Bea Bradsell, daughter of famed London bartender Dick Bradsell, jokes that the Espresso Martini is her older sister. Dick Bradsell created the Espresso Martini, which has now definitively proven to be his best-loved cocktail (given the moment it is continuing to have), in the mid-1980s, just a few years before the birth of his only daughter. One of his other best-known cocktails, the Bramble, was born the same year as Bea, making them… twins?
There are only so many bartenders to have achieved the level of fame as Dick Bradsell, especially before the advent of social media and of bespoke cocktail culture, which he is certainly credited for helping to establish. So for Bea, one could imagine it was a foregone conclusion that she would also become a bar personality in her own right.
She insists that was never the plan, however, despite being taught how to make cocktails long before she could drink them. “I completely thought I was going to work in film one day, but I needed money,” she says. “So I was working at my dad’s bar as a barback, part time. And what happened at the bar was really fun, it paid really well, and I was quite good at it. So that was the beginning of the end for me, really.”
Bea’s résumé now includes such famed bars as NYC’s The Dead Rabbit and London’s Callooh Callay, as well as creative drinks cooperative The Drink Cabinet UK. As something of an ambassador for the Espresso Martini, she also makes the rounds as a speaker and staff trainer, partnering with brands such as Mr Black coffee liqueur that are often used in the famed drink.
Bea Bradsell chatted with VinePair about being born into a cocktail legacy, the role of creativity within that legacy, and the importance of music when it comes to a bar’s atmosphere.
1. At what age did you become aware of your father’s profession? What effect did that have on you?
It was something that was always a huge part of my life. My dad worked a lot. I am an only child, and on my dad’s side of the family, I have no cousins. So I was the only child that my dad had ever really been around. He didn’t really know what to do with kids, but he trained bartenders every day, so he taught me in the best way he knew. He couldn’t really work out how to teach me to do chores, but he could teach me to speed polish a glass. And then when he was teaching me to cook, it was all about the same balance of flavors that you do in a cocktail.
2. And yet there was never any parental pressure to follow in his footsteps?
My family never wanted me to work with my dad. That was definitely a thing. But I was such a daddy’s girl. I remember being like 6 or 7 years old, and I couldn’t try the drinks yet, but I would read all of his cocktail books, and I would learn the name of every single glass. He had a great love of these cheesy, at-home, very ‘50s cocktail books that had pictures, and those are the ones that I remember because I think I must have loved the ones with the pictures. I just got to know and learn everything, and it was my parents’ party trick that I could make cocktails. I think the first party I bartended, I was 6. They taught me by rote. I didn’t get to try them while I was making them, but my dad would be next to me tasting them. So I knew how to make an Old Fashioned at 6.
I started doing event work with my dad at 13, but it was never supposed to be my future — the point was to help me get by. He always had a firm belief that hospitality could take you anywhere. Because it’s a skill-based job, it allows you to travel and always have opportunities. He never really had any money and he never really cared about saving it, but he could teach me skills.
Even for himself, I think he always thought he’d be an artist. Toward the end of his life, even after I started working with him, my grandmother was like, “Whatever happened to your art or your writing? You are such a talented writer; such a talented artist.” And even then I was like, “But he’s the world’s best bartender!”
3. When you decided bartending would be your profession, did you feel the need to distance yourself from your father in order to forge your own path? Or were you inclined more to work with him?
It’s always been a bit of both; we worked very well together, and I’d always worked with him. If I was going to be trained by anyone, it was going to be him. I had attempted to get jobs elsewhere, but I needed more training. I’d worked in events for years, so I thought I knew everything, but obviously I didn’t. I was 19 and an idiot. So that’s when I started working with him, but I quickly realized that behind the bar was not necessarily where I was best placed, and I actually got very passionate about doing front of house. So that was a way that we had distance, even while working together.
When I wanted to go and do my own thing, my dad insisted that since I had the skills, I should be going where I’d be paid the best, which would be America. So that led me to The Dead Rabbit. And then, I got even more focused on the higher level of front of house, and that sent me on a career path of my own. With that focus, being very good at being friendly to everyone and knowing everyone — and working in industry bars where you get to know everyone really well — is how I found my feet at Callooh Callay and Swift as well.
4. Any ideas about where the current craze for Espresso Martinis began?
I think it was my dad’s obituaries coming out; 2016 is really when it reached the U.K. again, and then a lot of people were doing it in charity drink specials. It was almost always mentioned in his obituaries, and it helped that it coincided with the growth of third-wave coffee in the U.K. His passing was this terrible thing that happened, but also, the timing was perfectly right for the Espresso Martini to take off in that way.
5. What’s your take, then, on different bars and bartenders trying to reinvent the cocktail?
There are certain things that, if you let them get too tied to only being made exactly how they were originally made, stagnate. I have my dad’s Espresso Martini recipe, but there are now hundreds of new ingredients being created every day, and to not open up to them is just putting needless constraints on yourself. If someone showed [my dad] his own drink made better in some other way, he would change it and start making it that way.
The Espresso Martini being one of his biggest drinks, though, he did get quite set on that recipe but was totally up for variations on it. Actually, it got its first proper boom from a bar in Manchester called The Living Room. It was a week that [my dad] finalized his Espresso Martini recipe, that one of the guys from The Living Room happened to be visiting the bar where he was working. And by the end of the week, there was a double-page spread in the paper and their new menu listing variations on the Espresso Martini. So that experimentation and that tribute is something that’s always come along with it.
Everyone has their coffee their own way. It’s such a personal experience. So I think the Espresso Martini needs to do the same thing. Also, our knowledge of coffee is developing, and if I stuck to just one certain kind of coffee in a very particular way, I’d be missing out.
6. Are there any Espresso Martini variations that you especially love?
I always love a rum Espresso Martini. I think rum works really well as a “grows-together-goes-together” approach. It’s just got a really beautiful depth of flavor to it. One of the ones that I always like to bring up, and no one ever believes me, is that dark fruit flavors like crème de mûre really work well in an Espresso Martini. I always like those kinds of twists. And I’m a fan of the hazelnut latte — that’s what I normally drink myself — so I’ve tried a Frangelico one every once in a while, and they are delicious. It’s not my dad’s recipe, but hazelnut and coffee is great, right?
I spend a lot of time trying to stop bartenders hating the Espresso Martini, and for that, I talk about using it as a creative jumping point. People are gonna like coffee cocktails, so explore what you can do with coffee. I always try to push this idea of creativity; you know that a coffee cocktail will sell, so do something creative with it — but don’t call it an Espresso Martini unless it’s an Espresso Martini.
7. Does the resurgence of the Espresso Martini make you long to have that sort of legacy with a cocktail of your own?
No, because I think one of the things that was great about my dad’s cocktails is they weren’t based around drinks competition. They weren’t based around a drink strategy. They were created for people. Most of his inspiration came from what his guests wanted to drink. He really liked to look at people and his guests, and he didn’t really care about trends. He didn’t look at the rest of the industry, really. He was obsessed with David Embury, who wasn’t even a bartender; he was a lawyer who wrote a cocktail book. I think he loved that idea of at-home cocktail-making, and he loved the idea of things being accessible. He was a bit of an anarchist, so he just liked the idea of anyone being able to make anything but also understanding that your skills had value.
8. Besides cocktails themselves, are there any other bar management strategies of your dad’s that you’ve adopted into your own bartending and bar management style?
I think the No. 1 thing is looking at your room and making sure the room is always as welcoming as possible. He had all of these fantastic one liners: “95 percent of the people coming into your bar don’t give a shit who you are. Just give them a good drink quickly.”
Music was always so important. Front of house was my thing for a very long time, but just because you have a focus on front of house doesn’t mean you can’t also be equally as good at drinks, and vice versa. I saw so many people focusing so much on the drinks and not enough on the rest of the atmosphere. That was one of the most amazing things about my dad: He’s known for all of his drinks, but it was such a small part of what he did. He was so good at witnessing the entire room at any time and knowing what was up. He always said, “You’ll never have a fight if you start playing Motown. So when you get that feeling that the room is going to go wrong, just put some Motown on and it will go away and everything will be calm.” It has never failed me.