Anya Montague: From foraging to global pop-ups, an interview with the rising star of London’s cocktail scene
Anya Montague has been half of globe-trotting bar consultancy Travelling Bartenders for the last five years. After stints at a number of glamorous Asian hotels and the W Bar in Amsterdam, she joined Dan Barber’s team for WastED London where we came across her. Now she’s doing a series of plant-focus pop-ups called Pollen Room, starting with a two-week bar takeover on 2nd May at Perilla. We chatted with Anya at the Newington Green restaurant as she prepares her cocktail-food pairing menu, a taste of the East London bar she’s planning to open in the near future.
Hi Anya. Can you tell us about your experience at WastED? How did they approach you and what did you learn from it?
That was my most recent thing. I run a bar consultancy called Travelling Bartenders and for the last five years I’ve been living in Asia and consulting for high-end resorts, beach clubs, hotels and restaurants, and one of the main aspects that we put into spaces is creating a sustainable bar. So I’ll help them build an organic garden and have all the fruits and herbs coming from it, and similarly I’ll make relationships with local farmers and use local ingredients. Normally you’ll go to a resort or beach club and they’re making Piña Coladas and Cosmopolitans with ingredients from packets – I don’t know why, but they’ll import pineapple juice from Dole when they’ve got all these wonderful things on their doorstep. No one was tapping into this, so I tapped into it! While I was in the Philippines the guys from Blue Hill called and said they really liked what I was doing with sustainability in my bar consultancy, and offered me join them for WastED London pop-up. After the call I just got on a flight and came back. I will take what I learned there into my consultancy, using ingredients that would normally be thrown away.
What was your favourite cocktail that you made for WastED?
We did a drink called the Dead Wine Spritz which I loved. Often with restaurants you’ll get bottles of wine which have been left open for too long or over-oxidised or maybe someone’s had a taste and didn’t like it, so you get a lot of wine that’s thrown away or the kitchen will take it for sauces and stocks. We took the old wines and re-oxidised them with spent gin botanicals – the botanicals used in gin distillation which are normally thrown away. We made a dead wine vermouth out of it, a really lovely botanical vermouth which we fortified using some gin and served as a spritz. Also, that has flowers and botanicals in it so it’s very much my thing.
What made you decide to become a bartender?
While I was at university studying to be a primary school teacher I applied for my first job, as a chef. The restaurant said they weren’t sure if I’d be able to handle the heat in the kitchen as a young female, but they proposed me to work in the bar. I was studying and needed the money so I thought: if I can’t do the chef thing, I’ll just take whatever job I can. And I went from being bar back to, in about four months, making the cocktail menus, and took the leap to doing all the menus and all the experimentation. I then got scouted for having an interesting palate, and did some work with a consultancy company in London. About 14 months later I got offered to open a bar in Hawaii, so I said goodbye to teaching, I’m going to go do this!
And where did your career take you after that?
I opened the bar in Hawaii and was there for four months, and then I moved to Thailand and did some resort consultancy for a while. Afterwards, I joined a company called Potatohead in Bali which has a beach club there and various restaurants in Jakarta. I opened one for them in Singapore. So I did Bali, Jakarta and Singapore over about a year, and then I helped them with another project in Indonesia; then get offered a job in Hong Kong, and after that I was in Malaysia for a bit, then back to Indonesia. About a year and a half ago, I moved back to Europe to do an opening in Amsterdam on the rooftop of the W Hotel – that was my longest stint. I was there for about a year as a consultant and bar manager. It was a big project, one of the most prominent bars in Amsterdam – that was really fun.
Being a freelance bar consultant sounds like an amazing job – what’s the best bit?
I work with my boyfriend, so that’s really lovely that we get to work together and travel all the time. It’s a great balance. And I guess we live in people’s dream honeymoon locations! I love being based in Asia as the people I work with are super hardworking and trustworthy, and there’s such an instant family with them – you really get adopted into the bosom of the culture and their family. I’ve been back in London for about three months, and it was actually a bit of a shock for me, because I’m so used to friendly people in Asia, and now I’m sitting on the tube wanting to ask them where they’re going and tell them I like their shoes. It’s all a bit stiff over here.
Yes, just a bit! So what makes you choose the collaborations you take part in?
At the moment I’m working on Pollen Room, which is what I’m doing here. I’ve taken a little step back from Travelling Bartenders as I wanted to work on my own passion project. My mum is a herbalist, so I’ve always grown up around natural remedies and herbs and flowers, and I didn’t even go to a doctor until I was 14. I wanted to put that knowledge into the bar side of things. As much as I like working with pineapples and passionfruit, it got to a point where I wasn’t really creatively inspired, so I said, ok, I’ll come back to Europe and work with foraging and local plants. I wanted to do something with these guys [at Perilla] because I just love the food they do, it’s amazing and Ben [Marks] comes up with these crazy things – it’s all seasonal. I made contact with them to propose a bar takeover, and they were like “sure, let’s do it!”.
So how long are you going to be here at Perilla and where can we expect to see you next?
So we open at Pollen Room on 2nd May, and we close on the 14th. After that I’m doing a Pollen Room supper club in Notting Hill on 27th May, collaborating with a chef from Hong Kong called Mina Park – she mostly does Korean food but she’s going to flower it up! She’s an amazing woman with a huge following – she used to be a lawyer and then started doing supper clubs and private dining, and it all kicked off so much she realised she didn’t need to be a lawyer anymore. My first Pollen Room was with her in Hong Kong, so this will be a reunion between me, Emily – my business partner who’s the florist – and Mina. And then I think I’m going to New York because Dan Barber has offered me a job over there.
And what can we expect from the Pollen Room pop-ups?
I’m really excited about foraging, and putting that woodland/meadow essence into the surroundings and drinks: we’ve got dried marjoram and hops, these are the kinds of things that will be using. It’s a very immersive botanical experience and there will be a big green ceiling. Ben and I are working together to prepare the drinks and the food [for the Perilla pop-up]. At the moment Perilla do a wine-food pairing, so for us three of the courses will be paired with cocktails and two with wine – there are some things you just need a glass of wine with! For instance I’m doing a drink called Purslane. Sea Purslane is a type of crunchy seaweed, and I’m pickling that and doing a martini-style drink with Napue Finnish gin – a gin where they just used foraged botanicals – an unfortified dry sherry which is really salty and umami, some pickled seaweed and a bit of homemade flowery vermouth. It’ll be quite strong and dry and savoury and salty, and it’ll be paired with a cuttlefish Bolognese, where the spaghetti is actually a kind of seaweed. And then I’ve got an unaged rye whiskey that I’m going to shake up with cucumber water – washed with sunflower oil to give it a lovely mouthfeel – and aquafaba, which is the water from chickpeas. I use it in place of egg white because it makes a much tastier sour, and it takes out the funny smell that you get sometimes using egg white in whiskey sours. And aquafaba makes the drink vegan. This really cool savoury unaged whiskey sour will go with a chicken dish that Ben’s going to cook. There will be lots of savoury cocktails and also some flowery, floral drinks. I have very much the mind of a chef, so I come up with very foody cocktails.
Will there be a permanent bar space for the Pollen Room, and what are you looking for in a permanent location?
That’s the plan. I wanted to come back and do the pop-ups and test the water, and see if people like it here. I’ve got the investment already to open something. I like this area, although I worry that Stoke Newington might be a bit out of the way, so I might go back towards Dalston a bit. I haven’t been back in London that long so I still need to figure it out. I would quite like to do it on Columbia Road, since it makes so much sense with the flower market. It would be the perfect place, it’s a great area with lovely restaurants as well.
Can you recommend easy ways for the home cocktail enthusiast to incorporate plants into their drinks?
Infusions are really easy to do. We’re at an exciting time of year right now where there are blossoms everywhere. You could take a nice white rum and chuck in some haw flowers or cherry blossoms. Making syrups and cordials is super easy too. I just spoke to my mum this morning who says she’s making a lilac flower cordial. You can either dry them out on newspaper in a dark cupboard and then blend them up with sugar and make a lovely purple lilac sugar, or you can take the fresh flowers and put them in boiling water with sugar and make a syrup out of it – or you can put them straight into alcohol. You can pickle some petals – magnolia petals are really delicious pickled in rice wine vinegar with red peppercorns – and use that for martinis.
What do you look for in a great bar when you go out for drinks?
I’m big on ice! Here I’ve said that we’re going to do block ice and I’ll cut it all up myself for lovely big blocks of ice. That’s really important that you don’t end up with super-melted drinks after two minutes. This is a funny thing but I’ve got a big phobia of straws, ever since I saw that video where they pull a straw from a turtle’s nose – it’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. With Travelling Bartenders we try and cut out plastic and paper as much as we can. One of my things is that if a bar puts two straws in a drink, then they’re instantly vetoed from my good bar books. So I’ve actually come up with an ingenious straw alternative for Pollen Room – I think it’s going to revolutionise the world! I’m using Japanese knotweed as straws – they’re edible and apparently taste like rhubarb. So I’ll use the stems instead of straws – they’re compostable and also knotweed is such a nuisance to people.
What is your all-time favourite cocktail, either your own, someone else’s, or a classic recipe?
I love a White Negroni. I did one for Pollen Room in Hong Kong with meadowsweet flowers. I infused Lillet and white Cocchi vermouth with meadowsweet, it was super light but tasty – and you can drink more of them than a normal Negroni, which might blow your head off a bit.
You’ve worked all over the world – what do you think is distinctive about the London cocktail scene?
It’s just so ahead of everything I’ve been in before now, I’ve really felt like I need to do my homework since I’ve come back. I guess the distinctive thing is that you can literally have whatever you want. A lot of people are simplifying stuff a lot more. The days of gimmicky garnishing and flashing ice cubes thankfully have passed, and people are now more into ingredient-focused drinks. I did recently see a picture of a drink that had been covered in latex, which isn’t my cup of tea, and I like that the bars in London seem to be over that now, and more into flavourful, simple drinks. Three Sheets in Dalston, for example, is a beautiful bar – the drinks are really on point but they’re not fussed over.
I couldn’t agree more. Thanks so much for your time, Anya!
Photos: Matthew Pull
Pollen Room pop-up is at Perilla, 1-3 Green Lanes London N16 9BS, from 2nd until 14th May.To book your table visit here. For further information about Anya’s projects visit here or check out her Instagram @anyalily.