Just the tonic - how master mixer was inspired by Irish ingredients
Master mixologist Oisin Davis tells our reporter how his love of Irish ingredients inspired his new beverage
Cocktails "have become gender neutral," says Oisin Davis. "I think more and more guys in Ireland have less of a hang-up about drinking drinks in a very effeminate looking Martini glass. There are other guys that might not be jumping into ordering a pink drink, but you see them drinking Old Fashioneds and Whiskey Sours - traditionally quite manly drinks, but on the opposite end of that I know plenty of girls who enjoy drinking those."
A leading mixologist, drinks consultant and founder of the Dublin Cocktail festival, it's safe to say that what Oisin (40) doesn't know about cocktails is not worth knowing. No surprise, then, that his latest business venture is one that has caught the attention of the industry. Oisin, along with business partner Vaughan Yates, has created a premium Irish tonic water, Poacher's, which hit shelves in bars and off-licenses yesterday.
A year-and-a-half in the making, Oisin says that Poacher's was inspired by how Irish people have "turned a corner" when it comes to using Irish produce. "We went out of our way to make something that was as Irish as we could possibly have made it," he says. "It's Irish spring water, it's got Irish rosemary."
The spring water in question comes from the Litterberg Estate in Wexford, and the tonic is produced and bottled in the county. Litterberg also gives the drink its name - historically, the quality of the spring water was so well known that it was pilfered by 'poachers'.
Oisin worked with a perfumer to extract rosemary essence to add to the water. How do you extract flavours? "It's kind of complicated," he laughs, before explaining that a heated mix of alcohol and hot water is pumped through a cage of rosemary until it gains the herb's aroma and flavour.
Along with the rosemary essence, sugar beets and Florida orange are added to the springwater to sweeten it, and then quinine is thrown in to give it the tonic its signature bitter tang. "I love working in drinks, and I have to keep myself happy and creatively satisfied," Oisin says with a grin.
Originally from Jersey in the US, Oisin moved to Dublin aged 10 with his mother and siblings. It was America that first inspired his love of cocktails, albeit as a consumer - in 1998 he spent a summer in San Francisco where cocktails had become something of a craze.
The following year, he became general manager of new Dublin venue The Sugar Club. "When we first opened Sugar Club up, cocktails were always going to be a major part of our offering," he says. "Everyone said that was a bad idea, but then Sex and the City came along and everyone wanted to make cocktails."
So it was the likes of Miranda, Carrie, Samantha and Charlotte that were key to the explosion of cocktails in Ireland in the late 1990s - but are cocktails still a seen as a merely ladies drink? Oisin doesn't think so. "There are still lots of ladies who would drink Prosecco cocktails and pink cocktails out of certain Martini glasses, but I see some of the butchest, rugger buggers drinking all sorts of drinks."
He admits to having first stepped behind the bar himself "out of necessity". "It was because of bartenders not showing up or bar managers leaving that I was thrown in at the deep end and had to learn." It wasn't long before Oisin was being asked by drinks companies to visit venues right across the country and demonstrate the art of mixology. But it was another trip to America which would ultimately prove to be a "game changer" .
"In 2011, I entered a national cocktail competition and I won it," Oisin says. "We had to create five cocktails and each one of mine contained a wild Irish ingredient - I guess that captured the imagination of the judges and the prize was a five-day course in New York in something called BarSmarts." One of the most highly-coveted cocktail courses in the globe, BarSmarts has a three-year waiting list, but having won the competition, Oisin was ushered straight in. "I can safely say that course totally changed my life, after I came back all I could think about was mixing," he smiles.
Oisin worked at the Sugar Club until 2012 when the demand for his services from other companies allowed him to become a full-time drinks consultant. "Ten years ago I don't think I could have told anyone I was working as a drinks consultant - I still tell some people I work as a drinks consultant and they think I'm having a laugh.
"I work with drinks brands to help them develop new products, to help them develop new cocktails. I help on marketing campaigns. And I work as a global cocktail consultant for Jameson."
In 2014, he launched the Dublin Cocktail Festival through his company Great Irish Beverages. Last year, the event heavily promoted Irish spirits and liqueurs, even holding a public vote for #BestIrishCocktail.
It was something that one of the instructors at BarSmarts said that gave Oisin his cocktail making signature - and ultimately led to the development of Poacher's. "He said 'whatever your passion is in your bar, focus in on that and make it better and better' and that really spoke to me. The reason why I won the competition was that I made wild Irish ingredients my focus; I guess I concentrated on that."
Oisin describes using Irish ingredients as his "big obsession", and says his ethos when making cocktails is "trial and error and a constant drive to improve and make drinks more interesting. You have to work hard at it." With flavour and balance being key to crafting a great cocktail, he draws parallels between bartenders and chefs. "A good bartender and a good chef have to have a good understanding of how the palette works and what to best pair certain flavours with, it's all about balance. For example, a great Margarita has to have the perfect balance from sweet to sharp, the sweetness comes from the orange liqueur, the sharpness comes from the lime and the tequila is there to give it body and weight and a good alcohol boot."
Married with two daughters, Oisin works from an office at the end of his garden. It contains a kitchen and a store cupboard of botanicals - anything from flowers to seeds, spices and fruits that can be used to flavour a drink - which he uses to create cocktails.
Poacher's came about because of a gap in the market created by the rising popularity of gin. "We had gin and vodka in mind when we were making it. There are lots of Irish gins and vodkas, I figured they deserves an equally Irish premium mixer."
As well as the launch of the tonic, Oisin is still in demand as a drinks consultant - last week he was in Spain to judge an international cocktail competition for Jameson, and next weekend he'll speak at the Ballymaloe Litfest.
So what drink does he enjoy at the end of a long day at work? He laughs at the question. "The cocktails I drink are mood and weather dependent - they change. To quote Oliver Flynn from the Porterhouse group, I'm ambidrinkstrous."
Oisin Davis gives a talk on cocktails with foraged ingredients at Ballymaloe Litfest on May 22 at 4.30pm.
Poacher's is available at selected bars and tindalwine.com
1 bottle of Dingle Gin
1 whole cucumber
100 g of sugar
The zest and juice of 3 lemons
2 litres of tonic water
Rinse the cucumber and cut it in four. Place it in a blender along with the gin, sugar and lemon. Blitz until it's smooth for at least 1 minute.
Place a baking sieve over a jug and pour the contents into the sieve to remove all liquid. For each serve, pour about 50ml of the gin mix into an iced long glass and top up with tonic water. Garnish with a cucumber slice.
6 to try: international guests at Litfest
By Katy McGuinness
Hartwood is a wood-fired restaurant rooted in the ingredients of the Mundo Maya, in the boho-chic Caribbean resort of Tulum, Mexico. Sustainability is its guiding principle, with all fish caught by traditional spear-hunting. Eric Werner and Mya Henry are the couple behind the restaurant; they left jobs in New York to build the place of their dreams on the edge of the jungle. They describe their food as vibrant and modern-rustic. If you don't nab a spot at their Litfest demo, their book is Hartwood: Bright Wild Flavors from the Edge of the Yucatan.
If you're a fan of ferments and pickles, chances are that you will love what Nick Balla and Cortney Burns are doing in the kitchen at Bar Tartine in San Francisco and will demo at Litfest. Their food is a cheerful mash-up of ingredients and influences that in an earlier time might have been dubbed fusion, the common denominator being that everything tastes extraordinary. Their book is Bar Tartine: Techniques and Recipes.
Is there anyone who has influenced the way that we eat and entertain over the past decade more than Yotam Ottolenghi? These days, a middle-class dinner party just isn't complete without a labour-intensive Ottolenghi salad or three. At Litfest, Ottolenghi is appearing with Ramael Scully, the head chef at Nopi, his Soho flagship restaurant, where the food takes its cues from Asia as well as the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines with which Ottolenghi is usually associated. Their book is called Nopi too.
Argentinian chef, Francis Mallmann, grew up in a log house in Patagonia, and is known for being an expert at cooking with fire: over it, under it, in it and around it. His dishes are rustic, combining his French culinary training and experience with traditional Patagonian fire and earth cooking methods. At Litfest, he'll be demonstrating the methods showcased in books such as Mallmann on Fire.
At his smallholding in Devon, Mark Diacono grows unusual and forgotten foods such as dwarf kiwis, sweet cicely, chocolate vines, and Japanese wine berries. His books include A Year at Otter Farm.
Australian chef, Skye Gyngell, was awarded a Michelin star for her cooking at Petersham Nurseries, and has since opened her own restaurant in a restored 19th-century drawing room in Somerset House, London. Her book, ‘Spring’, showcases dishes from its menu.