Podcast

Rob Berry from Asterley Brothers

Asterley Bros have made a splash with their English take on Vermouth and Amaro and are now raising the bar with their Schofield’s Dry Vermouth

By: Tiff Christie|November 7,2019

With the apéritif category undergoing a renaissance, boutique producers such as London’s Asterley Brothers are going from strength to strength.

Incorporating a particularly British take on traditionally Italian Amaros and Vermouths, the company have recently undertaken crowdfunding to expand not only their range but also their reach.

We talk to Rob Berry from Asterley Brothers about the recent release of their Schofield’s Dry Vermouth, working with renowned bartender Joe Schofield and what English terroir can bring to drinks.

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With the aperitif category undergoing a renaissance, boutique producers such as London's Asterley Brothers are going from strength to strength. Incorporating a particularly British take on traditional Italian amaros and vermouths, the company have recently undertaken crowd funding to expand not only their range, but also their reach. We talked to Rob Berry from Asterley Brothers about recent release of their dry vermouth, working with Round bartender, Joe Schofield and what English terroir can bring to drinks. Thanks for joining us, Rob.

Absolutely, my pleasure.

Now both you and your brother have been in hospitality pretty much for most of your lives. What made you think to start a drinks company?

Yeah, that's right. We've been I guess behind bars pouring drinks for, yes, well I think I had my first bar job at 16 actually, which is probably not strictly legal, but yeah I was certainly pouring lots of glasses of French wine and French beer since I was 16. And yeah, I've worked in hotels and restaurants and Jim has done the same. And about 10 years ago, I married into a Sicilian family. So we met in a hotel in Cambridge while we were both working there and got married. And after the marriage I inherited my wife's grandfather's recipe for a very classic Sicilian amaro.
And I'd already fallen in love with the culture and the cuisine and the wine at that point, and Jim and I had always been making drinks and bitters and tinctures and various weird little liqueurs and things to give to family and friends at Christmas. So we started to make this very classic Sicilian amaro. And amaro was very much like a expression of terroir for us. So it's kind of whatever grows in the vicinity. So in the South, in Sicily there's loads and loads of citrus fruit, lots of soft herbs. And of course Arabic spicing because there's so much Arabic spicing and cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg running through all the cuisine. So yeah, we made that particular amaro for a number of years and we'd make it every year and give it to friends and family for Christmas. And yeah, to be honest, we'd just drink a lot of it ourselves.
And then five years ago, I guess it was 2014, we were in the middle of the gin boom. We could see the gin explosion happening all around us and the growth of craft distilleries, certainly in the UK and London. And we were thinking, now feels like a really good time to start thinking about making a product and bringing it to market. And of course, we'd always had this dream, this idea, this little fantasy that we'd discuss over a bottle of amaro every Christmas about making our own brand and product. And it just felt like the right time. I don't know what it was exactly, but it was the gin movement, the opening of craft distilleries. Even the craft beer movement was just making people think about making real, honest products, products with a real story and history and ingredients.
And then I think we were also looking at the US. We looked at the depth of the amaro scene over there and how incredibly prevalent it was in US cocktail culture. And we saw this slight growth in interest starting to build in things like Campari and Aperol back in 2014. I think that was just around the time when Campari started to create this huge spritz-laden aperitif driven, sort of happening in this culture in the UK, something we didn't have before. And Campari have done a really amazing job of converting the British into having this bitter taste profile as a drink that people want to have at five or six o'clock in the evening. So with all those kinds of things that we were thinking, let's make something, let's make something a bit different, make something English.

And how did you go about making it more English?

Well, we thought we could make a very classic Sicilian amaro. We've been doing it for years, but what does that say about us? Is that our brand? Are we Italian? Are we Sicilian? No, we're not at all. The ingredients, are they from London? Can we source them locally? No, not at all. And we wanted to make something which is real, and not a made up marketing bullshit story. We started to think about, well what about London? What about London's history of liqueurs and tonics and bittering agents? And we started to dig through the internet and the archives and started to find out more about London's history of making things bitter and tonics and elixirs. And we came across a book written by a very famous herbalists called Nicholas Culpeper, and he wrote it in 1654 and it was called the London Dispensatory. And it was essentially the first ever medical textbook that was written in English for common man, translated from Latin.
And prior to that, all medical textbooks were in Latin, so they were not the common man. People couldn't read them, they were just for the scholars. And Culpeper translated this book and called it London Dispensatory, and he talks about taking English hops and how you would distill them to create something to cure a fever or devil's claw, how you would make a macerate or a tincture and use that to cure a stomach ache. So we were fascinated reading about all these crazy botanicals that the bulk of which we'd never heard of before. And so we started to build our own little collection and library of macerates, these individual elements, really. So we started to take angelica and burdock and milkthistle and devil's claw and hyssop and yarrow and hops, and all of these crazy botanicals we were reading about, trying to source them, and started to macerate them, really, so we could make single tinctures of every single one and really identify what the flavour profile was of each one.

Were they difficult to find?

Yeah. I think we certainly struggled with some of them. I guess once you know your way around the botanical marketplace, actually it's a little bit easier to find what you're looking for. But initially, yeah, it's tricky.

Are a lot of them still around?

Yeah, they are. I don't think they've ever really gone away and they are used for medicinal purposes, I guess. So they are used less for flavourings and more for tinctures and homeopathic herbal medicines and recipes.

How did you decide which one to use and to go forward with?

Well that's it. You've got very different kind of herbal, herbacious, bitter flavour profiles that you can start to dig into quite deeply. And I guess partly, the question was in our mind, are they not being used anymore? Because what we were finding is, we wanted to understand a little bit more about not only this Sicilian recipe that we'd been making, but what goes into other products? What goes into Amaro Montenegro, what's going into Averna? What are these amazing, complex, aromatic flavours that are going into Campari, for example? Now you can't find that information anywhere. You can read every press release they've ever made and every interview and probably you can get your hands on indicators that will tell you, I don't know, 10% of the botanicals that go into them.
So that's the thing, really, you don't know what producers are using out there. The recipes are absolutely top secret, and so it feels like you're doing a lot of new discovery. But in actual fact, probably some of these elements are still finding their way into the recipes of Campari and martini today.
So, we tried every single one, we probably tried like a hundred different botanicals, just raw, macerated versions. There's some really, really unpleasant experiences in there, to be honest. But eventually, we started adding a few drops of this and a few drops of that into our Sicilian, citrus soft herb base, and after lots and lots of trial and even more error, we eventually got to an interesting flavour profile that we liked that was different. A big thing for us in making this amaro was, it was not just to be a British amaro, but also a modern British take on it. So we wanted to make it lighter. We wanted to reduce the sugar content. We wanted to create an amaro that could work really well as an aperitif just with a dash of tonic or soda, and still have enough weight and richness and depth to still work as a digestif.
We wanted people to have two opportunities in the day to drink it and we wanted to make it a little bit more refreshing. So yeah, lots of trial, lots of error. Started introducing wine into the blend. So we used an English pinot noir that we blend into the amaro, so that adds tannin and structure and acidity, which helps to make the whole thing a lot more lighter and nuanced. But again, that throws up its own complications because it means the whole blend goes cloudy at that point. So then we have to fine it with bentonite, which we use from the wine making process. So lots of these kinds of adjustments and changes and things that we started to do differently, really help flavour profile, but then threw in its own problems that we then had to correct or solve. So that was quite a long process in itself.
And then finally, I think we were pretty happy with a final version that we produced in a pretty nailed on recipe, and we thought, if we were the big players and we were Diageo and we were trying to create this new product or a new take on a category, what would they do? How would they refine and hone their product? And then they would put it through focus groups. They'd test it in different areas, different demographics, served in different ways and different arenas and ambiances, and develop the flavour from there and see how the public react to it before it gets launched in the marketplace. And we thought that we would try something similar with zero budget, five pounds in the bank or whatever it was.
So we up our own little beta testing group and we took the idea from software development and Jim has always been an avid digital games creator. He likes to code and write games in his spare time. So he had this idea to do a beta testing and we set up a little landing page and a website and we basically put on a small bit of text on there saying something along the lines of, "If you like free booze, let us know, give us your email address, we'll send you free booze anywhere in the world. All you've got to do is give us your feedback on it." And after about two months or so, we've had about 600 people signed up for that beta testing group.
It was really good. I mean, who would have thought that actually people do like free booze?

Well, yeah. That's surprising.

So yeah, we had this 600 people lined up and it was a group of around 60% or so professionals. So bartenders, some Sommeliers, wine writers, bar owners, people who work in the industry or in hospitality in some way. And then the other 40% were consumers. So just people who were interested in products, but that worked in other sectors and it didn't necessarily have a deep understanding of this kind of area, but were just interested and keen to try some stuff. And so we sent out our little bottles of the first blend, and probably about 85% of them were in the UK, 10% in Europe, and then 5% US, Australia. And yeah, waited for the feedback to come back through an online questionnaire. And the responses were really interesting, really eye-opening.
So all of the professionals, pretty much the feedback was, it's too sweet and it should be much more bitter. And then of course, all the consumers told us exactly the opposite. They said, "Oh, that is way too bitter. There should be much more sweet." So...

How did you decide which way to go?

Well, we talked it through and I think we thought that if Campari and Aperol are making all these moves now- and the British public just kind of getting into bitterness and bitter drinks and aperitifs, then where will their palate be? How much will their profile have changed in the next five to 10 years? And we thought, do we want to perhaps follow the trend and make a slightly sweeter, less bitter drink, or do we want to lead the charge a little bit more and make it more bitter, make it more intense, make it have this slightly more intense character and hope, fingers crossed, that the British public actually will start to catch up and actually start to like bitter flavours more and yeah, will follow us on our journey.
So that's the one we went with. We made it much more bitter and we... What else did we do? We had to make a few changes to the balance. I think people were telling us it was too much ginger. It was too brazen, it was too spicy. The grapefruit was a little bit too dominant in that first blend. So we took all of the feedback and condensed it into some format that we felt we could use to help us do some further blending. And then we created a blend A and a blend B and then sent that back out to everyone, and gave them a little bit of insight into the changes we'd made on each one, and basically said, "Which one do you like? Which one do you prefer?" And the feedback generally speaking was weighted towards blend A, which was the more bitter of the two.
So the changes that we made, the reduction in sugar, we increased the amount of wine so it became a little bit lighter and a little bit less viscous. All of those changes helped us make actually a much better liquid, and blend A was the one that was selected. So blend A was the one that got released.

That must have been a really interesting process to have taken it out to people and said, "We've got it this far, work with us to fine tune everything."

Yeah, it was. I mean, it's a real eye-opener as well. So it's really interesting to see, to understand the way people approach their drinks in terms of how they would mix them, how they would serve them, the glasses they would use, the things they were looking for. I remember we had people writing back and saying, "Oh, I tried it with mango juice. It was really nice." Like, gross, we were not thinking anyone would do that. Yeah. And then someone else said, "Oh, I had it with ice and diet Coke. It was way too sweet. I couldn't taste the flavour of the amaro." It's like, well, again that's not exactly what we were recommending. So it's interesting to just see how people build their drinks and make their drinks and the kind of things they do with them. And also to get that really detailed, technical understanding that some of our beta testers were giving us back. We had these amazing tasting notes, like three or four paragraphs long about notes of tobacco and roasted chestnut and the papery tannins. So some of it was really, really helpful in terms of technical descriptions and refining process, and some of it was just really eye-opening to understand the way that people needed education, I guess, about this particular category and this particular profile of drink.
So either way, we learned a lot through the process. So it's quite difficult as well because you just get people telling you that this is shit. You just got to take that on the chin. If you open yourself up to criticism and feedback from 600 people, some of them will tell you your products are shit, and yeah, you've got to be ready for that, really. So yeah, there's always a bit of that too. So pros and cons.

Now, you also released a sweet vermouth and a fernet. Did you go through the similar process with those two products?

We certainly did that with the fernet, yeah. So the way that we make the amaro, we do these three different macerations. So we take an organic grain spirit, we macerate all of our fruits and hard bittering agents in that, we take a molasses base spirit and we macerate all of our dried fruits, citrus and soft herbs in that. And then at the end of that process we take all of these dry, raw materials and then we wash them in pinot noir. So we have this third liquid, which becomes this fruity, aromatic spiced wine. Then we blend those three together and add some sugar and then clarify with bentonite.
But because we were making this spiced wine every time we were making this amaro, it just felt very natural for us to actually just take that wine and do two or three more stages of process to it and turn it into a sweet vermouth. So the first recipe of the amaro just fed straight into the sweet vermouth process, really. So it was a natural set. But then the fernet was the third product that we released and yeah, absolutely, we did the beta testing with that as well. And again, it just really helped us make a better product. Changes that you make between the first blend and the last blend are really quite extraordinary, and you get some really helpful guidance that that comes back about things that...
So Jim and I, we drink these things so much, we taste them so frequently and we taste competitors in the category, we taste our own products, we taste them time after time, but you do get set in your ways and you actually need people's voices to challenge you and your perception of the liquids and have to keep your thinking fresh and on track. So you can get quite comfortable by tasting your own products over and over again and just thinking, actually, yeah, this is great, but without someone else coming in and saying, "Do you know what? The length is too long. The mint is too aggressive. There's a slight loose which comes up when I stir it down with ice," and these little tweaks and refinements that you don't always notice yourself actually just help you make a much better drink.

Now, you've just released a dry vermouth with Joe Schofield, was that something you found during that process as well that he brought a refinement to creating a particular product?

Yeah, definitely. Well, yeah, so it was Joe and Daniel and they approached probably, I guess a year, year and a half ago and Joe tried some of our amaro in the Tippling Club in Singapore, where he was working at the time, and he was planning on moving back to London, and we had a quick call and just chatted about the possibility of making a vermouth together. But I guess this was a slightly different process again, because the brothers had a really clear vision and idea of exactly what their product should taste like. So we weren't doing this in a beta testing environment where we could make it more of a dialogue and and develop things as a bit of a group or a bit of a community.
In fact, it was working to quite a tight brief that the guys wanted to hit, really. They had something very clear in their minds about the best wines and the levels of acidity, the weight of the vermouth was something that they were very clear on and most important to them were these white flower, floral aromatics in the top notes. So we had to go through a lot of sampling and a lot of process. So we probably made 20 or 30 different versions of this dry vermouth before we got to a point where actually, Joe and Daniel were like, "Okay, this is the one, this is the final recipe. Let's go to production."

Okay. If someone was to buy your dry vermouth for the first time, what difference would they find with yours to an Italian dry vermouth?

Well, I think we're trying to make a vermouth which just has something, like most of our products, they just need to be a little bit unique. There's no point us making a run off the mill, middle of the road, sits on the shelf, basic commodity style job. Well, we don't make these kind of products. There are people in the marketplace who already make really good, middle of the road, can be used in anything vermouths and amaros. So we make things which are a little bit different. We have different processes, different flavour profiles and we try and make things which stand out.
And I think the vermouth is just another example of that. And the guys wanted to make a dry vermouth, which was just a bit more fun and a bit more approachable and a bit more interesting. And dry vermouth, really is a bit of an underdeveloped and unloved category. It's not a category that people talk about particularly. So you go into bars and because people are making so many Negroni's and Manhattans, people have quite specific thoughts on which sweet vermouth works for them or perhaps which are their top three, their go to. But then dry vermouths, people don't really have favourites. Dry vermouth, it just sits in the background, it's a modifier, it dilutes a gin in a martini. It adds a herbal note, but it's generally people just grabbing a bottle of something from the fridge and dashing it in without too much thought.
But we wanted to make something which is a bit more playful, which is a bit more fun, which actually could be the star of the show and not just the part support player, really. So our dry vermouth is an English white wine base. There's a blend of three whites that go in there. So we use backers predominantly for its clean minerality, little bit of malic acid and this dryness, really, its freshness. And then we have some chardonnay in there for a little bit of round, stone fruit texture. And then at the back we've got some sauvignon blanc, which is quite an aromatic white, which gives off this really interesting, powerful elderflowery top note. So to match and amplify that elderflower profile, we use a lot more dried elderflower in the blend, we use a little touch of rose, touch of lavender, some camomile and then some jasmine as well.

So it's quite floral, really.

Yeah, absolutely. The the notes as you kind of put it into a glass is really quite bold and it's quite tropical really, in its profile and that helps you to punch through and carries enough body and weight and aromatics to work really well in sync with with gins and vodkas in martinis and vespers. But also just if you want to have something which is a bit fun, an aperitif and something that can really stand up in its own right notes, Schofield's Dry Vermouth, touch of ice with a slice of lemon or dash of tonic there as well. And you've got a really intense, fragrant yet dry and crisp aperitif.

Now, I believe the Schofield brothers created some cocktails for the release of the dry vermouth. Can you go through what they are?

Yeah, so they created two cocktails. I mean, the classic serve really is the martini. That's the go-to pour. So martini, vesper martini, that's what it was designed for, what it was designed to do. But we've got these other two really interesting cocktails they put together. So one's called a Four Leaf Clover and it's a 50ml serve of the dry vermouth, some mint leaves, a touch of elderflower liqueur and a little bit of tonic, but a light, again, aromatic, herbal, fragrant aperitif really, something to begin the evening with, and they made this really rich, dry and intense play on a white Negroni, which they call a Confidant. So it's equal measures of Schofield's Dry, a London gin of choosing and a bit of Kingston's Apple aperitif as well, and stir down over block ice, a little twist of lemon garnish, but it's just sophisticated and rich and bitter and aromatic and just dry and complex all at the same time.

Now, what is the reaction, especially from other bartenders? But generally, what has the reaction been to the release of the dry vermouth?

Yeah, it's been really good, actually. And we've done a lot of tasting and a lot of sampling. The reaction's been great. It's been listed in a lot of really good places that we have a lot of respect for, it's going into a lot of drinks, and getting a lot of attention. I don't think a lot of people are talking or have been talking about dry vermouth, really in terms of being the star of the show or having a profile that people could actually be attracted to, really. So yeah, it's been great then because it's quite distinctive, it doesn't feel or look or taste like anything else, which is currently on the back bar, which is always a good position to be in.

Now, you guys actually undertook crowdfunding recently. What was that process like?

It's quite hard. Yeah, I can give you a nice little glossy, glamorous, oh yeah, it was all great and yeah, we smashed it. But the process is quite tough. There's a lot of planning, a lot of organisation, a lot of financial investment, just getting things right, you have to invest to gain further investment. So yeah, it was about three months worth of planning and then 30 days of actual campaign itself. But it's tough and you have to plan the comms and the structure of every single day, twice a day, what are you going to do? Where are you going to be? What news are you generating? What's your press release? What's the strategy? What's your comms? Who are you talking to? What channels are you using? Yeah. So there's a lot of work that goes into it in the planning and the execution to make it successful.

It's unusual for an alcohol brand to take that route. What inspired you to do that?

I think it just felt pretty natural for us as an approach. So you know, between the beta testing and the way that we want to be a transparent open company, generally speaking, this idea of kind of creating products and making it a dialogue and trying to build a bit of a community and have people help us develop liquids and give us feedback for natural extension, so when thinking about raising funds for us, it was crowd funding. And actually a lot of the beta testers who joined us on the journey over the last few years are now investors and shareholders in the company. So we want to just continue to build a bit more of a community and we want the company to represent the way that we've operated so far.

Right, okay. And what's next for Asterley Brothers?

What's next? Good question. So we have quite a lot of stuff on the horizon really, planned for 2020. The crowdfunding process really has made us think a bit more, I guess about the company and the structure of the company and what the longterm goals are. And that's an interesting thing about going through crowdfunding and planning a raise and speaking to investors. It does make you think differently about, it's not about what happens next month or next quarter or even next year, you're writing five-year financial plans and thinking about every single step of the journey to get to that end of the five year plan.
So we thought a lot about the company structure and how to make that as resilient as possible, really. So Jim and I have been joined by Joe as a creative director, so Joe's now an investor and a non-exec director on the management team. We've had another non-exec join us who's a professional brand builder, who's worked for Constellation and Diageo and who has just built incredible brands and was running the spirits arm of Berry Brothers and Rudd for a number of years. And through the crowdfunding process we've also met really skilled and engaged investors as well, who work in the sector, who work in the industry now, who want to help us with their guidance and expertise and networks to develop the brand and the product.
So I think the key thing for us for 2020 is really just focusing on the four products that we've got, and just making sure they are in as many places as possible and being consumed and enjoyed by as many people as possible. Focusing a lot on the UK for the first 12 months, but then we have a few other things up our sleeves for years two and years three, which involve a bit more export and developing a slightly different range of products as well. So taking this English starting point and maybe introducing a bit more Sicilian elements from my wife's family's side and looking at ways we can incorporate the two and create a bit more of a family of everyday vermouths, house vermouths using Sicilian wines and Sicilian botanicals as well as the English.

Now, you spoke about concentrating on the UK for the next year, will the product be available more globally after that?

Yeah, I think so. So I mean, at the moment we're available in the UK plus a little bit in Singapore, a little bit in Hong Kong. I think we'll be expanding our horizons to incorporate a bit more of the APAC area, and Europe of course just on our doorstep as long as Brexit doesn't do anything particularly heinous to us, which it probably will. We'll have to see how that unfolds. I mean, that's the current thing about putting all your eggs in the export basket is, I do not know what the British politicians are going to do. So it won't be pleasant and it will be painful, and the amount of red tape they will introduce, and no doubt cost as well is just going to be... Yeah. It just needs to be mapped out and yeah, concentrating on the UK is a smart move for us for the next 12 months, until we can actually see what the export market looks like.

Yeah. That makes sense. Anyway, look, thank you so much for joining us, Rob, and if people want more information, they can of course go to your website which is asterleybros.com. So A-S-T-E-R-L-E-Y-B-R-O-S.com.

That’s it.

Thank you very much.

For more information, go to asterleybros.com

 

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