Richard Gillam

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Bar operator


Words by: Jane Ryan

Richard Gillam made his name in the bartending world in London, employed for his innovative approach to drinks by bars including The Kenilworth Cocktail Lounge and consultancies including Gorgeous Group. Now residing in Singapore, he has taken a decisive step back from the bar, working behind the scenes to run the beverage side of The Big Idea group of bars. Oh, and he has also become a lord now.

I work for a company called The Big Idea group which is made up of a number of independent bars and restaurants that we're amalgamating under one company. It's my job to look after the drinks side of things for all our brands which include Kinki, Fat Cow, Bedrock, The Pelican, Oriole Coffee, Marmalade Toast, Magic Meal Mobile and The Marmalade Pantry. Some are high-end steak houses, others seafood bars or coffee companies.

I joined The Big Idea last year and so far we're doing really well, a few of the brands have expanded to open up new premises and the eventual plan is to grow throughout the east. When I first moved to Singapore four years ago there were just three bars here that you could get a decent cocktail. Now there are 20 or 30 bars that can offer good cocktails but Singapore is still very much a bottle town: you might call it a Belvedere and Dom Perignon town, perhaps Macallan 12, Johnnie Walker and Tiger beer.

I was able to travel extensively in Asia before settling in Singapore, courtesy of a consulting role with The Mangkut Group. The group was very small, but it meant flying from Bangkok to Singapore four to five times a week, so it was manic but exciting. My first job in Singapore was for Swissotel The Stamford as Beverage Operations Manager. Raffles is also in the group - although it is supposedly the home of the Singapore Sling I always thought it made the worst Singapore Sling - I appreciate that if you make thousands of the same drink every day, you will have to pre-mix it, but you can still use fresh ingredients and make sure the pre-mix tastes great. I'm very happy how I left things and their cocktail serves are stronger for it. Raffles, too, is a lot better now.

My favourite role is still consulting and I always want to go back to that. Having worked front and back of house I understand what bars want - I see it from both sides. Consultants will come up with these cocktails and beautiful garnishes, but it doesn't always work. Asia is still a developing market whereas in London it's hard pushed to make an impression.

Singapore is open for business! A lot of people are moving here because the economy isn't in recession; people here don't even know a financial dip is going on in the rest of the world. We live here on this very controlled little island and companies such as Diageo located here because it's right in the centre of a burgeoning market and communication with the rest of the world is easy.

In terms of products, you can get everything here you can get in London, you may have to pay more for it but it's all here. Everything is imported as there's no agriculture and the few fresh lemons and limes we can find are filled with seeds, and are small, sour and bitter so you can't use them.

The whole cocktail thing is working here but there is a ceiling and it won't breach nightclubs as far as I can tell. Booze here is expensive, Belvedere in the supermarket is selling for £60, and mixed drinks are very pricey. It may be hard to find a good Mojito here but that's not through lack of talent.

For the moment my company probably will want more expansion and that will be mainly abroad. Shareholders are very prominent figures in Singapore and the group will want to get their interest out there, aim for world domination or some such. As for me, my wife is Singaporean so I am very much staying here.

As for the Lord thing, I thought, well, it would be funny to do it out here. It's a real legal thing that you can get online, only costs about £30 for a title so why not? I've even got it on my credit card, but honestly it's just a bit of fun over here and has more of an impact than in London. So my wife is Lady Gillam and I am Lord Richard Gillam.

We have a great life, a lovely French bulldog and my new hobby which is a bit of an historical investment, I've started shaving with a straight razor and a leather strap like they had in the 1800s. I can honestly say I don't ever want to go back to the old ways.

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