Raising a glass with Jak Allen from The Kings Head Hotel

From creating flaming absinthe cocktails to showing off his shaken and stirred skills behind the bar, The Kings Head Hotel's head bartender Jak Allen shares his love for mixology and rum-based drinks with SoGlos.

Jak, tell SoGlos readers a bit about yourself and where you work.

My name’s Jak Allen, I’m 25, and I’m bar manager and head bartender at The Kings Head Hotel in Cirencester. I’m originally from Swindon but I now live right in the Cotswolds in South Cerney.

What’s your background?

I’ve been working in bars since I was 16 and I’ve worked in clubs, cocktail bars, lounges and bistros. This is the first hotel I’ve worked at though and I started just before it launched in September 2014.

What was it that attracted you to working in a hotel environment?

The opportunity at The Kings Head Hotel came up purely on the off chance. I’ve been interested in mixology for a long time and I started speaking with François, the deputy manager, and he said they were looking for keen bartenders to run the new bar.

Have you had any formal training?

I’ve had a lot of on the job training but I’ve also had training with Jack Daniels, Skyy Vodka and Bombay Sapphire. I worked quite closely with Joel St John, who first gave me an interest in mixology when I was a glass collector in Swindon, and I learnt about flaring from Simon Rowe, who used to work for a lot of the TGI Fridays around the country.

What’s the difference between a bartender and a mixologist?

A bartender just serves drinks and pours pints while mixology is much more of a science.

Are you a fan of flaring?

Flaring, throwing spirit bottles and cocktail shakers, is something fun we do on a Saturday night and we’re really going to start pushing it when the vaulted cellar bar opens. Generally we take mixology much more seriously and flaring is just a bit of a laugh.

How do you come up with fresh ideas for cocktails?

I get inspiration from all over the place especially in America; some of the bars over there are doing really amazing stuff. In London, The Savoy is really good, as is the Artesian bar in The Langham hotel. A lot of them are made up though and we often get bartenders coming in for a shift with ideas so we try them out and balance them a bit differently if they don’t work.

Do you have a spirit you prefer to work with?

My favourite spirits are tequila, mezcal, a Mexican spirit, and rum.

What is it about these spirits that makes you reach for them?

Tequilas and mezcals are really interesting spirits. They’re herbaceous, are nice to mix with and you can make some really different cocktails that you wouldn’t expect the taste to come out of. And, the pure reason that I mix with rum is that I love it!

Tell us about the idea behind the Cocktail of the Week

We’ve been doing it since Christmas and it’s gone down really well. It’s an opportunity for us to try something unique without having to put it on our menu.

What’s been the wackiest one you’ve done?

We did a flaming Sazerac which, much to my surprise was popular as I wasn’t sure how a cocktail with absinthe would sell here.

Do you find that more people are drinking cocktails these days?

I think over the last five years the cocktail and gin markets have boomed and are now massive.

Why do you think this is the case?

I think, to be honest with you, people have a little bit more money and they’re interested in decent food and cocktails come through with that.

Can cocktails be enjoyed with food?

Absolutely, we’re trying to move towards that. We’ve got a fantastic sommelier, Alan Holmes, and I’m working closely with him to do cocktail and food pairing. A lot of people have this horrible image of cocktails, the type you get on holiday with plastic parrots sticking out of them, but that market is dying out and more spirit concentrated cocktails are coming in which do match really with food.

What’s the trick to making a good cocktail?

It’s all about the balance between sweet and sour, strong and weak. You can use the best ingredients in the world but if it’s not balanced correctly it won’t taste right.

What’s a good drink to try if you’re new to cocktails?

It completely depends on what you drink. At the hotel about 50 per cent of the cocktails we make aren’t on the menu. People are always stuck for ideas when they come to the bar so I always start by asking what they normally drink. Sweeter cocktails are probably easier to start with as they mask the alcohol a little bit.

Can you recreate cocktails at home without having all the fancy kit?

You can make simple cocktails. But, if you’re taking it more seriously, there are so many little ingredients you might use tiny shots or dashes of to create one cocktail, which makes it difficult to do at home to be honest.

What are the most popular cocktails at the hotel?

It’s The Kings Garden which is a play on the Gin Garden. It’s made with fresh ginger that’s muddled with fresh cucumber, St Germain, an elderflower liqueur from France, pressed apple juice and gin. We also serve a lot of the classics such as an Old Fashioned but in the same respect our in-house made cocktails, such as a tequila and almond sour, are also quite popular.

Do you change your menu throughout the year?

It’s completely seasonal and we’re in the process of writing our really summery list at the moment. We don’t feature as many Cognac, whisky or rum-based cocktails because they lend themselves more towards the autumn or the winter. Our roof terrace bar has just opened so that’s going to be a great opportunity for drinking outside in the sun.

As rum’s your favourite spirit, what’s your go-to rum cocktail?

I like one of the simplest cocktails there is – rum Old Fashioned. Or maybe a rum-based Manhattan. Basically anything that really brings out the flavour of the rum and doesn’t mask it.

What’s in a rum Old Fashioned?

At the hotel we do a rum, vanilla and cinnamon version which is made from aged rum stirred over ice, brown sugar, a few dashes of orange bitters and a dash of Angostura bitters. Then it’s just stirred with fresh vanilla pods and cinnamon, and garnished with a cinnamon stick.

How do you see the bar developing over the next year?

I’d like the upstairs bar next to the restaurant to make a name for itself in mixology and I’d love the downstairs bar to become known for serving more fun cocktails and flaring. I did a bit of competing in Oxford and they’ve got a lively bar scene that I’d like to bring to the Cotswolds.

Do you offer cocktail making classes?

We run masterclasses and they’ve been really successful. I love doing them as it’s a great opportunity to spend time with people and get them enthused by the world of cocktails.

What do you like to do in Gloucestershire when you’re not working?

To be honest with you, working in a hotel involves long hours so I hate to say it but most of the time I’m catching up on sleep!

Are there any stand-out drinks spots in the county that you like to visit?

All of my bartenders go to Seventeen Black round the corner because it's the late-night bar in Cirencester. It's nice to go for a drink after work, I don't really order cocktails there but it's just a good place to go and chill out. I've heard that at No 131 in Cheltenham is pushing its mixology so that’s somewhere I’d like to go and have a look at.

For more information see The Kings Head Hotel, call (01285) 700900 or visit kingshead-hotel.co.uk directly.

By Anna McKittrick

© SoGlos
Friday 07 August 2015

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