Getting folks to sip and savour rum that has the same reactivity as gunpowder can be rather tricky.
Usually, when I ask folks to put their nose near a glass containing such high abv liquid and inhale deeply, just one reaction can be observed. 'Dear' they say. And 'Lord'.
So when I was approached by Pusser's Rum to use their Gunpowder Proof to celebrate HMS Pickle Night, I might be forgiven for harbouring (no pun intended) some apprehension. But one of the great things about spirits is that they are, by definition, greater than the sum of their parts, which gives them a rather useful fluidity (pun intended this time).
A good example is that weirdly wonderful spirit or drink that we discover on holiday that is just so good that we bring it home. Yet somewhere between a Greek beach and dreary North London the liquid transforms into bile. Ouzo, anyone?
The idea of context is nothing new. Bars have been masters of their environments since day dot. Good operators shape their surroundings. Surroundings shape our decisions. The best bars are often those which find a complete synergy between the visual and the experience. When in Rome, eh?
A rare few succeed by highlighting a juxtaposition between their decor and their persona, with a healthy pinch of playfulness thrown in to the contrast. Those (ex-) humorous chaps from the Artesian spring to mind.
The difference isn’t in what we taste, or where, but what we say.
At Merchant House we take a slightly different path. In the year since we’ve been open we’ve hosted hundreds of masterclasses for all sorts of folks. In these, we encourage our guests to sample an array of neat and room temperature gins and rums: quite an undertaking for the uninitiated palate. And yet everyone delves in and enjoys themselves immensely. Which is odd, because simply placing these glasses in front of their suspicious noses alone would breed repulsion.
The difference isn’t in what we taste, or where, but what we say. We accompany the spirit with a story, some knowledge and context, and that helps the guest understand the liquid.
When we talk about the Pusser lining up two lines of gunpowder, one soaked in rum, and the nervous moments as he sets both alight, our guests are transported back in time. We talk of the smell of the seas, the rolling of the waves and the cruel punishments. We talk of the relief from that hardship. Suddenly, thorough this added story, the rum becomes just.
What a powerful idea that is. If we can offer just a little bit of knowledge with every drink, will every drink seem more pleasant? Let’s look at it another way. Would you prefer to eat ‘Homemade Hummus’ or just ‘Hummus’?
Seemingly, it’s all about value. That is what our key guests are seeking, wittingly or otherwise. We as a bar do not compete on price. Few do. We compete on value. As with many other businesses in many other sectors, the idea of value opens the playing field to all. It’s a battle between price, speed of service, quality of service, etc. Some will say: 'We may not be cheaper, but our customer service in unrivalled.' Homegrown, natural... these are all buzz words for added value.
Merchant House isn’t cheap, but it is good value. In few other places are guests offered such an array, in such generous surroundings, with the knowledge to boot.
This concept is something we wholeheartedly embrace. We employ a well-known method called The Tyranny of Choice to our advantage. Our bar is home to hundreds of gins and rums, many of which are rare. In choosing, our guests are overwhelmed by the options. And so we offer up a little bit of knowledge regarding each and every product available. We find out what the guest is looking for, be it something citrus led, or herbaceous, and present an appropriate drink with talk of the relative botanicals or flavour notes.
In essence, what we provide is a stepping stone, the necessary link between the known and the unknown. We all dislike what we don’t know, but often find pleasure in sharing what we do know. We tell stories, large and small. And little by little, we tell a story to each of our guests, through a myriad of forms of communication, consciously or otherwise.
These stories add value. Stories of history, stories of provenance, personal stories, collaborative stories. We are all storytellers, and all the better for it.
Pic of Merchant House by Steve Ryan