William Borrell ushered in 2019 with a bang. In the space of a few cold weeks in January, he opened his third Ladies & Gentlemen bar in a disused Victorian toilet in Camden and launched his very own low-abv spirit, Willow (4.4%).
Over the years, Borrell has demonstrated an uncanny knack for spotting gaps in the market – gaps that others might not even realise are there, and his repurposing of underground toilets into cocktail bars certainly speaks to this ability. So does the Vestal Vodka brand, which he founded in 2011 with the aim of ditching vodka's neutral flavour – arguably one of the spirit's major selling points – and producing one with distinctive character.
And while his newest project, Willow, comes as the movement for less-and-better drinking is prompting a product launch per minute, he's managed to find a niche in a competitive market by going the low-abv route rather than completely alcohol-free.
Imbibe grabbed a few minutes of his time to discuss his new bar, his low-alcohol launch and his plans to make the most of both.
How did you come to open not one but two bars in underground toilets?
There were 12 different residents associations fighting us on our first bar [in Kentish Town]. The fear was that we were taking away a toilet and replacing it with a bar, but we came through in the end.
Then last year, the council came to me saying they've got another toilet in Camden, and they wanted me to pitch for it, and I got it. So we created another neighbourhood bar.
And what does ‘neighbourhood bar’ mean to you?
I liked the idea that a blue collar worker at the end of a shift could come in and have a shot and a beer, and some tech guy, a white collar worker, is ordering a Martini next to him. That's what happened at Ladies and Gents. It isn’t a bar propped up by the industry, by ‘startenders’, by friends of friends. It's a bar nobody knew about. Nobody knows me, I'm not a startender. We just had real people in.
We’ve heard whispers about some big expansion plans for Ladies & Gentlemen. Care to tell us more?
We're hoping in the next three years to open another six bars, mainly in London.
During the process of opening Camden I met up with people from city hall and the mayor's office, with Amy Lamé, the night czar [whose mission is to turn London into a 24-hour city]. She sees the value in taking spaces that aren't being used and transforming them to add revenue to councils.
She has direct contact with the right people in the right councils, and councils started coming to us. They're like, ‘We've got this toilet, can you do something with it?’
Last month, you also launched Willow, a low-abv spirit with a calvados base. Why did you decide to develop a product in the no- and low-alcohol category?
There has been a raft of no-alcohol spirits. We would serve them and people would push the drink back to us saying, ‘Why am I paying the same amount for this as a gin?’ We would have to say, ‘It's because we're spending the same amount of money on it as a gin’.
The pricing [of the no/low category] feels slightly disingenuous. If your goal is mindful drinking, helping people to not drink, wouldn't you make it more accessible? So we looked at it and thought, rather than bleat on about it, let's just make our own. [Willow is priced at £16/70cl.]
What did the development process look like?
Willow's first incarnation started about a year ago. Every Sunday, we invited bartenders to the Ladies & Gents bar in Kentish Town to come down and see us making it [in the bar’s microdistillery]. During that time the recipe evolved, which is what we wanted – we wanted people's feedback, a kind of open-source recipe.
[Originally,] we tried [to base a low-abv spirit on] gin or vodka. But we thought, we don't have to follow any roadmap here, so why are we trying to emulate something? The idea of taking calvados, with its rich, tart, almost sort of apple crumble-y flavour as a base, and combining that with other ingredients like pineapple, cherry tomato and kaffir lime, was a happy accident that just paid off.
We've also added a small amount of emulsifier, agave, to the base. We have a little bit of black pepper and cayenne in there for a warming effect, that alcohol burn. So it can be drunk neat as an alternative to a whisky or rum, even at 4.4%.
We still produce Willow in-house [in the Kentish Town bar]. Should we need to scale up, we're able to use a pot still on a hired basis or buy one of our own and just take the whole process and multiply it by 100. So we have the method in place.
How does the microdistillery at Ladies & Gents play into day-to-day business of the bar?
Every single [Ladies & Gents] venue has the licence for a small copper pot still. The reasoning behind that is because we really enjoy using it in the production of additions, tinctures, modifiers to our cocktails.
In the past we have produced a wide-ranging number of gins for people [in the microdistillery in Kentish Town], and we run a gin club where people can come in and make their own gin. As a bar owner, I think it's a fantastic opportunity for the bar to create some revenue on leaner days. It also allows groups of consumers to come down on those days where you know you're not going to be as busy as a Thursday, Friday, Saturday night, and [the bartender can] impart some knowledge. It increases the knowledge base of the customer, which can only be good for the category.