JJ Goodman, founder of London Cocktail Club (LCC), talks to SB about manipulating flavours, his drink philosophy, and setting an unwitting reveler’s hair on fire.
JJ Goodman founded the London Cocktail Club in 2010 along with partner James Hopkins, chef Raymond Blanc and entrepreneur Sarah Willingham
LCC on Goodge Street, a gin palace, has been going for two years now, and you opened a second site, a rum parlour, on Shaftesbury Avenue earlier this year. How’s business been?
Wicked! It’s all great at the moment. There’s lots of exciting things going on, including plans to open new branches in the east end of London, as well as in Worcester – my home town.
Worcester? Is there much of a cocktail scene there?
It’s getting there! There’s definitely the interest and the willingness to offer good cocktails; at the moment it’s still at the mixed drink stage rather than cocktails, but I’m optimistic. Also, it’s a little bit of a sentimental endeavour for me as it’s where I’m from, but we’re going to start soft, with a nice entry level drink, like the Punch of the Month that we’ll offer at an accessible, entry level price to help build people’s confidence. We’re hoping to open in February next year, so, Worcester, watch out.
You and James Hopkins won TV show The Restaurant in 2009, with host Raymond Blanc backing your concept for LCC. What impact did your partnership with Blanc have on LCC and what’s his involvement with the bars now?
It certainly helped. While we were already running the Covent Garden LCC, things certainly got busier after The Restaurant. We’ve been umming and erring over Raymond’s title – it was originally mentor, but after tossing it round the table for a while, we’ve now ended up with him as our ambassador which is pretty cool. It’s good because it means he’s keen to be more involved in a hands-on kind of way.
You worked with Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons – what do you think the cocktail industry can learn from the restaurant industry – or vice versa?
After my stint at Le Manoir I got excited by the idea of gastro-mixology. Flavour doesn’t start and stop with ingredients; each ingredient has a role that it fulfills flavour wise, but you can play around with which ingredient you use to execute a specific function in a drink. For example if you need acidity, the obvious route is a lemon. But apple puree also has acidity – it’s all about manipulating the flavours and being creative. Not everything works, and some things work better than others, but there is a world of opportunity. One of the main problems with gastro-mixology is the fact that you‘re using alcohol rather than just pure flavours. It takes a lot of time and effort to get the result you want.
What’s your philosophy regarding making cocktails?
We’re trying to make great drinks that are affordable. We work with bands that we can make a margin from, which sometimes means we need to put the time in to really tweak the recipe to get exactly the result we want. That said you’ve got to remember than everyone’s palate is different and you’re never going to be able to make something that pleases everyone, but we’re trying to break away from classic cocktails, making more consumer friendly, ground breaking drinks for £8. After all it is a business – so the drinks have to be cost effective and easy to produce in large quantities and at speed.
What makes a good cocktail in your opinion?
It’s got to be balanced – enough sweet and sour, and a good level of intensity. I’m big on dilution – I think a lot of people still see it as a bad thing, as something that will detract from their drink, but if you’ve got a whole lot of strong flavours fighting with each other in a glass, a splash of water on their heads just cools them down a little so they behave and get on with each other nicely!
What’s been your career highlight so far?
I think probably winning the 42 Below Cocktail World Cup competition in 2008. Some people think it would have been opening my bar – but anyone can open a bar, it’s the day you break even that’s great.
What other projects are you working on just now?
Other than continuing to expand LCC, we’re keeping up our training, so that’s two hours every two weeks for all our bartenders – after all, they’re the source of our success. We’re also working more on our Cocktails from the Kitchen idea which we started two years ago. The idea is to create a range of drinks that can be made at home by consumers, so simple drinks using ingredients that can be found in the local supermarket without having to run off to buy all sorts of outlandish bottles that’ll be used for a one-off cocktail. We’ve already got a couple of chapters down for the related book, but it might be a while yet before that’s done. We’re also heavily developing our online offering, getting our recipes available for free online. The other thing we’re looking at doing is offering training days for our members – we want to create an LCC ethos, so it’s about the cocktails rather than the bars themselves. A way to go still, but it’s exciting!
Who’s your muse?
It sounds like an obvious answer, but I’ve got to say Raymond. The man is relentless. Everything he touches turns to gold. He’s got great energy, creativity and commitment.
What’s been your worst moment as a bartender?
When you start out, it’s very easy to be intimidated by the big boys in the industry. I remember some top dogs walking into my bar, and asking for a cocktail – one that I knew like the back of my hand – but my mind went blank and I couldn’t for the life of me remember where to even start. Horrible. Other than that, just making stupid errors that end up making a drink bad– stupid things like not trying it before you serve it, not keeping your mind on what you’re doing all the time.
Other than that there have been other pretty bad moments, like falling off a bar that I was standing on, playing air guitar, or the time I was flaring and smashed two glasses mid air, only to see the people around my station at the bar suddenly grow tiny, tiny cuts from the shards of glass – that wasn’t so cool. Or more recently even, we were flaming sambuca, and without thinking I topped up a glass while it was still flaming and, like a gunpowder trail, the flame leapt up to the bottle, and shot out like a flame thrower, and one poor bystander with absolutely loads of product in his hair just happened to be in the line of fire (literally), so we had to pull off his coat and stop him burning. Before you ask, he was completely fine. But it’s little things like that that keep you on your toes.