Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
“The guy who created the Caesar salad never saw any money; the guy who created the Espresso Martini never saw any money,” says Douglas Ankrah, founder of LAB bar and creator of the Pornstar Martini. “Why should this continue? So we fill up drinks companies’ pockets with money all our lives? No.”
The Pornstar Martini, a blend of passion fruit and vanilla with a shot of champagne on the side, is widely regarded as the UK’s most popular new-generation cocktail and is a best-seller across the UK on-trade. More than a decade after he created the drink, at the Townhouse bar he operated in Knightsbridge, Ankrah is trying to monetise it by bottling and marketing a premix.
Ankrah launched his RTD, Pornstar cocktail, in 2017, and it’s already stocked in Selfridge’s, with Harvey Nichols and Amazon coming soon. But change is afoot.
While the drink’s ritual, theatre and flavour are a big part of its appeal, the Pornstar Martini is a provocative name. It drives some drinkers to order through bravado, while putting off a whole raft of other potential consumers, from feminists to social conservatives. Ankrah’s plan is to sanitise the moniker, rather as Diddy lost his provocative “Puff”, by rebranding as P*star passionfruit liqueur. The liqueur, Ankrah says, will be followed by two new line extensions, one in a can, the other in a champenoise bottle.
“I think it’s going to be much better. You can go in homes, be on airlines, be on cruises – the word ‘pornstar’ can restrict you to being in only certain places,” Ankrah says. And having the word “porn” in your name creates other problems too. Invoices go to junk mail; marketing gets caught by spam filters; it’s even illegal, Ankrah says, in certain Muslim-majority countries, to sell alcohol with overtly sexy names.
It might seem a bold move, yet Ankrah has form. He’s worked on brands including Bulldog Gin and Cockspur Rum, while LAB, which he co-owned with Richard Hargroves and Philip Goossens, was one of the defining bars of turn-of-the-century London.
“We churned out superstars, brand ambassadors, brand managers,” says Ankrah. “You'd go to LAB to get your degree then hopefully you'd get your degree and your masters and you'd take it further and to greatness, I guess. To this day people still talk about LAB as though it was yesterday.”
Some former LAB team members? Sweet&Chilli’s John Gakuru, consultant Dre Masso, brand manager Jamie Terrell and brand ambassador Colin Asare Appiah, who, like Ankrah, is a Londoner of Ghanaian heritage. “I've known Colin for 30 years. He's one of my best friends. We go back a long way, even before bars,” Ankrah says. (The pair attended Westminster College together, before Ankrah left to pursue a career behind the stick.)
Townhouse, Ankrah’s second London bar after LAB, was also successful, a factor he attributes in part to the Pornstar Martini. “At Townhouse, the Pornstar Martini became our anthem. It became a lifesaver for Townhouse and for a lot of other bars in London,” Ankhrah says. “At London Cocktail Week, they live off the Pornstar Martini.”
Today, although Ankrah is working on an update of his 2004 book, Shaken and Stirred, he’s firmly focused on the liquid side of the equation. “I stay away from bars,” he says. “The bar side is getting harder now. Good bartenders are hard to come by nowadays.”
That’s a provocative statement, given that training levels across the industry globally have arguably never been higher, but for Ankrah there’s a lot more than technique that goes into making a bartender. “It’s not just about making drinks. You need characters,” he says. “You need a certain kind of character to draw people. You need a certain type of person to invent cocktails, you need a certain type of person to put love and passion into a bar.”
With one eye on his own retirement – still decades in the future – Ankrah would like to see the new generation be more aggressive about monetising their product and building income streams or assets that can last them into old age. Too many bartenders, he believes, die poor. “I would love young bartenders to be more ambitious - not just to create cocktails but take it to market,” he says. “Otherwise someone else will do it for you and it will hurt you.”
While his firmly Christian mother still occasionally asks when he’s going to get a proper job, Ankrah is happy with where the bartending journey has taken him to date. “From bartending to opening LAB to writing a book, having my own brands, working in innovation, it’s been amazing,” he says.
While Pornstar now has distribution in four countries, Ankrah emphasises how very tough the journey is. “Taking a cocktail or brand to market is very hard. You’ve got to have money, you’ve got to have connections, and you’ve got to have someone that makes it for you and makes sure it’s certified,” he says. “Not every brand you put out there will work. It’s hard work. It’s not easy. It’s a lot of rejection but you’ve got to stay focused and not really worry too much.” Fingers crossed the asterisk will make his work with P*star easier.
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