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Meet The North East Bartender Who Has Been Named One of the Best in The Country

Meet The North East Bartender Who Has Been Named One of the Best in The Country
Eat and Drink
May 2024
Reading time 5 Minutes

Luke Riley of Newcastle's Mother Mercy has recently been named in the UK's Top 100 Bartenders by World Class GB

Living North caught up with Luke to find out more about the next step in the competition, and the method behind the madness of his creations.

One of the most prestigious cocktail competitions in the world, World Class GB demands excellence, precision and creativity from its participants. For a chance to place in the Top 100 (which Luke has already done) bartenders were asked to submit a maximum of two serves using Tanqueray No. Ten gin and The Singleton single malt Scotch whisky. The successful Top 100 have then been entered into the World Class Cocktail Festival which challenges the bartenders to serve three drinks using the original two spirits and Seedlip for the public to try. Experts will visit the bars over a six-week period to judge the drinks and the overall atmosphere of the bar.

Luke sitting with a cocktail

Luke, tell us about the competition so far.
You had to create a cocktail that showcases the flavours of The Singleton whisky and immerses the guest into the moment, and also shows your personality and style as a bartender. So we had to create a drink from that, or create a drink from Tanqueray No. Ten called a First Impressions Challenge. The idea was to create the perfect No. Ten welcome drink to showcase your bar’s signature style as a warm welcome to your working environment.

I chose to do The Singleton one which was inspired by the sense of touch. Essentially, I made a whisky old fashioned cocktail with the flavours of ginger and fig and served that alongside a little mini landscape of rocks, and you can spray them with the smell of rainwater which is called petrichor. The idea being that when you drink the drink, you can close your eyes and touch the rock and the moss and feel transported to the Lake District. I know it sounds like a dark art! My entry, Call of the Wild, got me through to the Top 100.

I was actually in the Lake District when I was looking for inspiration, eating Grasmere gingerbread. I didn’t want too rich a flavour, so I went for figs, but Grasmere gingerbread is really famous and it’s so good. I’ve been making [gingerbread] at home because part the garnish is a small gingerbread tuile. So I’ve been working night and day trying to get that right.

Can we have a sneak preview of what you plan to make next?
The welcome drink is a drink I call Nightshift. So I made a drink that uses the Tanqueray No. Ten gin, and pineapple cordial that we make from all the waste juice, because we juice everything here fresh. I do a process called clarification to preserve it, add sugar and a little bit of acid to make a cordial, and I stir that down with a really great aperitif called Sipello (which is like Campari but it’s made with gooseberries and it’s a bit lighter) and then a fortified wine called Cocchi Americano. So essentially it’s a really fresh, slightly bitter-sweet gimlet – like a martini but sweeter. On top of that, the garnish is a lollipop made from white grapefruit which is one of the main botanicals in Tanqueray No. Ten and I spray that with a little bit of camomile water, which is another one of their famous botanicals. Then I sprinkle just a little bit of sherbet made from dehydrated pineapple dust, acid, sugar and then some salt as well – it’s called an electric lollipop. You lick the lollipop and drink the drink and it stimulates all your tastebuds, the idea being that you stimulate your entire palate and it and prepares you for whatever is to come and reenergises you for your night out, or for me, the night shift.

How do you curate a cocktail menu?
It’s a very creative industry and a lot of people have very different ways of doing it. You want to have a good balance of options for everyone, so you want quite a lot of fruity drinks, some gin ones, some that are slightly bitter, and some that are stronger. You then try to balance them based on what is more popular. You’ll have fewer drinks that are really strong because they’re not ordered as much, then you’ll have a couple that are fruity, and a couple that showcase your signature style – so it’s all about interpreting flavours from across the spectrum and making sure that you cover your bases.

Once you have that planned out, you can look at individual drinks and things like what flavour trends are popular in the restaurant world and what you have tried recently that you think is a really good flavour combination. Most of my drinks start from a very classical base. I find a modern classic that I’m really enjoying, tweak it, make improvements, change ingredients and get something that’s a bit more signature, but it still has that tried and tested backbone.

‘Most of my drinks start from a very classical base.
I find a modern classic that I’m really enjoying,
tweak it, make improvements, change ingredients
and get something that’s a bit more signature’

What inspires you?
All of my entries are inspired by the senses. I’m massively inspired by the places I visit, the things I eat and so on. From a young age, things like food and the memories I have really imprinted on me. I use that as a massive part of what I do every day.

Tell us about your career so far.
I started bartending probably around about nine or 10 years ago, at House of Smith actually. I’d been handing CVs around the bar industry in Newcastle and no one would give me a job so I got called in last minute for a trial shift. I had a manager there, and one who used to work in Manchester as well, and they spent a lot of time with me and encouraged me to start entering cocktail competitions. I started going to more competitions and doing a lot of self-learning and left House of Smith and moved onto a place called Science Bar which gave me some time to develop my own skills independently, because I worked on my own quite a lot. From there I got a call from a friend of mine and they were opening a bar called Popolo.

I kept entering competitions and went on to House of Tides to join the current owner of Mother Mercy, who was the manager there at the time. When he left I took over as manager, and that’s when I hired Angus Mason [the other North East bartender who has been named in the Top 100] and we worked together until I left and went on to help open Mother Mercy, and that was back in 2019. I guess the rest is history.

Do you have a favourite ingredient to work with?
I love to work with great quality tequilas – margaritas are my favourite thing. Tequila is great because it’s so versatile. It can be really fresh but it can also be really rich because it’s quite roasted in flavour and you get different ages. If anyone’s making margaritas at home, choose a great quality spirit, get the Cointreau and swap it out for another liqueur so you get some flavour, or just keep it classic. I think one of my favourite ones is Don Julio.

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