Meet Chris Dennis, a maestro in the mixology realm, whose two decades of experience have left an indelible mark on some of the world's finest bars. From Zetter Town House to co-founding Disrepute in Soho and now the Rum and Whiskies Brand Ambassador for Campari since 2021, Chris's expertise is unparalleled. Representing iconic drinks like Glen Grant, Wild Turkey, and Appleton Rum, he stands as a beacon of knowledge and innovation in the industry.
Chris, tell us more about your journey from creating and running renowned bars to becoming Campari's Rum and Whiskies Ambassador. How has your diverse background shaped your approach to representing iconic brands like Glen Grant and Appleton Rum?
What a question! I feel that I have always enjoyed working with people, and that’s something that I think resonates with many bartenders. This, together with a fascination with spirits, naturally led to working my way across London and eventually with blood, sweat, and the help of others opening some of my venues. I’ve had the chance to share the stick with some amazing people over the last 15 years.
As careers develop and interests become more concise, the world of hospitality expands beyond the bar into a diverse and wonderful industry, and spending all my time with spirits becomes my next genuine move. I had worked as a consultant for years across Gin, Brandy, and Pisco to name a few and I was always careful to spread my time until the right full-time role came to light. Across the Campari Rums and Whiskies portfolio lies around 600 years of history and it was immediately the right fit. It has certainly allowed me to continue working with people but to focus on what I really find fascinating, the evolution of spirits today.
Image: Chris Dennis at Campari Academy - Opening the day with a fascinating insight into Jamaican rum.
In your recent comments, you highlighted the growing popularity of premium rums, especially Appleton Estate. How do you see the future of the rum category evolving, and what role does education play in this transformation?
The development of rum has been and remains quite the journey, it has been a labor of love for many people working directly with the liquid for much longer than I. Rum's struggle as a category comes from the fact that not only is it so vast and so diverse, but the colonial hangover it must contend with. Historically we categorize it by color, which often tells us nothing of the liquid inside and if anything, convolutes differentiation, creating a disservice across the category.
Education over the last few decades has allowed consumers to look beyond the bottle and to the country of origin and process to appreciate styles of production and discover the flavours they enjoy within Rum. In turn, this appreciation and understanding naturally lead to premiumization and the desire for the heritage of creation where Appleton Estate, given its provenance and older stocks, can comfortably be a leader.
You've been instrumental in the launch of Appleton Estate 17; Legend. Can you share some insights into the unique stories and craftsmanship behind this special edition, and how it adds to the legacy of classic cocktails like the Mai Tai?
So often we search for the history of cocktails, after shifting over a few beers bartenders all become Indiana Jones, searching out the long-lost history of drink X or Y, (I can speak from empirical experience here). However, the precise origin of so many libations is tragically lost in the lore of bar antiquity, stories rather than history. With the Mai-Tai, we know which Rum was used and where it was created; it is almost a unique element of cocktail history, and that is something very special.
Appleton Estate and Wray and Nephew came under the same ownership in 1916, they remain intrinsically linked today. The Rum across the Wray portfolio from the 20s to almost the 60s would predominantly come from Appleton and the now famous, elusive 17 years that made its way into Don’s Mai-Tai was certainly Appleton liquid; no other distillery under the J Wray & Nephew banner had aged stock to that level during the period.
The Rum over the years has been known as Master Blender Joy Spence’s ‘Soon come’ rum, which in Jamaica means anytime between tomorrow and ten years. Joy meticulously reverse-engineered the samples that she had to create a true facsimile of the original liquid, to allow us to enjoy a Mai-Tai almost exactly how it would been its creation.
Being a part of the launch process and being able to tell the story behind the Mai-Tai, and Jamaica rum’s heritage within it has been inspiring and quite humbling.
Image: ‘The Story of Spirit’ from the academy - Chris hosts independent writers in the series and together they go deep into the history, culture, and surrounding factors that give us the ‘The Story of Spirit’.
The Campari Academy in London, where you've played a pivotal role, officially opened earlier this year. What role do you envision it playing in nurturing aspiring bartenders and industry professionals? How does it contribute to the broader goal of elevating the standards of the drinks and hospitality industries?
There are four of us in the advocacy and Academy team in the UK and the philosophy has been to accelerate learning, to be an educational catalyst in various formats. Since the pandemic, we have seen operators struggle to keep staff, it has always been a tough industry. The Academy can offer a place to demonstrate the vast and exciting nature of the industry where tomorrow’s hospitality professionals can see the power of their work and hone their abilities.
We make this happen by providing teaching on all levels, firstly, we are an accredited Wset partner and teach both levels 1 and 2 regularly. We also use the space for specialty sessions across not just our portfolio but wider drinks categories; the Academy and foremostly the education that comes with it is bigger than just what we’re selling.
One of the most exciting programs is the seminar series that each one of the team has developed over the past 16 months. Loris, our Italian Icons ambassador runs the Art of Hospitality and this year worked with the Connaught to deliver something very special. Tris, our Prestige Ambassador ran Drink Hacking and looked at pushing modern techniques to the edge to develop new skills and routes to create flavor in cocktails. He was joined by Dave Arnold and Iain McPherson to bring it to life. I developed a seminar series called The Story of Spirit.
With these seminars, we have creative control to educate and upskill the attendees. Still, further to this, we create content, learnings, and information that are accessible to a much wider audience through our website and socials, so if you cannot make it to the academy space, there is still a way to study information that we believe deserves to be available to all.
What inspired the series of seminars, "The Story of Spirits"? In your "The Story of Spirits" seminars, you aim to communicate the cultural journey of a spirit. Can you share a memorable story or revelation from these sessions that truly resonated with both bartenders and enthusiasts?
The Story of Spirit was created to deliver a deeper understanding of the history behind a liquid, a seminar series designed to tell the whole story of a category from a historical and cultural approach.
To achieve this, I have been speaking with independent writers who have explored spirit categories from different perspectives; experts in their field that bring something new to the world of spirits through their research, experience, and voice. The story first, the drinks second.
Truly, I have always looked at spirits this way. They unlock culture, understanding, and history into something physical, present, and delicious. Often, we don’t give them the reverence they deserve. I think that now especially, is a good time to help make these stories available to as many people as we can.
It is so hard to isolate a specific story or even a moment! I think you need to listen to the whole conversation. So, with that in mind, we have developed an accompanying podcast which is recorded the day after the Academy seminar. I speak with each guest in depth about our discussion, highlighting some thoughts from the session itself. We have the first three ready to be released and I truly hope that they find as wide an audience as possible. I encourage anyone with an interest in spirits or even history to listen at their leisure.
Image: Chris Dennis (Rum and Whiskies Ambassador at Campari Group) present at the Rum Immersion session.
I found your analogy of spiced rum to the Batman supervillain Harvey 'Two-Face Dent interesting! How do you see the perception and demand for spiced rum evolving as the overall rum category grows, and what role does authenticity play in shaping consumer preferences?
Firstly, I love that you picked this out! I have read comics my whole life, so I regularly try to shoehorn in a reference.
Havey Dent, Two-Face: the yang and yang. Two personalities, neither inherently positive nor completely negative, both misunderstood. I think this sums up spiced rum rather accurately.
Aficionados will be quick to condemn it, and yet it is a gateway for those new to the category and as a category, we must recruit somewhere. I like to think in areas that don’t have a focus on rum, there is a colorful bottle of something approachable that tastes fun on a happy hour menu; this is where the journey starts. In a perfect world, in five years, whoever started here will be sipping Appleton Estate 8 Mai-Tais and finishing their dinner with a 15 or 21-year-old.
Flavour in spirits is cyclical, vodkas became gins, and now it's rum’s turn. Wherever legislation lacks in production, the opportunity to bulk produce and flavour will rear its head. A bigger question is what the category is doing to protect its production to guard it against cheaper, inferior versions of itself. Flavoured spirits only last as long as the collective interest, until the next category starts getting attention, but using it to increase familiarity and awareness, futureproofing the category in question if you like, is a positive way to look at the liquid, which has often spent more time in a production lab then a still, fermenter or barrel. It may not be entirely true to the soul of the spirit, but it creates a bridge to understand and learn what that soul is.
Your role involves collaborating with bartenders and mixologists. How do you foster creativity and innovation in crafting unique cocktails that showcase the distinct characteristics of Campari's spirits?
Fortunately, having an incredible portfolio and having a diverse palate, to begin with, goes a very long way!
We work with many national groups and businesses that could have up to hundreds of sites across the UK, alongside independent venues that are on the cutting edge of drinks and menu design. So, there are a vast amount of differences in the approaches we take.
With specific drink design, I find that it doesn’t serve to simply create something for a group, so we try to foster creativity around collective ideas to achieve a solution and we all learn something. Personally, having been an independent operator for over a decade, I have a pretty good handle on the issues facing them with drinks execution so sometimes support in other ways works better here. Helping arrange an event or evening around a drink or a series showcasing the venue and a category can go a long way to packing somewhere on a quiet night- that can make all the difference.
With the rising popularity of cocktail competitions, what key qualities do you look for in a winning cocktail, and how do these competitions contribute to the evolution of mixology trends?
There is absolutely an art to winning a cocktail comp, I have failed more than I’ve won, and there is always something to learn and do better next time.
These days, when I judge a competition, I always look for the story and the brand awareness to be interwoven- find that sometimes elusive and often tenuous hook to spin a yarn or two. And for the drink itself; less is more. Champion the spirit or ingredient in question and above all else, the cocktail should be able to be made during service. After all, that’s how we’re going to pay the bills.
As Campari’s Rum and Whiskies Ambassador, you've highlighted the versatility of rum in cocktails. Could you recommend a unique cocktail recipe that you enjoy and believe showcases the diverse flavors of rum?
Here are two I make and drink regularly:
40ml Appleton Estate 12
20ml Sweet Vermouth
10ml Dry Curacao
5ml Grenadine (preferably homemade)
15ml Jamaican white rum
35ml unaged Cuban rum
20ml Sugar syrup 1:1.5
The Thanksgiving Old Fashioned and The Buck cocktails you mentioned bring a touch of American tradition to the UK. How do you see cultural influences shaping the preferences of UK drinkers, and are there any upcoming trends that you find particularly exciting?
Over the last 15 years or so, when it comes to drinks, we’ve seen a positive increase in the awareness of British consumers. This is partially due to foodie culture and understanding that less is more, but also spirit education and advocacy in general. So, from Mezcal to Pisco, we’re seeing a search, a drive to understand the best liquid out there and become familiar with the cultural way these mysterious spirits are enjoyed.
With this in mind, American Whiskey is nicely poised to evolve away from a more niche market into this collective awareness. Its provenance allows for a quality liquid that is very versatile among most producers. I think we’ll see it capitalizing on older, but loved trends, such as food pairing, but its versatility makes it a prime contender for trends that have yet to reach their peak; carbonization and often sustainable house-fermented ingredients are two that deliciously come to mind.
Image: Chris Dennis with Appleton Estate 21, one of his favourite things to sip.
Your collaboration with writers Matt Parker & Reid Mitenbuler on "The Story of Spirits" is an intriguing approach to connecting people with the cultural journey of a spirit. Can you provide a sneak peek into an untold story or aspect of a spirit that you've uncovered in this collaborative venture?
Well, this year I was privileged to be able to collaborate with Matthew Parker on the cultural history of the Caribbean, Reid Mitenbuler on the story of the American Spirit, and most recently, Tom Bruce-Gardyne on the Myth of Scotch. There’s no slowing down and I’m currently working on The Story of Spirit year two.
I’m humbled and excited to share those stories with the world, so I think, rather than paraphrase a line or two here- I’ll encourage you to spend some of your listening time with our podcast…
The depth of Chris's expertise and passion for spirits becomes even more apparent in the course of our conversation. Beyond the role of Campari’s Rum and Whiskies Ambassador, Chris emerges as a genuine storyteller, sharing the cultural journey of spirits in a way that captivates both bartenders and enthusiasts. His commitment to education, innovation, and preserving the essence of spirits shines through. In our pursuit of understanding the art and craft of the spirits world, this interview with Chris Dennis has been a rare and insightful journey into the heart of mixology. Here's to Chris, the expert navigating the ever-evolving landscape of spirits, and to the exciting adventures that await all who appreciate the finer nuances of a well-crafted drink. Cheers!