Tom Aske & Tristan Stephenson to open more Black Rock bars

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Location: UK
Other: People

Whisky is a category beloved by bartenders, but one that somehow seems to have been overlooked when it comes to innovation in the on-trade. Step forward Thomas Aske and Tristan Stephenson, co-owners of bar operator and drinks consultancy Fluid Movement, who have been tackling the stuffy stasis of the category in recent years.

‘It’s all about getting liquid on lips in the most accessible, least stuffy way. We’re trying to remove that stigma [around whisky]and just talk about the fact the liquid is amazing,’ explains Stephenson of their efforts working with whisky.

Stephenson and Aske were named Innovators of the Year at Imbibe’s Personality of the Year 2018, and one of the key reasons why is their recent work in the category.

First they opened Black Rock in 2016, their whisky bar without a bar, which sees whiskies sorted by flavour profile sitting in cabinets around the venue, while a huge oak tree table dominates the middle of the room, containing two channels ageing different whisky drinks. Customers can easily see how much a whisky will cost by the number of rocks a bottle wears on its neck.

Secondly, they launched Whisky Me, a subscription service that sees unusual whiskies sent to people in eye-catching plastic pouches, last November.

‘The whole reason why we did Black Rock and then Whisky Me is because there’s been a bit of puzzle missing from the whole whisky proposition,’ says Stephenson. ‘Whisky has developed so much in the last 10 years especially. Distilleries are pumping out new and interesting liquids, they’re changing their packaging, everything is just getting better, but what hasn’t improved is the places we go to drink it in.

‘Nothing has changed or evolved. It was still stuffy bars, inaccessible massive great walls of whisky, and generally lots of barriers to prevent access to the category.

‘Equally, in getting people drinking it in the home, supermarkets don’t really do much to promote whisky at the point of sale, and distilleries beyond making nice websites haven’t really done much to get people drinking and learning about it in the home.’

Changing the bar

Their work with Black Rock has prompted people to rethink the whisky bar category. Their aim, they say, was to make whisky ‘cooler’, to remove the ‘awkward conversation’ about price by having it clearly marked on the bottles, to physically ‘separate the whiskies into flavour groups’ and ‘give a practical viewpoint as to how whisky is aged’ with the oak tree table.

As Aske says, ‘People go in there and discover whisky almost for themselves rather than having to be guided. The beauty of that is when you feel you’ve found something, rather than being told about it, it gives you a greater sense of satisfaction. It’s that empowerment and discovery that changes things.’

Such is the success of Black Rock that the duo are planning on rolling the concept out to three other cities this year – as long as they find the venues – with Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol earmarked.

As for Whisky Me, the duo hit upon their plastic pouch idea when they realised they wouldn’t be able to safely package glass bottles and fit them through the letterbox. ‘We’ve got children, so we’re used to being surrounded by plastic food pouches, and one day I threw one full of vodka at Tom, and then realised “Holy shit, they don’t break very easily!”’ recalls Stephenson.

‘They’re also really thin, which saves on the postage. So the pouch was perfect because it made people stop and go, ‘What the fuck?’ you can put really, really good single malt in it, it reduced the postage costs, it’s unbreakable, you can stand on them. They look cool, they’re portable, you can stuff it in your pocket and drink it out and about.’

As Aske points out, ‘The beauty of [the reduced postage costs from the pouch packaging]is that it’s enabled us to go and put that saving back into the whisky that we’re buying. From a member perspective we’re able to offer whisky that’s £50, £60, £70 a bottle for an £80 a year subscription.’

They’ve picked up 1,100 subscribers in four months, and see big potential in the project. ‘There’s so many people out there primed to get started [with whisky], this whole gin thing is laying the foundation for a really big uptake in premium single malt whisky, because it’s British product. A lot of the gin distilleries that are opening now are opening with a view to be making whiskies in the future, and I think it’s going to be the next stage in the craft revolution,’ says Stephenson.

But why stop at the UK? The duo already have plans for taking Whisky Me international, ‘starting with Europe’.

‘This is our year to focus on whisky,’ says Aske. Which means that there’s going to be an awful lot more whisky on lips before the year is out.

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Laura Foster

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