An interview with British sibling duo the Asterley Bros
As Jan 2017 comes to an end, new year resolutions are broken, the promise of being alcohol free is quickly rescinded and we reach for the bottle or run to the nearest watering hole, The Independents Club, with pride jumps back on the wagon to explore an artisan spirit we can’t wait to enjoy in 2017.
Dispense Amaro by the Asterley Brothers.
It was during the process of opening the first Independents Club pop up retail lounge in 2015 that I began talking to brothers Rob and Jim about their artisan, handmade intense Amaro that uses a traditional Sicilian recipe mixed with 24 botanicals to make this Italian favourite uniquely British, at the time the relationship was placed on hold while the duo spent time to prefect the taste of this potential modern classic.
“Well patience is a virtue” and it was definitely worth the wait.
For our Feb interview The Independents Club talk with The Asterley Bros about their Amaro, the artisan spirits market, marriage, being a family business and being a small batch drink brand based in South East London.
Welcome Rob and Jim
How are you both? Thank you for being our Feb interviewees and welcome to The Independents Club
So the story begins with a chance tasting and the recipe being handed down to Rob on his wedding day in 2009 by his Sicilian in laws (thoughts’ of the film god father spring to mind, I won’t ask for the recipe just in case you know my home address and I find a horse head in my bed), What was it about this family recipe that made it love at first taste, and how do you describe Amaro to those new to this spirit?
We were told to keep the recipe closely guarded and tell only our first born and we don’t want to get in trouble so mum’s the word. After trying the family Amaro recipe on a summer’s evening in Sicily, we were enamoured with it, there was no going back! To describe it, we would say that Amaro is a bittersweet liqueur, classically served as a digestif after a meal. The recipes often go back hundreds of year and many originated with the monks. In most Amari (the plural of Amaro) there are an array of botanicals, herbs and spices which add huge amounts of complexity to the liqueur. It’s usually very rich, to balance out the bitterness and Amari are usually reflective of the landscape in with they were created. As our Amaro is based on a Sicilian recipe, it leans more on the citrus end of the scale.
Since your decision to develop this traditional family recipe and bring it to market in your own style what has been the response from the Italian in laws? (I have visions of your wife saying don’t muck this up or we are both dead).
I won’t lie. We were worried. For over half a decade, we’d been tinkering (some might say tampering) with the recipe, anglicising and modernising it, wanting to create something with a London feel to it. Once we had a blend we were happy with, we a sample back to it’s birthplace, hoping for approval from the family. As luck would have it, they loved it!
In the past you’ve spoken about studying recipes from Culpeper’s London Dispensatory as a base to developing this British styled Amaro; for those unaware could you tell us about Nicholas Culpepper and his importance to developing Dispense Amaro?
Nicholas Culpeper was a botanist and physician in the 17th century. He was based in Spitalfields, and would collect ingredients from the nearby countryside for use in his pharmacy. The London Dispensatory, a book Culpeper wrote in 1649 is a collection of medicinal recipes, essentially a medical textbook and one of the first of its kind. In it we discovered recipes for macerates of wormwood, distillates of hops and all number of cures and tonics made from amazing bitter botanicals. We cherry picked our favourite recipes and blended them with the Sicilian Amaro we’d been given and Dispense was born.
Something that has been very apparent is the commitment to ensuring that this is a small batch artisan spirit, handmade with integrity and the process of perfecting the best taste was not rushed could you talk to us more about this and the importance of maintaining your identity as a small batch independent brand?
We both like to be as hands on as possible. Everything is made in-house using traditional methods. No tinctures or pre-made powders just good ingredients, hard work and time. Speaking of time, we spent months perfecting the recipe with a beta testing program. We sent our Beta Testers samples in return for their feedback. This went back and forth a number of times until we eventually hit the final blend that we have released. It was a time consuming process but we believe that a delayed product can eventually be great where as a rushed product is less likely to impress. The process, and getting feedback from 500 different palates, really helped to improve the product and get it to a place where it exceeded our expectations.
With your workshop based in South East London tell us about the making process, working together as a sibling duo and work, family balance?
We’re at the workshop whenever we get the chance but it’s a very delicate balance. Work and family are both very important to us. But free time…that goes out the window! The whole process can be quite time consuming, as each bottle takes around three months to make, but there are things that you just can’t rush. We both have different strengths and personalities so divide up a lot of the work, from finances, to marketing, to social media, and split them between the two of us, to play to our strengths. The real secret ingredient is sibling rivalry. It must double our production rate.
At present how many bottles are you producing per month?
We make around 400 bottles a month currently.
What’s your opinion on the artisan spirit market and the selections of drinks being produced at present, where do you think the market is heading?
Artisan Spirits are really hitting their stride. It does seem as though there’s a much larger audience for hand made products and it’s easy to see why. Smaller producers can reach out directly to their audience who in turn, can have an influence on the end product. The modern palate is becoming more sophisticated. Demand and awareness is increasing with complex and challenging drinks. Bitters are becoming big in the US and we’re now starting to see that mirrored in the UK. The growth of gin in its many forms has turned people on to botanicals and their uses and Amari and Vermouths are in the rise.
With the brand now in the mind of drink enthusiasts like myself, what’s the plan for 2017 and onwards?
We’ve got another round of beta testing coming shortly. This time, a drink not for the faint of heart, a London Fernet. It’s a much more intense style of Amaro. Less subtle in it’s delivery but still complex. Also on the horizon and on the opposite end of the spectrum is our Vermouth which we’re very excited about and will be available in the coming months. We’re always toiling away on a project or two…
Finally tell us an idea on the best way to drink this wonderful spirit
During the initial trials, we made a couple of decisions. 1) We wanted to make an Amaro that could be drunk both as aperitif and well as a digestif. 2) We wanted to make an Amaro that was in tune with the modern palate and had a lot less sugar than classic Amari. So, we like to drink it in a number of ways. As an aperitif, it works really well with ginger ale and a slice of orange. Refreshing and enlivening. It is also great dashed into a G&T to add another layer of complexity and excitement. As a digestif we like to drink it with a single cube of ice to slowly release the tannins or mixed into cocktails with mescal or single malt whiskies.
Rob and Jim thank you sincerely for your time I can’t wait for more opportunities to meet you and talk more about the world of artisan spirits.
Founder and Managing Director
The Independents Club