Words by Theodora Sutcliffe
"People buy things they know and drink flavours they understand," says Kaitlin Wilkes, the Edinburgh-based brand consultant who recently created the drinks strategy for Avallen, the more sustainable Calvados founded by Tim Etherington-Judge and Stephanie Jordan. "People just really need straightforward understanding."
And in an era that often puts the fancy into fancy drinks, Avallen's cocktail collection is certainly straightforward. "The brief was to bring apples in, in a way that's creative and refreshing," says Wilkes, whose married name is Kaitlin Wilkes Back. "Tim and Steph really left me to it."
From apple flavours to names that reference the bees the brand supports, the refreshingly simple drinks deliver against Avallen's objectives. Yet they form quite the contrast to the luxury environments where Wilkes cut her creative teeth.
Garnish: Fresh mint bouquet
Method: POUR all ingredients into ice-filed glass and churn.
50ml Avallen Calvados
20ml Lime juice (freshly squeezed)
20ml Simple syrup (1:1)
Handful of Fresh Mint
Top with Appletizer
From bar to brand
Wilkes started her career at none other than the American Bar at The Savoy. "In 2012 I moved to London, very much on a whim. I am from Toronto, Canada, originally, and I became obsessed with the idea of Britishness, like having tea with the Queen," she laughs.
At hotel school, Wilkes had studied Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, which owns The Savoy, in-depth, because the group has its roots in Canada. She pestered the HR contact for a lead at The Savoy, impressed at interview with her Fairmont geekery, and landed a role as a server.
The role proved a baptism of fire. "I had no idea of the stature or the elegance or the intensity of what the American Bar at The Savoy meant," she recalls. "I knew what luxury was. I knew there was a certain type of service, and there was a 'Yes, Ma'am, of course, Sir,' idea. But I didn't really understand the stature of cocktail bars." When Erik Lorincz asked Wilkes her favourite cocktail, she said vodka-soda.
A move to Stockholm followed, where Wilkes progressed from bartender to bar manager at Corner Club and represented Sweden in the Bacardi Legacy competition. Returning to London, she dipped her toes into the world of brand advocacy, working on Seedlip, but faced visa issues and returned to Toronto to work at now-shuttered PrettyUgly.
Finding her way back to London, she took a role as assistant bar manager at Blue Bar at The Berkeley under Raffaele di Monaco and Andrea Melis, before returning to brand advocacy full-time in November 2021.
The simple life
Creating a menu for a bar and designing signature serves for a spirit are very different projects, although many of the skills involved are the same. "Bars are brands. You're creating an identity, a certain style. We always had a clean-looking, very intricate way of doing drinks at the Blue Bar that was very elegant: you'd see the glass, you'd see the colour, you'd see the style, and you'd say 'That's a Blue Bar drink,'" Wilkes says. "Where you're working with brands, they need that approachability."
Simplicity, which is harder to achieve than complexity, was key. So Wilkes restricted herself to ingredients that would be easy for consumers to find, asking herself: "If I was standing at a super-premium or even premium grocery store, Waitrose or maybe Sainsbury's or M&S, could I find what I was looking for?"
Wilkes kept the messaging similarly uncluttered: if you love apples, you'll love Avallen. "When brands need to think about their drink strategy, they need to think about what part of the category they want to own, what part of the story they want to amplify," Wilkes says. "They need to plan because they can't own everything. Some brands will try and do that, but you need to have a few key pieces that really say, 'No, that's the brand.' For Avallen, that's apples."
Besides being simple, the drinks needed to be robust. "The whole idea was just the simple twist on classics: nailing a Spritz that anybody could have, even if it was made in a pub with crappy ice and no garnish," Wilkes says. "I was almost making the drinks poorly to see if they would still taste nice. Could it hang out on ice and still be good in 20 minutes?"
For Wilkes, a drink that goes on a pub menu should be able to withstand even the grimmest service standards. "We've all been to a pub and they give you a gin and tonic and it's like tonic from a gun and two ice cubes and maybe a slice of lime," she says. "But people love that stuff, right? That's the math."
Glass: Wine glass
Garnish: Apple Fan
Method: POUR all ingredients into ice-filed glass and briefly stir.
30ml Avallen Calvados
30ml Elderflower cordial
Top with Brut sparkling wine/champagne
Finetuning a strategy
Out of all the drinks on the strategy, it was the Spritz that took longest to perfect, a deceptively simple triptych of Avallen, elderflower cordial, and cider. "Tim was quite adamant it had to be a three-ingredient drink," Wilkes says.
But Wilkes thinks the Forbidden Fruit Martini was most fun to make. "I Googled and used data to find the most searched cocktail," Wilkes says, placing air quotes around the word 'data'. "The Porn Star Martini is that. Created in London, at Lab: M&S even made a RTD for a bit."
From passionfruit and vanilla to rhubarb, apple, and vanilla seems quite a leap, but crowd-pleasing is at the root. "I was like: what are people obsessed with in this country? The second rhubarb comes out, Britain goes into a frenzy. It's in everything," Wilkes says. "And apples and rhubarb are like a match made in heaven."
To reimagine the Porn Star Martini, Wilkes maintained some key elements. "I didn't want to lose the vanilla, which was very much a signature, I think, of the Porn Star Martini. I didn't want to lose the effervescent option. But if I left passionfruit there it would feel a bit too gimmicky," she says. To recreate the foamy head, she used a vegan foaming agent rather than egg white, while the name nods to the cheekiness of the original as well as the apple with which Eve tempted Adam in the Bible.
Garnish: Fresh apple slice
Method: SHAKE all ingredients with ice and fine strain into chilled glass.
40ml Avallen Calvados
20ml Rhubarb liqueur
20ml Lemon juice (freshly squeezed)
15ml Vanilla syrup
3 drops Cocktail foamer
Top with Dry cider
Having known the Avallen brand since before it was first bottled, Wilkes is delighted to be so involved in its current progression-albeit four days a week. "When they launched in 2019, I was there packing gift bags with apples," she says. "So to work with them predominantly now is just awesome."
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