Words by: Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown
London lost a drinks industry star. Henry Besant, partner in drinks education and development consultancy Strangehill, passed away from complications following an aneurism. He was 40-years-old. Well known for his love of tequila, he was instrumental in the creation of the Olmeca Altos brand, and led countless groups on tours of the region, with inevitable stops at his favourite bar in the world, La Capilla, in the town of Tequila.
Henry began working in the drinks industry at age 16. "For me, personally," Henry told us in a 2005 interview for Mixologist: Journal of the American Cocktail, Volume 2, "I always wanted to be a bartender, an actor, or a footballer — one of the three. Bartending was the thing I ended up doing."
His timing proved fortunate. After two years washing glasses (you cannot legally bartend in the UK until age 18), he was entranced by the business, and particularly by cocktails. A few high-end London hotel bars had legendary reputations for crafting these drinks. Other than that, they were primarily the bastion of the new TGI Friday's with its bible-thick litany of trendy concoctions.
Purely by chance, Besant found a job in Dome, a Chelsea bar where he worked with a cocktail-obsessed bartender named Dick Bradsell. It was an epiphany and turning point in his aspirations. (Years later, receiving an award at the Theme magazine Top 100 gala, Henry's acceptance speech was brief and poigniant. He hoisted the plaque and exclaimed, "I have two words for you: 'Dick Bradsell!'")
When Henry moved on to Mas in Notting Hill he observed a change in the way brands promoted themselves: "For the first time, brand companies in London started to say 'why don't you try this product because it's better' rather than because it's cheaper. They started to have things like comparative tastings and hold competitions among bartenders. A kind of community started to form."
This fit his personal philosophy: "My number one rule is do what you do; small or large just do what you do. Do it very well." With his life and his career, he did everything to the fullest and he did it very well.
Thus, he quickly became a star within that burgeoning community as he moved up in the industry as director and general manager of the private members club 57 Jermyn Street, overseeing bar operations for the Ian Schrager Group's St. Martin's Lane and Sanderson Hotels, the Trafalgar Hotel's Rockwell Bar & Restaurant, and as director of the Lonsdale. Henry earned awards for Best New Bar from CLASS magazine in 2003 and Flava magazine in 2004. The following year, both named him Best Bar Manager.
While at the Lonsdale, Henry created a bar consultancy with mixologist Dré Masso — the Worldwide Cocktail Club. From consulting to outright directing and partnership, the pair developed the Shoreditch Mexican eatery Green & Red and All-Star Lanes as well as consulting on the cocktail programme at Ronnie Scott's, Bungalow 8, and the private members club Alfred's. In 2005 Henry and Dre wrote a tribute to their favourite cocktail, a book titled Margarita Rocks.
The pair organized the demo bar areas of Bar06 and Bar07, London's premiere bar show of the time, as well as consulting for brands such as Wyborowa, Don Julio, Partida Tequila, Beefeater Gin, Angostura, and Ocean Spray. Their last major project was the development of the award-winning Olmeca Altos tequila brand.
By 2010, Henry joined Strangehill, an industry consulting firm launched by close friends Nick Strangeway and Cairbry Hill, where he continued to support the Olmeca Altos brand as well as establish the Tahona Society, a two-day education programme geared to bartenders who are passionate about tequila.
The private Henry Besant lived life with the same passion and intensity. A devout Queens Park Rangers fan since childhood, he lived for a number of years within walking distance of his home team's stadium. He and his brothers rarely missed a home game. More than once, he was found on a Saturday morning watching cooking shows, revving up for a one-man cook-a-thon of Sunday roast with the all trimmings and a fine bottle of claret or two.
Music was another constant. He knew by heart the lyrics of hundreds of songs and had a CD, album, and MP3 collection that would impress even the most seasoned DJ or music reviewer. He would break out in song without warning and without an audience. Music was in his heart and always surrounded him.
Aside from his love for Mexico, Henry's heart yearned for the craggy cliffs and quiet harbours of Paxos, a Greek island situated close to Crete. His parents and brothers spent numerous summers savouring the sights, the sounds, the smells that became as engrained him as his urban Shepherd's Bush upbringing. He spent every spare moment he could as an adult breathing in those childhood memories boating to a seclude beach or sipping ouzo in a taverna overlooking a rocky cove.
Henry was predeceased in 2011 by his beloved mother Joanna, from whom he inherited his compassionate and gregarious nature. He is survived by his three brothers, Tom, Will and Leo, plus thousands of friends around the world.
Henry was with us in spirit as we wrote this, not reading over our shoulders but settled in on the computer with the big speakers attached to it, bouncing between Youtube clips of the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus and The Last Waltz with intermittent plays of remastered Beatles classics and bits of infectious humor. And just as Henry would have it, it was done with an eternal and loving smile plus an occasional shot of tequila.