It’s safe to say Tristan Stephenson is a busy man. Between managing his own award-winning Black Rock bars in London and Surfside restaurant in Cornwall, offering menu and cocktail consultancy to others and working with Andrew Lloyd Webber on his recent Drury Lane Theatre reopening, he’s spinning many plates. And that’s without mentioning running Whisky Me, his latest Dragons’ Den-funded venture.
His career has followed an unusual trajectory, starting out in the hospitality industry around 20 years ago and dabbling in everything, from the front of the house through to the chef. But it was always the mixology and cocktail side that interested him. “It was an opportunity, a gap in the market. Whereas in the kitchen I would probably have never moved beyond being an average chef, in the bar it wasn’t that difficult to become a good bartender. So that was the initial draw of cocktails – plus, they’re pretty tasty, so there was that too.”
It’s not just the taste and career aspirations that led to Tristan stepping behind the bar. “Once you start getting into cocktails and spirits you realise there’s so much history and so much of our culture in them. There are so many stories that are better told now but weren’t so well told at the time, and you really find a lot of human history in spirits and beer and wine, and the stories and people behind the cocktails are also interesting.”
“I think you find a little bit of all of human nature in a bar. It’s an employment that has a little bit of everything. You get to be creative, like an artist. There’s an element of the scientific method to it as well with the measurements, balancing and chemistry involved in creating drinks. There’s the performing side of it and the social communication side of it. And, when you start to open your own bars, there’s the business side of it that comes with it too.
You don’t feel like ‘I should have been a writer’ because you’re writing menus and descriptions. Or ‘I should have been an actor’, because you get to perform every single night. Or ‘I should have been an accountant’… although no one actually says that!”
His love for mixology has blossomed into multiple avenues. He has written multiple books on various spirits, with a goal in mind to start on a Tequila one once restrictions lift and he can venture out to Mexico. He has also been offering consultancy to various bars, be it full renovation ideas or cocktail and menu revamps. With the hospitality sector returning to normal after a lengthy nationwide pause, does Tristan have any pangs to return to entertaining behind the bar?: “I don’t miss it until I do it. I don’t have any inclination to go back to serving behind a bar for 8 hours a night. But when I do it, a few times a year, I have a lot of fun. But part of the reason that I have fun is that I know, at the end of that shift, I don’t have to do it again tomorrow.”
More recently, he has found himself drawn to whisky. His longstanding fascination first led him to open the popular Black Rock bar in London, starting in 2015 and going on to win the Class Magazine’s Specialist Bar of the Year award 5 years in a row until the pandemic.
He saw the whisky subsection of the spirit world as one that needed a bit of a facelift: “There’s a lot of snobbery and elitism that goes on in whisky, even to this day. This isn’t helpful for the whisky category. What we need to be doing is introducing new people, because it’s such an exciting category and there’s so much there. There is something there for everyone, but too many people are put off. And they’re put off, either by this idea that they haven’t earned it for some reason, or that it’s too complicated to even begin to start, there are too many types etc.”
Rather than sorting by distillery and region, Black Rock breaks down whiskies by flavour profile: “We have six cabinets, each one a different flavour: smoke, fruit, spice, sweet, balanced and fragrant. In addition, the higher up the cabinet they are the heavier, and the lower the lighter. This way you help customers break down a selection of potentially 350 whiskies into around 20. From there we made the pricing easy, so whiskies are only sold for £7, £9 or £11.”
Revolutionising the whisky industry is no mean feat. It’s an area of the market that is particularly steeped in culture and tradition, more so than other spirits. While he always feels there is a place for traditionalism, the aim of Black Rock is to welcome a new audience. “We play hip-hop music, and it was just a cool place to be. No kilts, no bagpipes etc. A lot of the Tweed armchair, open fire stuff is fine and I enjoy it. But that’s not necessarily the image you want to paint for someone who doesn’t know the whisky category. The way to get them in, possibly, is to switch the whole thing on its head and say ‘This is exciting, bright, flavourful and tasty! Come and drink it with us!’”
The new ideas haven’t stopped behind the bar. The most recent string to Tristan’s bow has come in the form of Whisky Me, an extension of his Black Rock passion project. An innovative home whisky subscription service which is designed to offer top-shelf whiskies, delivered in funky pouches which create the perfect dram.
“There were a lot of new releases, especially world whiskies, and the places to drink whisky weren’t evolving to keep up with this and neither were the at-home experiences. All you had was big online retailers which give you a little information, and it’s expensive so you don’t know if you want to commit to an entire bottle.”
Rather than receiving full bottles of expensive whiskies through your door on a monthly basis, Whisky Me provides whisky novices with an easy entry point. “We wanted the price point to be really low, like Netflix prices, £7 or £8 a month and so low that people wouldn’t really notice it. We wanted to make it a price point that was accessible to pretty much anyone.”
Offering single malt Scotch whiskies or access to increasingly popular world whiskies has allowed the business to grow with around 9,000 members total. Winning over the dragons on BBC’s Dragons Den has also helped with building the name. “We now have three millionaire investors to keep happy and who want to see this business grow, as do we. We now see a huge amount of potential opportunity.
With all this going on, you could forgive Tristan for resting on his laurels a bit. But is this the case? Absolutely not: “There’s a lot more growing in the UK that we want to do with it, and we’re probably going to start offering more subscription products and we may even stretch into other spirits as well. It feels like the brand has potential to grow in rum and gin perhaps, so watch this space with that.”
For more information on Whisky Me visit here