Words by: Ian Cameron
Giles Looker started working in the drinks industry just as the modern renaissance in cocktail culture was getting going. As one third of the Soulshakers drinks consultancy, he's best known for creating Mahiki's drinks list, but he's also worked alongside some of the best names in the business, from Dale DeGroff to Dick Bradsell; he's a regular at the festival scene, running bars at the Burning Man festival and Glastonbury; and he regularly makes drinks at 35,000 for Virgin Atlantic. He's also behind the drinks at Meat Liquor.
"I've been working in the industry since I was 13, washing up in a pub restaurant in my local village. Then I got a job as a waiter in Charlbury, Oxfordshire for Roy Flynn, who had owned The Speakeasy Club in London in the 60s and 70s. He was a former music manager who was always talking about hanging out with Hendrix, dropping acid with The Who. Service was an amazing 'London'-standard with him. It was in Oxford that I had my first cocktail, a Mai Tai, at the Lemon Tree.
"I was pretty much stoned through university in Nottingham, and worked some more in restaurants, then opened Brass Monkey with Charlie Sorrel, ex-Match group and Aura. Looking back maybe we didn't really know what we were doing. We put the cocktail list together and it was probably a shocker. We really prided ourselves on making good Mojitos though.
"I remember Absolut paying for Dick Bradsell and Douglas Ankrah to travel around the country. They came in and made a few drinks then fucked off. After watching Dick's Bar on TV it was amazing making a drink for him in person. That's made me want to move to London.
"I managed to get a job at Match WC1. I thought this is it, I've made it, but on my first shift they were like no mate, can you start as a bar-back? Dick used to come in, and he helped me learn how to bar back. In the end I worked there for nearly three years, it was awesome and it was where I met Michael Butt. The first six months were so busy, I remember finishing shift, going to bed dreaming of making drinks, then waking up and doing it all over again. Match was my training ground - the standards were amazing, we had spec tests, pour tests.
"Dale DeGroff joined as a consultant and I opened up The Player as head bartender. I was working with Kevin Armstrong, Julien Gualdoni and Michael, so when Dale came over it was the icing on the cake. I could listen to him all day. I learnt it all from thse guys.
"It wasn't so much we decided to create a consultancy. We just started doing events and private parties for fun, then decided we could make a go of it. Brands started using us for training. We started the Finlandia Finishing School and it's still going ten years on. We grew gradually, but the project that got the most attention was Mahiki. Angus Winchester had put us in touch with Nick House, and they were talking about all the big names they would invite along. We thought, yeah right. but then at the launch there was Claudia Schiffer, Paris Hilton and Madonna. I talked rum with Stephen Dorff and then fond myself next to Jon Bon Jovi in the gents.
"We used to do these high society parties with Rollo Gabb. One time he was telling me about the Burning Man festival in Nevada. I'd always liked raves, I used to go to them in Oxfordshire fields, and Rollo said that he had a gang going out. We went there - I got a friend to help me with tequila, Julio Bermejo helped me out with limes and we made Margaritas in the desert for seven days solid - from Monday to Sunday. I've done it every year since, except for last year. That's where I met Yianni from Meat Easy, building the bar.
"It's the excitement that keeps me going, we are always doing different jobs, new projects. Yesterday we did Juke Joint for Southern Comfort, serving good drinks and gumbo in a former metalworks in Islington. And we're working with Goodman, the steak people. I don't think see it as rivalling Hawksmoor - they just want a short list of aperitifs - at their new bar in Canary Wharf.
"I got involved with Virgin Atlantic when we did a Bombay promotion in the Upper Class Clubhouse at Heathrow. It got us recognised, they loved it and asked if can do it on-board. We did six months flying around the world making drinks. It wasn't the best equipped bar but sitting at a bar at 38'000 feet is the most amazing thing. One of the best was when we had was carrying all these pop stars over for the Brits - we had the Osbornes, Robbie Williams, Lemmie from Motorhead.
"It's a fun career but you have to take it seriously. Now I'm entering a new period in my life. My wife Jane and I are expecting a baby any day, so I won't be going out as much socially. A lot of people have a nine-to-five job but I enjoy the challenges, I've never thought of quitting and the industry's in a really good place, particularly with food-based stuff. Some bars I've been to are excellent: I love the Whistling Shop, Happiness Forgets, and I love what Jake is doing with his gin museum. I'm passionate about supporting the industry this is all very positive. I like positivity."
Here are some of Giles' signature cocktails
Glass: Frozen Tankard
Garnish: Apple slice and lemon wedge
Method: Shake ingredients and strain and top with cider.
35ml Somerset Brandy
20ml Lemon juice
20ml sugar syrup
35ml Apple Juice
50ml West Country Cider
Garnish: Lemon twist
Method: Stir with ice and strain into a chilled glass
50ml Southern Comfort Reserve
2 dashes Absinthe
15ml Crème de Cerise
Method: Shake and strain into chilled glass
40ml Arette Blanco
25ml Homemade Watermelon syrup
20ml Lemon juice
Glass: Jam jar
Garnish: Mint sprig/Lemon Slice
Method: Swizzle, serve over crushed ice in a Jam jar
50ml Southern Comfort
2 spoons Apricot Conserve
25ml Lemon juice
6 / 8 Mint leaves
Quo Vadis Aperitivo
Method: Shake with ice and strain and top with fizz
20ml Fresh clementine juice
15ml Simple syrup
12.5 Lemon juice
60ml Codorniu Cava
Garnish: Rim with Tajin seasoning
Method: Shake and stain over a rock of ice
45ml El Jimador tequila
10ml Agave syrup
5ml Honey syrup
25ml fresh lime juice
Glass: Tiki Goblet
Garnish: Hibiscus flower
Method: Shake all ingredients with ice and strain
50ml Gold rum
20ml mango puree
40ml pineapple juice
20ml honey cream
20ml lime juice
New Cross Negroni
Garnish: Orange twist
Method: Stirred over a rock of ice
15ml Antica Formula vermouth