Words by Merlin Griffiths and Sammy Hemmings
"I was born in London and grew up in Cheltenham," says Merlin Griffiths, a pub owner and the bartender of Channel 4's First Dates. "Personally, I'm still growing up. Some of the best of it happening in West London, Ibiza, India and Northamptonshire."
Merlin was thrown into the deep end early on almost by accident. "I started as a Bar Back at Noel Cardew's The Doghouse, Wardour Street, Soho in '96," he says. "Noel had let go one of his bartenders and flung me behind the stick on a Friday night. Sink or swim, five deep all night long."
Since he got his start, Merlin's progressed to pub owner and bartending television star. "I'm one half of Greenhouse Pubs Limited, a company we set up 10 years ago when we took our first pub lease," he explains. "I still work the bar, but also spend a lot of time improving our 300 year old pub and doing the odd bit of telly work."
Based in Daventry, a market town in Northamptonshire, Merlin enriches the bar scene with a carefully-crafted cocktail offering. "We're at the mainstream end of cocktail culture here, but having an eye on top end trade helps us throw the odd curveball at our guests," he says. "Our team can rustle up a banging Trinidad Sour or Collins using homemade lemon oleo-sherbet syrup a la Morgenthaler method too."
While Merlin is absorbed in TV work and running a business, he also sets time aside for himself. "Time off always feels weird when you own your own business and live on-site," he says. "I make time for cycling and (bad) guitar playing. I read rather than watch TV, either novels or comics (comiXology on a tablet for the win)."
The Great La Classica Ride
Martini's health and well-being programme, Martini Racing Ciclismo, brings together bartenders from around the globe through group cycling.
With a passion for fitness, Merlin jumped at the opportunity to sign up. "I caught the social feeds for Martini Racing Ciclismo 2018 and thought it looked amazing," he recalls. "I was already a keen cyclist having done Lands End John O'Groats in 9 days, some French alpine riding including 3 alps in a day and the like. Before bartending I was also a cycle courier in London."
In light of the drinks industry becoming increasingly concerned with health and well-being, Martini Racing Ciclismo is a topical and distinctive programme. "It's refreshing to finally be involved in a drinks promotion that wasn't a cocktail competition for once," Merlin states. "The opportunity to join La Classica was my main motivation. A chance to ride with friends in the trade and professional cyclists."
La Classica is an annual event during the programme which sees 50 bartenders from around the globe participate in a challenging 3-day ride through Italy's scenic countryside.
In order to qualify for the ride, bartenders had to train hard. "Training and qualification were a combination of HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) spin classes and raw miles ridden regularly," Merlin explains. "I was working in Italy when the competition started and Martini Ambassador Davide explained I'd have some serious mileage to do to catch up."
Despite the set back, Merlin wasn't deterred. "I ended up pulling over 1600km in 6 weeks and knocking out several imperial century rides for good measure. I wanted not only to qualify, but be fit enough to ride with the pros," he says. Following his rigorous training, he was offered one of the highly-desirable spots on the ride.
Merlin valued the opportunity to ride alongside experienced cyclists. "I was grouped with several Belgians, a Norwegian and a Dane who all cycle at a semi-professional level, and pro-riders Daniele Ratto and Selene Colombi," he says. "The distance never worried me, but the pace these guys set made the ride incredibly challenging and rewarding."
Besides Italy's demanding hill climbs, one of the biggest challenges Merlin faced was maintaining pace with his fellow riders. "My goodness they climb fast," he says. "I have a 'get me there' pace when it comes to climbs. It's now 'get me there a little quicker' at least."
And there's not just one thing that leaps out for Merlin but several. "Seeing riders of all levels surprise themselves every day with their fortitude; meeting friends old and new and enjoying the ride with them; stopping for coffee at the top; hitting 70+kph going down; posing in spiffy custom Rapha kit together; Italian Ringo biscuits (almost better than a custard cream); strolling round a bar show in Lycra; getting home and planting an orris cutting from Florentine fields. Memories that'll last and a houseplant that'll multiply," he says.
For his La Classica tribute cocktail, Merlin selected Martini Bianco, an ingredient he believes is often overlooked. Blended with lemon juice, elderflower cordial and orange bitters, he adds a topper of soda water for a simple and refreshing Italian-styled spritz.
Merlin describes Martini Racing Ciclismo as "life-changing", so much so, he hopes even more bartenders will get involved next year. "This programme is so good it deserves to reach as many new people as possible, so I won't be entering for La Classica 2020 selection," he says. "I will join some of next years' spin classes though and say hi to others aiming for a place. And if Davide or Roberta happen to call...I'd drop everything to do it again."
For those wishing to join Martini Racing Ciclismo, Merlin shares some advice. "Don't worry about how experienced, fast or fit you are – it's about commitment," he says. "Go to the Digme classes, all of them. If nothing else you'll feel fitter and make friends."
"Get on Strava from day 1 and start logging all your rides. Ride every day, even if it's only around the block. Go for rides on days off with other Martini Racing Ciclismo riders. If you like spin class music, go for rides on days off with Dean Callan. If you're dedicated enough, learn to ride with clipless pedals – 20% more power!"
While Merlin praises the programme, he also considers it a transformative experience. "Martini Racing Ciclismo is focused on bartender health and well-being," he says. "The fact that Martini have chosen their racing affiliation as a lens to focus bartenders outside of their standard skillsets is fresh, different and ultimately rewarding. I'm fitter, stronger, faster, healthier and happier for it."
And what's on the horizon for Merlin? "My next cycling challenge in planning is the Transatlantic Way 2021," he says. "A 2500km single stage time trial. And maybe another Deloitte Ride Across Britain for 2020 – 1600km in 9 days."
Single Speed Spritz
Glass: 16oz cooler
Garnish: Large grapefruit twist
Method: Build with cubed ice then stir.
50ml Martini Bianco
20ml Lemon juice
5ml Elderflower cordial
Drop Orange bitters
Top Soda water