Pontoon makes 40,000 cocktails a week. Company director Simon Weston’s batching company is behind some of the drinks at establishments from Heston Blumenthal’s Perfectionists' Cafe to some of the high street’s best-known restaurants.
Much of his work goes unacknowledged; Pontoon is the unsung hero. Even the packaging is utilitarian.
‘We work with all sorts of weird and wonderful people’, Weston tells Imbibe. ‘Some of them use us for ingredients and some of them for the complete serve.’
A consultancy firm first, Pontoon produces custom-made ingredients and, until this year, didn’t have a core range. ‘We did 160 different lines last year,’ the director explains. Just to give you an idea, that could be a dozen or more Mojito variants.
The team works on a day-by-day basis and its route-to-market is frozen. ‘It is all processed and balanced – that is the artistry.’
As an industry, Weston says we are guilty of creating pretension where pretension doesn’t need to be. ‘There’s a lot of navel gazing,’ he says. ‘Part of my goal is to give bartenders the tools to create these amazing drinks.’
A common misconception and opinion is that batching, and Pontoon especially, is trying to de-skill the industry. ‘It’s not about that,’ he says. ‘It’s about trying to level the playing field. I am concerned consumers will be disillusioned if they don’t get quality cocktails in bars and they’ll turn to wine or beer as a result, which would be such a shame.
'If people order a cocktail they want it in three minutes and they want theatre. If you are in the high street, then people don’t want something that it completely pre-batched. People want to see this as an authentic experience.’
The reason for this, Weston says, is batching has become something of a dirty word. ‘It’s not,’ Weston quickly adds. ‘It is going to take the consumer a while to understanding what batching is,’ he says. ‘Consumers don’t get it. They don’t even talk about it from a food perspective.’
But, it’s by no means an impossible feat, according to Weston. ‘The consumer will put little value in the cocktail itself [and] it will take a bold operator to own batching. It will take the consumer a while to see batching as a positive and not a negative.’
When it came to working for Heston’s Perfectionists Cafe, Weston started with a blank sheet of paper.
Located in the Queen’s Terminal – that's terminal two, to you and me – at Heathrow Airport, the restaurant is inspired by the celebrity chef’s TV series In Search of Perfection, a programme in which he ‘examined every aspect of our favourite dishes in order to make them as delicious as possible’. It stands to reason then, that the drinks have to reek of Heston and deconstruct the classics.
‘We don’t heat or treat,’ Weston says. ‘We’re fresh and make our own components.’ Sounds very Heston. At the restaurant 90% of seats are away from the bar, something that is a positive when batching is concerned. (Utilitarian packaging cannot be seen.)
‘We wanted the cocktails to be at the front and centre of what they do so we looked at all the other airport offerings. It’s in the UK, so the drinks should represent the UK.’ But, Weston quickly adds: ‘There are a lot of US passengers in that terminal, so the team had to consider that.’ Nothing too obscure for the Yanks, got it.
‘Heston’s iconic dishes and drinks have been teased to the Nth degree. We followed the ethos to see how far we could take it with drinks.’
There’s a fine balance though, Weston and Heston ultimately decided upon 80% familiarity and 20% strange. ‘Catering to normal people with normal palates’.
‘We must have done 30-40 passes on the Martini’, Weston says. The Bloody Mary – which is available to-go – for example, contains avocado-washed vodka, tomato juice, lemon juice, white miso and hickory smoke.
Once the menu was finally decided upon, it was implemented and hasn’t changed a great deal. ‘The reason why we don't review it every six months is that it works – we got it right.’
So much so, The Perfectionist Cafe was the biggest single site in terms of volume last year for Pontoon.
In terms of the future for batching and Pontoon, in a word, Weston says it is: ‘Immense.'