Max Venning, mixologist, Drink Factory, London

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 11th June 2015

Manchester born Max Venning is not your regular mixologist. He is a consultant at the Drink Factory in Bethnal Green which is a collective of like-minded bartenders looking to expand their creativity and knowledge of cocktails by pushing the boundaries of their respective crafts.

They specialise in producing new drink concepts and flavours which are showcased on a global stage and closer to home, in London based bar; The Bar with No Name (69 Colebrooke Row) owned by Tony Conigliaro, the founder of this unique drinks lab. From deconstructed Bloody Marys to Martinis which taste like paper and ink you are guaranteed to have your brain baffled by these original cocktail concepts.

The Staff Canteen caught up with Max in his lab to find out more about the cocktails his team create, the unimaginable flavours they come up with and being at the forefront of cocktail culture.

What is Drink Factory?

Tell us a bit about the Drink Factory?

Max Venning
Max Venning

It started in Tony Conigliaro’s kitchen about ten years ago then he moved it above 69 Colebrooke Row when he opened that 6 years ago. From there it has developed into what it is today and we now occupy a larger space with a purpose built lab. It is a research centre, as well as a creative space used for lectures, training and product development. Collaborations with chefs, perfumers, designers and chocolatiers has influenced the development of the techniques and practices that are used here.

What does your role involve?

I take care of the consultancy work we do, help with product development, deliver training across the group and I work on concepts and openings with the team, most recently we opened Bar Termini, A beautiful little café bar in Soho. Everyday its something new and I feel very lucky to work here.

Bars you like to visit
Bar Termini and 69 Colebrooke Row

Mojo’s Manchester

Carlo e Camilla in Segheria, Milan

Artesian at The Langham, London

Satan's Whiskers, Bethnal Green Bramble Bar, Edinborough

The NoMad Bar at The NoMad Hotel, New York

The Baxter Inn, Sydney

How did you end up in London and working for the Drink Factory?

I was representing the UK in the 42 Below World Cup, a global drink competition, when I met Tony. He was a judge for the competition and I was part of a team of three, I was looking to move so I asked Tony for a job. A few weeks later I started working at 69 Colebrook Row. The process in place there is you do a three month probation period before you can start moving into the Drink Factory lab. At first I was just making ingredients for the bar but I started spending more and more time in there and started to develop other things. I’ve moved further into it over the past two years and now I’m at the Drink Factory full time and do a few shifts a week in the bars.

Working in the top level cocktail industry

What is the ‘top level’ cocktail industry like?

It’s a fun industry but year on year it’s getting more serious. I think it’s important that there is still a fun element because it’s always revolved around bars, and that’s where people go to have fun. What we do here is as serious as it gets but there is always a bit of fun involved and it’s a bit tongue in cheek. The Drink Factory tries to look at things as analytically as possible but it should always be relevant to the consumer.

What are cocktail competitions like?

The 42 Below World Cup was an amazing trip. I think they have really developed – I’ve been told that 10/15 years ago you would do a competition and win a bottle of booze, maybe some money and some stuff for your bar. When I did it, it was a combination of the two, so I got a ten day trip to New Zealand, it was lavish and we had some amazing experiences but alongside that was a serious competition.

Tony Conigliaro, Drink Factory
Tony Conigliaro

Now it has advanced even more – some of these competitions are super professional, super serious and the standard is very high for example Bacardi Legacy. Young bartenders see these competitions as a way to make a name for themselves. It’s less about going and having a drink and a good time, it’s more about the prestige behind the competition and what it can buy you.

How easy is it to come up with an original drink that’s good enough to be in a competition on a global stage?

In theory producing a new and original drink is simple but in practice to get the right balance of the strength of the sweetness and the sourness and dryness can be quite tricky. I think the best drinks and the ones that receive the most plaudits are simple.

Popular cocktails

There are certain cocktails which are popular on menus at the moment, have they come down the line from competitions?

There’s been a massive resurgence in classic cocktails and we definitely see trends. We went through what I call the bufty cocktail phase, so boozy drinks – which are great and they serve their purpose but for a wider market they may not be so applicable. Now we are slipping back into a phase which is more consumer focused and it’s about producing drinks which are really drinkable, really tasty and have really interesting ingredients and flavours. You sit down and you drink it and you think ‘I could have two or three of these and enjoy it all the way through’. It can be the most conceptual drink ever but it has to taste really nice to a broad spectrum of people. It’s a fine line to walk between experimental and acceptable.

Are mixologists similar to chefs in the fact they use the same ingredients but interpret it differently? 4
Drink Factory

There’s a big difference between bartenders and chefs. When you are cooking the dishes have a lot of different cooking elements to them and the skill of a chef is to bring all of that together. They have a lot of different temperatures and textures to work with.

As bartenders that’s not something you need to do, you prep everything beforehand and generally it’s going into one form with the odd exception. The flip side to that is you only have one temperature and one texture so everything has to be really concise, really clear and it all has to marry together perfectly. You can play around a little bit but generally it has to be cold and it has to be liquid – that’s where the challenge comes in.

Do you think drinks are becoming as important as the food when it comes to customers choosing a restaurant?

It’s getting there. I think food will always hold a certain bastion over alcoholic drinks because it’s an essential – you have to eat! Cocktails have been drank since the mid-19th century and it’s always been a popular thing, it’s the style of bars and the method in which cocktails are consumed which has changed over time. Thanks to globalisation and social media the publicity around cocktails has grown, it’s a great form of promotion and you can access a lot of people very quickly. People snapping pictures of your drinks and sharing them is not seen as advertising but essentially that’s what it is. Cocktail culture is really spreading and most pubs have a cocktail offering now. It’s bled its way into a wider culture and I think it’s only going to get stronger.

Drink Factory

Developing new drinks and flavours

Developing new drinks and flavours you must have tasted some pleasant and equally unpleasant flavours?

We’ve tasted some pretty interesting stuff! There’s stuff that doesn’t work, we try and look at as many flavours and combinations as possible and inevitably you end up tasting stuff which is unpleasant. But then you have those eureka moments and it works and it’s delicious. We take a lot of inspiration from perfume and in perfume they use off notes so individually they are not pleasant but they highlight other aromas which is why we have started looking at off notes in drinks.

To taste by itself it’s pretty vile but added to something else and it builds a broader spectrum of flavours and enhances what you are drinking. We are currently looking at leather and castoreum, which is basically the smell of beaver glands! It’s pretty disgusting but add it to leather it builds the masculine note and really makes it pop.

At The Drink Factory you have your own lab, what do you use when you’re developing a new flavour?

We have Rotavaps which are on all day, they produce stuff for the bars but also we are experimenting with other flavours all the time. They work at 40 degrees which means they produce a very representative flavour of the ingredient, not much is lost because we are not cooking it.

Prairie Oyster
Drink Factory

We often talk about distillation versus maceration and how we can use both techniques to manipulate flavours. So if you put black pepper in vodka and cook it in the sous vide compared to if you distill it you produce a completely different flavour. We use a centrifuge, to separate solids from liquids – for example we produce a tomato water for our Prairie Oyster which is basically a deconstructed Bloody Mary. Using this technique it’s like a consommé but instead of dripping it through a cheese cloth overnight we just spin it in here and it does it in ten minutes.

We have an ingredients lab which has over a 1000 different ingredients – the idea is to build it up so when you have an idea of a flavour you can just go to it and get what you want. There’s also a vac pac, sous vide and a freeze dryer which is a cool bit of kit. We freeze dry broad beans and peas and extract the moisture out of them while they are frozen, it produces a different flavour to fresh and we use it to make a green vermouth for the Green Martini.

Drink inspiration

Where does your inspiration come from when you are creating new drinks?

When coming up with new concepts I work very closely with my boss Tony and our head of research Zoe Burgess. In terms of inspiration it’s everything. We look to perfume a lot, we can learn a lot from structure as they have been doing it for so long. But also we look at art, music and fashion. One thing we are focusing on at the minute is nostalgia, if you can create a drink with a nostalgic element to it then people buy into it.

Drink Factory

We had massive success with a drink called The Avignon which was camomile syrup, cognac and served in a glass smoked with frankincense. It had the aroma of a church which the vast majority of people have an association with. It has become one of the most popular drinks we’ve ever had at 69 Colebrooke Row.

Is that something you enjoy, producing real life smells and flavours which trigger people’s memories and subconscious?

It’s very interesting to see how far you can push people. Often the drinks are not what we would serve in a bar but you can take elements of them and add them into new drinks you are developing. A great example is the Ink Martini, it uses a paper vodka and we then constructed an ink aroma in black food colouring so when you drink it, it tastes and smells like paper and ink but it’s still really delicious. Another martini is the Nosferatini, it has red food colouring with an iron extract in it. So it has a tiny, faint feeling of blood. When we first tried it we put too much in and you drank it and you felt like you were bleeding – everyone freaked out! People went crazy for it at Halloween last year.

How do people get involved with what you do?

We run a stage programme here so people can come in for a week and see what we do, how we do it and see the processes. It’s really refreshing to get people in who are from outside the industry, so we’ve had biologist and the way he made us look at things was completely different which was great. None of us have a food science background but we are lucky enough that we know and meet a lot of people who do.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 11th June 2015

Max Venning, mixologist, Drink Factory, London