On a recent trip to Taipei to cover the global launch of the Ballantine’s Single Malt Whisky range, Ben Davidson was introduced to Michael Cameron, Drinks Innovator for the Glasgow-based Liquid Academy.
The Liquid Academy had been engaged by Ballantine’s to create a series of cocktails and flavour matches that amplified the flavours of the whisky and were inspired by the local ingredients of Taiwan. Over the course of three days, Ben was able to get an appreciation for the level of research and detail that went into the creation of the flavour matches put forward.
DRINKS WORLD: What drew you to bartending?
MICHAEL CAMERON: I drifted into the trade. In the beginning, I was seeking something that was very hard to define. During that time, I studied journalism and music, and went through a phase of being a full-time escapist, but through all that there was one thing that kept me going and that was bartending.
As I moved into my twenties, I started to view it in a different light. I started to see the artistry and the soul, and I started to look deeper into how spirits were made and how they were enjoyed globally. I reached a point where I could either make an art of it or move on. So, I decided to learn the craft and understand the mechanics behind it through reading books, like David Embury and studying the history of drinks.
DW: Do you see the scholarly approach as the way forward in bartending?
MC: You can tend bar very well without glancing at a history book, but when you come to the point of progression and innovation within a field that can, at times, be very standard and formulaic, studying provides the background and inspiration that you really need.
DW: Who were some of your mentors in your early career?
MC: There have been a few influences throughout my career. My first experience with elite cocktail culture was in Paris, when I first saw the physical space of a bar as a place of discovery and something that was transcendent. Overall though, my city of Glasgow mostly influenced me.
Watching the progression of the Glasgow scene over the last ten years is something
I’ve found a lot of comfort in. The face of Glasgow has changed as acutely as the face
of the industry worldwide. Watching the likes of Mal Spence and the work he did at Blythswood Square in Glasgow, seeing what was going on at the Merchant Hotel, and what Sean Muldoon and Tony Conigliaro were doing, were all big inspirations.
It was a time when the industry in Glasgow was searching for something more, something better, a defined international presence. That’s when I met Scott Gemmell, the impresario
and founder of the Liquid Academy and one of Scotland’s distinguished industry mentors. Scott’s philosophy changed the game for me in terms of taking ownership of the bar environment, making it experiential for guests and seeing hospitality as a broad concept, rather than just bartenders engineering drinks.
DW: What’s the philosophy behind the Liquid Academy?
MC: The Liquid Academy does a lot of things. We are an events service company within the UK, with hired bar ‘gunslingers’ in all regional areas to help execute these events. When Scott founded Liquid Academy in 2005, there was no other training resource focused on innovation in Scotland. That’s the ethos behind the beginnings of the Academy, and that is still the bedrock of what we do.
We also do onsite training for venues and we run our own monthly training courses, from classic cocktails through to experimental lab work. The training operates on many different levels.
Recently, we’ve been providing training to young offenders to offer a second chance. There is a redemptive quality to giving service and hospitality, and the trade can provide an avenue for a clean start as well as a means of learning valuable life skills.
Another area that we train in is the concept of the bartender being a showman or entertainer, and how important the first impression is for a guest. Before you touch a shaker or a spoon the guest is already reading your stance, poise, eye-line, how you move and how you bring your personality into it.
DW: What do you get up to on an average day?
MC: The Liquid Academy venue is in an old bank building with a long and storied past. We host events there where our clients hire it and we offer a bespoke drinks service. Quite often we’ll have our guests down for an intimate masterclass where we work with them to design drinks for their party. I spend a lot of my time in our subterranean drinks lab, batching cocktails and preparing garnishes for the catering side of our business.
I also do a lot of training with the next generation of bartenders on drinks history. We also teach bartenders to be aware of themselves physically, through a ‘Poetry of Movement’ seminar based on Tai Chi and reinforcing the actions that lead to efficiency of service. Ultimately, it’s our goal as bartenders to make an order of drinks in the minimum amount of time with the maximum amount of passion.
DW: How did the collaboration with Ballantine’s come about?
MC: The Liquid Academy has worked with Pernod Ricard brands over the years, and they came to us to host a prestige dinner for an Asian delegation in Glasgow. At the dinner, we paired multiple courses with twists on classics using Asian inspired flavours. We now share a close kinship with Ballantine’s, and have a similar philosophy of what whisky cocktails should be and how whisky could be enjoyed in the modern age.
DW: What led to the infused tofu flavour matches behind each of the Ballantine’s whiskies?
MC: Tofu is like a blank canvas, with a smooth texture that is perfect for infusing flavours to match with whisky. I made the experimental flavour matches in a deconstructed form, so the nuances of the whisky could be enjoyed and then uplifted by the atomised accompaniment of the infused tofu and fermented garnish.
DW: It’s what we’d like to call a spirited match, indeed!