After bringing their drinks consultancy Comunidad to Colombia, big-name bartenders Megs Miller, Rhys Wilson and Dre Masso have returned to London to open a new West End cocktail bar
When Imbibe stumbles into Fam on a chilly Friday night before the venue’s official launch, manager Megs Miller and her team are gathered round the bar.
Bartender Bruce Govia is putting the finishing touches on an elegant cocktail called Brand New Shoes, a pale pink drink with quince sorbet, gin, house-made falernum and sparkling wine. Each member of the staff has an opinion to offer on the near-perfect cocktail.
‘Do you think it’s too heavy?’ someone asks. ‘The sweetness is spot-on,’ comments another. ‘It looks like slime. Have you tried it Sgroppino-style?’ someone else chimes in. The team launches into a lively exchange on the texture of the drink, with a passion that can only usually be roused by arguing politics with family and cocktail geekery with bartenders.
‘I love these debates,’ says Miller. ‘Everyone’s opinion counts.’
It’s the ideal introduction to the welcoming, slightly boisterous, community-driven ethos of Fam, a new cocktail bar in London’s West End. The venue, owned by bar operators Eric Yu and Martin Malley, is the latest project from Miller, Dre Masso and Rhys Wilson, who together form the consultancy Comunidad.
‘The original idea came when myself, my partner Rhys Wilson and Dre Masso were out in Colombia,’ explains Miller. The trio was living in Cartagena, developing drinks offerings for bars in the city. ‘First we were discussing opening a bar out there, and we were thinking about what kind of style it would be. The idea we were working on was familia, community and culture – or, in London slang, “fam”.’
The plan for a Colombian bar didn’t pan out, as Miller, Masso and Wilson were offered a space on Duke Street that formerly housed Bar Termini Centrale. They decided to bring their concept to life in London instead.
After surviving the frenzied holiday-shopping crowds of Oxford Street, walking into Fam feels a bit like coming home. A record player crackles warmly next to the back bar, cosy tables mingle with high tops and a wall lined with vinyls brings a nostalgic focal point to the room.
The interior design was overseen by Miller herself with a specific vision in mind. ‘We thought, what’s the kind of place you want to drink in? If you’ve had a long day at work, you want a place that’s warm, friendly, without a lot of rules. I wanted a very casual vibe,’ she says.
The décor contributes to the welcoming atmosphere, but it’s the close-knit staff that set the venue apart. Miller tapped a crack team of hospitality veterans to work at Fam, including Govia, former general manager of Ceremony; Virginia Guenette, formerly of Happiness Forgets; and Zoe van der Grinten, former bar manager of Red Rooster.
Naturally, collaboration is key to the bar’s menu development, as we witnessed in 'the great Brand New Shoes debate'. It’s also been built in to the very structure of the business.
‘Fam is a profit share,’ Miller explains. ‘What that means is we will have monthly meetings with the owners, our employees get a portion of the profits without financial investment, and we'll be very open about how the business runs and how it works.
‘There were a few different reasons we wanted to do run things this way. Martin [Malley], one of Fam’s owners, told me, “I see bartenders and people in hospitality working really hard, but no one ever knows what the future holds or how they’ll progress in the industry”. There're not many businesses that make the effort to teach you how.
‘If you then go to open a bar, it's like, oh! I didn't know about profits and loss or gross margins and all those things. We want to build the business from the inside out, so everyone is properly a part of the team.’
Cocktails with a sense of community
Beyond the egalitarian organisation of the business and the collaborative development of the drinks, the cocktails themselves also shine a light on the bartending community.
‘I wanted to go back to the basics of London bartending. Dre and Henry [Besant], Dick Bradsell, Salvatore [Calabrese], their drinks were really great drinks made with great ingredients. There wasn't anything crazy in them, and they didn’t reinvent the wheel,’ said Miller.
‘We use local ingredients wherever possible, but we don't want to be restrictive. We're still using rums and agave spirits, but we'll have a few more gins and a few more whiskies, because we're on that side of the world.’
This translates to distinctly British drinks like The Claymore, a stirred-down winter warmer of blended whisky and English sparkling wine cordial, and Sir Duke, with London vodka, nettle cordial, Bloomsbury Pastis Liqueur and house citrus.
The aforementioned Brand New Shoes cocktail also draws on this sense of time and place. The team plans to swap the quince for another seasonal sorbet when the weather shifts.
As for food, Fam keeps its homey, comforting vibe going with a menu of bar snacks created by chef Tim Ross-Watson (think ham-and-cheese toasties with tomato compote, butternut squash soup with buttered milk-bread soldiers and something Miller describes as ‘magic cheese’). ‘The food is simple – we don’t want to compete with the gorgeous restaurants nearby. We just want to offer people something to eat so they can keep enjoying their drinks.’
And Miller and her team pretty much guarantee that you’ll have a drink you enjoy. They’re quick to look beyond their menu and improvise according to customers’ whims. During Imbibe’s visit ahead of the venue’s official opening, a few thirsty tourists were enticed by the bar’s warmth and wandered in. Having said they’re craving something with gin, van der Grinten enthusiastically lists off every gin they’ve got on offer (it’s impressive, really).
The customers change their mind; they want something like a Vodka Cranberry instead. ‘I haven’t got cranberry, but I’ve got something that will work even better,’ says Miller, running down the list of possible substitutes. She eventually lands on a bottle of Braemble Gin Liqueur.
‘Wow, this is, like, a real bar,’ says one of the customers, eyes wide. Yes, it definitely is.
Fam is now open at 31 Duke Street, London, W1U 1LG.