In the world of Cocktail Bartending, there a few people as well known and as well respected as Charlotte Voisey. With 20 years of experience in the industry she has seen many trends come and go, but has always stressed the importance of education. As a brand ambassador for William Grant and Sons she has spoken on many subjects ranging from the importance of garnish to how to preserve mint on a bar top. Charlotte took the time to speak with us on the phone about her experiences, both learning and teaching, and the importance of taking advantage of opportunities as they arise.
Bartender Atlas: In what year did you start bartending?
Charlotte Voisey: My first bar shift was in 1996 at The Chicago Rib Shack it was part of a restaurant management training program with “My Kinda Town” restaurant group
BA: What style of bartending were you doing when you started?
CV: Yeah surprised that it was very much Long Island Iced Teas, Frozen Margaritas, Manhattans on rocks. It was volume..I guess what we would now call Retro Cocktails, which makes me feel a bit old. It started with those old kinds of drinks and getting them out fast.
BA: In the mid-2000’s you started winning awards?
CV: In 2003 we opened Apt 195, that was the craft cocktail bar in London that I ran and that’s when I started using fresh ingredients, proper craft mixology and doing things the right way. Then in the following year, 2004, I won UK Bartender of The Year.
BA: When you got into opening Apt 195 and started using fresh ingredients and what not, did you have a person or group of people that encouraged you to do that?
CV: Yeah I did, the Gorgeous Group London. They are still around now, still doing great things. It was Jason Fendick in particular who was the bar person. So he was the first one to introduce me to doing things the right way in terms of “great spirits matter”, the differences between these types of gins, fresh ingredients, making syrups, using bitters and being creative.
BA: So you had been working with bars and cocktails for ten years and then you made the switch to running seminars and focusing on education, what brought that on?
CV: It was a couple of things. Technically it was when William Grant and Sons approached me. I was still in London at the time and they approached me and offered me a chance to move to New York to become a brand ambassador with them. I was presented with that idea and I loved hospitality and service and being on my feet and running a place. That’s what I always believed, and still do, to be my forte. When this came along I was like “hmmm, I don’t know if I’m one of those people that would jump over to the brand side” you know? I like running a bar too much. But the year before that I had gone out to Aspen Food & Wine. I was invited out there to guest bartend a party and I had met Tony Abu-Ganim and Francesco Lafranconi who in turn introduced me to Dale (Degroff) and Julie Reiner and I got a glimpse at what the American educational seminar circuit looked like. Obviously, through the eyes of those guys, it was a tonne of fun and very inspiring. I came to understand that I could still do things I loved and could be surrounded by pretty inspirational people who could mentor me, and that’s exactly what happened. So I got to go through… it was a change, but it wasn’t leaving the industry, I still got to be around a lot of the things that I liked. I think my brand ambassador story is different from a lot of people. I did a lot of bar openings, I wrote a lot of cocktail menus, I bartended events. I think that previously brand ambassadors focused more on the bartenders, whereas I would do it a lot more myself.
BA: When you were a kid, did you ever imagine growing up to be a teacher?
CV: No, never a teacher. I wanted to travel and I wanted to be famous.
BA: Well you’re doing alright on that front.
CV: Yeah, the travel for sure. But teacher, no, it wasn’t really in my head.
BA: Through your career and making the move from running a bar in London to moving to New York, how did your family feel about that? Especially at that time because at that time no one knew what a brand ambassador was. Has everyone in your personal life been supportive?
CV: Yes, very supportive. What you’ll need to know is that when I moved to New York, I was mid-twenties. When I was 18 I moved to Spain for a year. When I was 20 I moved to Argentina for a couple of years.
BA: So New York was “no big deal”?
CV: It wasn’t such a big deal, no. My family had already kind of been through it and knew that’s what I loved and it wasn’t quite such a big move as Buenos Aires, for example.
BA: How many seminars would you say you have hosted or co-hosted in the last decade, ballpark?
CV: Let’s say ten years, a couple a month for sure. Quick math. When I was in my peak, I did a lot more early on, but we have a full team now, as you know, but I guess three or four hundred?
BA: Has there ever been a seminar that you worked really hard to put together that fell flat? Something that you were more interested in than the general public?
CV: I mean, you’d probably have to ask them! One of the things that I learned early on is, and [I] stole from others, is that when you give a seminar, it’s not an opportunity for you to show what you know. You’re there to deliver what the audience wants. You always have to come from the place of “How am I going to be helpful to these people?” They need to be educated/entertained, dependant on the content and the tone. It’s about them, not me, so I have always started with that question: “What’s in it for them?”, to make sure I deliver something that’s useful.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely days where you are feeling the mojo and then your jokes all fall flat, that’s possibly more cultural. I remember the first time I went to Kentucky, I was working with single malt whiskies at the time and had been doing really well all over the country. Obviously scotch is quite revered. So I rolled into Kentucky telling all the local guys how wonderful scotch whisky is. About halfway through I realized that I was standing in Kentucky saying this and that was a far less warm and fuzzy audience.
BA: Are there any programs or steps that you recommend to someone looking to jump from making drinks to teaching about them?
CV: Attend as many seminars as you can. Preferably those delivered by people who are good at what they do. If you don’t know who those people are you can ask around or quickly figure it out by talking to people in this industry.
I will never forget an early seminar that Steve Olson gave that was at one of these symposiums in 2007. It was at 8 o’clock in the morning and the topic of his seminar was “Water”. So we sat down and within ten minutes we’re tasting sherry and jamon and these strange vermouths that I’ve never heard of and all of these crazy things. But the ultimate message of the seminar was how water pairs with food and drink. For example if you drink still water, flavours linger in your mouth whereas sparkling water tends to clear you out and get you ready for a next course. It’s a simple message put forth in a kind of crazy way but his delivery style is so mesmerizing, I think, and inspirational and that’s when I realized “Oh! You can actually be really good at giving seminars.” It’s not just about speaking clearly and saying the right things. You can actually move people and inspire them. Just like when you learn to bartend, you learn by surrounding yourself with people who do it really well and observe as much as you can and kind of absorb that.
BA: That is some great advice. Have you considered writing a book?
CV: Yeah, in fact I really want to. I have wanted to for a number of years. It hasn’t quite panned out yet for a few reasons. One of them being my ties to William Grant. Publishers seize on that instantly as the perfect marriage but I don’t want to do a book that’s branded. I want to do my own book. Still trying to figure that out.
BA: Do you have any favourite books that you think people aspiring to encyclopedic cocktail knowledge should definitely read?
CV: I definitely think that Craft of The Cocktail by Dale DeGroff is one of those books of our generation or our movement. Not only his recipes, but his tone and the fact that it comes from him. I think if you want to learn about history and passion, then his words and style…you can’t ignore that voice. So definitely that one.
As for something more recent, Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s The Bar Book. Again, super relevant, really useful. Doesn’t beat around the bush. He gives you a great way to make mint syrup, gives you the best kind of recipe for this cocktail, fills with a bit of his humour which I personally enjoy. I think that it is really useful and easy.
BA: If people can’t make it to Tales of The Cocktail or London or Singapore, where can they find you dropping knowledge online?
CV: Oh well, since you’ve asked, I do have my show online ‘The Perfect Pour with Charlotte Voisey” which is housed at Small Screen Network. That’s where I do pretty basic level cocktail classes, “how to’s”. I go over some different cocktails that I have come up with. Sometimes they are classics. Each one has a bit of a story or a technique lesson. That’s one place. Often the Tales Of the Cocktail seminars that I am involved in often get shared whether it’s global Tales events or sometimes online they share the seminar slides and things like that.
BA: Anything you would like to add?
CV: I am very privileged to travel as much as I do, there aren’t many people that get to travel so widely so I have been reporting back on things I have seen and so recently I haven’t been giving so many seminars on things I know or do, but on trends. Because I see things in different cities and try to tie them together. Then sharing that information with others because I’m able to do that because I see so much.
Thank you, Charlotte, for taking the time to speak with us and to share your knowledge and experiences.