It was with great sadness that we received news last Thursday (14th March 2013) that Henry Besant, a close friend of all at CLASS magazine, had died following a month-long battle to recover after a heart attack. The following tribute is from Sean Muldoon. We'd be happy to receive other reflections from those that knew and loved him.
Long before I met Henry Besant, I read about him in CLASS magazine. Nick Strangeway had interviewed him, and the accompanying photograph showed Henry standing outside his local boozer, pint in hand, wearing a Queens Park Rangers jersey. At the time, every barman you saw in CLASS was suited and booted and looking too cool for school. But here was a guy who was just himself - a through-and-through pubber! But he was not just a barman, he was one of London's top cocktail bar managers.
About a year later, a friend made the finals of the Theme magazine national bartender of the year competition, and I attended the festivities. The competition was being held in the basement of Lab on Old Compton Street and people like Jamie Stephenson and Michael Butt were competing, and Wayne Collins, Tony Conigliaro and Sue Leckie were the judges. Wayne was busy telling me who was who in the room, and then went silent. Henry Besant strolled in. Watching him was like watching Moses parting the Red Sea. All I knew about Henry was what I had read, but he commanded that room like he was the godfather. Some people who knew him murmured a few words to him and he just nodded to a few others. He stood smiling, well dressed, hands in his pockets, casually watching the proceedings. It was obvious from the reaction of everybody that he was highly regarded by everyone in London.
But it wasn't until 2009 at Tales of the Cocktail that my business partner Jack McGarry and I first met Henry properly. Henry was the sort of person who made everyone feel welcome, and he extended the hand of friendship to everyone he encountered. He was the lifeblood of any party. When Jack and I went to London a few months after that encounter, Henry introduced us to everybody as his "Belfast Brothers". And he didn't just say it, he shouted it out so that everyone knew. Henry made both of us feel at ease and welcome, that time and every other time we met. We continued our friendship with Henry over the following years, and any time we were in London, wherever Henry was holding court was always our first destination.
When Jack left the Merchant Hotel to spend some in London prior to coming to the Dead Rabbit, he worked for Henry at Strangehill. At the time, Henry was creating the beverage programme for the new St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. His idea was to have a menu which celebrated Victorian England, and in working with him on the project, Jack was ultimately inspired to do the menu he did for the Dead Rabbit. In fact, Henry is responsible for quite a few things we do now at the Dead Rabbit.
Jack's fondest memory of Henry is the week they spent together in Les Embiez working for Pernod-Ricard. It was the event were Jack head-butted the ground trying to pick up a cigarette, Steff Oghene knocked a tooth out, and Matt Pommeroy broke his nose! The icing on the cake, however, was the volcano in Iceland which stopped them flying back to London. Henry and Steff managed to heap all ten of the bartenders into a car and drove from the bottom of France to the very top of it, to meet a ferry to Portsmouth. On the way, they stopped overnight in Burgundy. At dinner that night, Jack learned that Henry was quite the sommelier, as all the wines he had picked were truly delicious. Jack told Henry his choice of wines were exceptional. Henry just smiled his million dollar smile and replied: "It's easy. I just pick the most expensive ones!"
They left the restaurant that night and went to a boozer for some pints. The punters there seemed really taken with Henry, and Henry was as hospitable as ever, engaging them and chatting away. After half an hour or so Jack realized that they were in probably the only gay bar in Burgundy. When they finally left, one man followed Henry out, dropping his pants as if to say, "This is what you're missing, pal." Once you met Henry, you wanted to be with him all the time, and these Burgundians were no exception.
That was Henry: larger than life.
The Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog, New York