Since Eater is currently celebrating its own Cocktail Week, it's the perfect time to catch up with Jackson Cannon, Boston cocktail industry veteran (The Hawthorne, Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar), and see how things went in London and what he's thinking about the future of the industry, from the question of a gender-blind approach to bad trends (cocktails in kegs).
How was London?
Pretty wild. It’s the greatest cocktail city on the planet, for sure. I mean, it’s probably the greatest city on the planet for a lot of things, in terms of theater, museums, and stuff. I like my culture a little bit more viscerally. But it’s so expensive…
What are some of the great cocktails spots there these days?
Happiness Forgets was amazing. It happens to make cocktails on the highest level, but it’s a neighborhood spot in East London. It’s just a great, great time — really cool. And White Lyan really fascinated me because I’m not really into the so-called "molecular stuff," batching and all the processed stuff, and they do it. But usually a cocktail made to order ends up tasting better, you know? But they do a really good job; there are lots of great flavors. And because they put so much effort and work into creating those things, some can take a couple of days or even a week to be processed, depending on what they are.
In the moment of having a drink, they pop a tap or put a few drops in a glass and pour something straight from a bottle. They’re completely guest-facing, and they’re playing cool music, and it’s like vaudeville. It’s a place to party, really fun. You can get pretty lit up pretty fast because the effort that goes into making the drink doesn’t take place between the time you order it and getting it. It’s a pretty cool place.
It was important for a while to be asserting the mixology because it was so bad for so long. But it's time to reintegrate that into its place where that’s just one tool that a great bartender uses to make you have a good time.
How did the event go? How was your talk?
It went pretty well; it was pretty cool. The gathering of these questions is a work in progress; ultimately I think I might be able to come up with a set of rhetorical questions that indicate what I believe through them. But this process was sort of the first time doing it, and I crafted some of them to kind of see if I could provoke a little bit of discussion, if not argument, in the room, and it was a really cool room.
It was me and two panelists: Dan Warner, who is very well-known in London. He came up as a bartender originally and now is the face of the 86 company, which is a new line of bartender-friendly spirits; he’s the European head of that. And Ali Burgess, who owns Happiness Forgets, and who trained both in London and in New York for getting his bar position.
So it was the three of us, and it was also a great room. Hannah Cox, who is the owner of London Cocktail Week, was there. The president of the local guild was there. A bunch of bartenders from the Savoy, the American bar which is ironically all Italian bartenders. Bartenders from all over, from Glasgow and Germany and from France. So I asked four or five questions, and they grouped a little bit into genres, and then Dan and Ali and I got in a little dialogue, but we kind of kept it open to the audience, so we had some really spirited conversations, quite a lot of drama. The future trends of reasserting all the other disciplines of the bartender besides drink-making, recognizing that it was important for a while to be asserting the mixology because it was so bad for so long. But now it's time to reintegrate that into its place where that’s just one tool that a great bartender uses to make you have a good time. It was very much on everyone’s mind, so that was sort of fun.
I think the biggest controversy was a series of questions that were more or less about equality of sexes in the workplace. The way I phrased them was sort of in that pejorative way that really pisses strong women off sometimes. "What are the biggest challenges that women face in the industry?", kind of pandering tonal things like that. And Hannah was in the room. And it was kind of funny because Dan Warner’s wife, Claire Warner, is one of the most powerful women in spirits. She’s awesome, she worked at Belvedere forever, and I know her response to that question is like, "I don’t know, what’s it like to be a man in this business?" She’s very gender-blind in her approach. You know, I happen to employ a series of very strong women in our top positions at all of our bars. So I know the answer to that question is that those questions aren’t the right ones.
But in London there are very few women behind the bar, so this kind of devolved into the older guys talking about gender roles and perception of guests. I had a hard time getting the room back at one point. I kind of took a chance because I wanted to see this argued out, and I finally was able say that these questions are here to provoke us into getting better questions. So I think we left it at; the re-write of the question was: "To have more equality behind the bar, is it important to be gender-blind?"
I just want my bars to have the best possible staff, which means diversity is important, and naturally that includes a lot of women rising to roles of responsibility.
You don’t see young bar owners or bar entrepreneurs able to open a small place and make sort of a short run at it like you can in New York.
How do you think that the Boston cocktail scene compares to other cities in terms of forward movement of the industry?
For several years now, pound for pound, I think it’s one of the strongest in the country. It faces some limitations to being on the forefront. The basic one is an economic one. Liquor licenses are still so controlled that they have this high value, which really means that to seek investment and break into the business is tougher for younger entrepreneurs. It also means that you really end up wanting a liquor license associated with a place of a certain size, and that means a high rent that relates to your size, but your liquor license is a high cost regardless of your size. So places are trying to get into that sweet spot where they are big enough to really make all those economics work. You don’t see young bar owners or bar entrepreneurs able to open a small place and make sort of a short run at it like you can in New York. Even though rents are exorbitant there, the licensing business is fairly straightforward, and so you can get a small place off the ground and give it shot and make a distinctive expression.
Here, that becomes a little more difficult. Having said that, it’s become a great restaurant town with great bars. Lots of people who are well-trained and training lots of people. I think that service is pretty strong and Boston has connected itself into the national scene. We enjoy good cross-pollination now between Chicago, New York, San Francisco. So I would rate it well above average, for a city of its size, among the top places in the country.
I remember once I made a pact with a bunch of other bartenders: the next time we get asked a trend question, tell everybody that the new thing to do is you bring your own tools when you go out as a guest.
What are some changing trends that you’re seeing now or foreseeing in the next few years?
That’s always a really tough one. I’m so tempted to lie to you right now. I remember once I made a pact with a bunch of other bartenders: the next time we get asked a trend question, tell everybody that the new thing to do is you bring your own tools when you go out as a guest. Set your shaker on the bar, and that’s how bartenders will know that you’re a bartender. We thought if we could get, like, three people to do that, it would be like the time that The New York Times got spoofed on the grunge terms.
But I think we’re going to continue to see restaurants able to have more compelling programs. I think we’re going to see well-made cocktails being a little bit more assumed and expected. And the next generation is going to be very adept at moving through wine, beer, and cocktails; they’re not going to be one or the other coming up from now on. Where some of us started out over in the bar realm and maybe came late to wine, and other people specialized in wine and sort of held the cocktail thing at the end, I don’t think the next generation of the house is going to be that way. They’re not going to see a barrier; they’re going to see all of it as an integrated part of their approach to beverage.
On the other side of that, are there any changes you see happening in the industry that you don’t think are positive?
I think that there was a little moustache-twirling going on there for a couple of years, and it was understandable, but now I see that getting put back into perspective, which is good. But I think the danger always exists that people who are passionate about service and passionate about product maybe will have that balance out of whack and forget that it’s all about the guest. That’s a constant battle; that’s not a new trend. That’s just how we as humans who want to come into this business sometimes have to evolve.
But I remember asking at White Lyan about kegged cocktails, because they didn’t have anything that they did that way. And they were like, "Oh yeah, we can’t seem to make that work as well as anything else." And it was kind of interesting to me because I haven’t had a kegged cocktail that I liked. But if that continues as a trend, and they still are not good, that would be something I wouldn’t like.
What’s next for you personally? Any more seminars or travel on the horizon?
We’ve got Thirst Boston coming up in November, right here in our town. I’m doing a seminar with Jim Ryan from Hendrick’s Gin and the great Charles Joly from Aviary on entrepreneurship. I’m discussing how I took the need for a better bar knife to R. Murphy Knives to design my bar knife. Jim’s talking about a specific spirit, and Charles is talking about a line of beverages that he’s on. That’ll be fun. And there are lots of parties during that week, too, so that’ll be a good time.