Aspall Cyder - Cider and Vinegar

#ShrubItUp - heat 1, Bristol

14th June 2016


As I sat back watching the scenery fly past the train window my mind turned to what was looming for me that evening. Bristol was to be the first heat, and with it came the excitement that comes from a degree of uncertainty as to the format of the evening.

Not only that, but just how much do I really know about cocktail judging? Now, I’ve worked on the bar and made my fair share of cocktails, but truth be told, the last time I really made them regularly was in Hong Kong a quarter of a century ago, so to say my cocktail skills are a little rusty would be an understatement.

I think I can make a pretty decent shrub – I’ve made some disasters as well – but to be exposed to a dozen new approaches to this subject matter, well, I couldn’t recall having had such slavering anticipation for a while.

But here’s the thing; I was heading in to a competition with what I was fully expecting to be some serious mixologists. My excitement and anticipation at what they would create that evening, was actually tempered with a hint of nerves at the prospect of rubbing shoulders with some of the West Country’s finest bar people.

It’s always good to walk amongst giants – it’s the best way to keep yourself honest. And what giants these talented folk turned out to be. 

Our host for the evening was the genial Andy of the Flipside Cocktail Club on White Ladies Road; I have him to thank not only for his generosity with the super venue, but also for giving me a quick refresh on the intricacies of cocktail making and the tasting thereof. This was not going to be like judging cider – a task I have been happy to perform on numerous occasions; no indeed, the advantage of that said task is that everything is made from one ingredient (mainly) and whilst comparative judging is a challenge even if done methodically, it pales in comparison to the complexity of judging cocktails made from a host of different ingredients.

But I like a challenge, and this wasn’t a bad one for a Monday evening let’s face it.

We had 12 entries in all; not only from Bristol, but also Bath, Cardiff and Birmingham. The thing I’ve always loved about this industry is the supportive camaraderie that abounds – and there was no change to that here. From great whoops of delight as the cocktail shakers were pressed in to action through to the intense exchanging of ideas between sessions there was a great energy in Flipside.

And as expected, the quality of entrants was very high, displaying great talent in the concept of the shrub and great skill in the execution of the resulting cocktail. The shrubs themselves were varied highlighting the incredible adaptability of both vinegar and the shrub technique. We had strawberry – with and without mint, prune and raisin, gooseberry, pineapple with mint. And then the more leftfield – fennel and dill, asparagus and pea, croissant (yes, croissant!), beetroot and thyme and a favourite of the evening, tomato and pickle – it was literally like drinking liquid Branston. 


Whilst all scored extremely well, the marks were really going to be got by how the shrub was integrated in to the cocktail itself. Well, there was only one winner on that score, and a winner the judges all had in their top 3. Jenny from Ten Mill Lane in Cardiff properly nailed it, blending her beetroot and thyme shrub beautifully with Ocho Tequila, fresh lemon and fresh apple juice, chocolate bitters, a couple of dashes of Chartreuse and then shaken with fresh thyme.

Initially on the nose, there was the hit of the super, sweet, rooty aroma of beetroot; on tasting, the velvety creamy mouthfeel of beetroot came through with a perfect blend of the shrub and green chartreuse herb flavour – it had a wonderful balance complimented by the smokiness of the tequila. Knock out. Jenny called her cocktail “Oh My Darling Clement Thyme” A clever play on Aspall’s founding Father and the unique approach he took to setting up his business. A well-deserved winner.