if we were doing scotch, we wouldn’t necessarily have to do a history – we could do a journey around the different parts of Scotland, with a plane ride between each region,’ says Stephenson.

This kind of relentless creative thought comes into play with the consultancy and events side of the business, too. ‘Without giving too much away, the fact is that consultancies fund bars, and bars create consultancy work,’ says Stephenson.

They’ve done significant work in this regard, both for brands and bars. This will no doubt continue to be the case, as the company evolves. And it will, if the team has anything to do with it.

‘If you’re consistently opening new things, and doing more and more work and new concepts – not in a predictable way, but changing boundaries – it means the lifespan of the company is longer,’ says Aske. Stephenson has another reason: ‘The industry’s transient, so there’s pressure to grow quickly, to keep people motivated with new things. It helps if you can give your staff new challenges internally.’

What form will this take? ‘The way we work,’ says Aske, ‘is we often base a concept on the venue we find, rather than thinking up a concept and trying to find a venue.’

And so, for now, the next production from this band of players will have to remain a mystery.

Purl, 50-54 Blandford Street,
London, W1U 7HX
Worship St Whistling Shop,
63 Worship Street, London, EC2A 2DU

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – November/December 2011

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