It’s been a whirlwind year for Sam Boulton at The Vanguard. Early last year he opened as the UK’s first Cocktail Bar and Meadery on a mission to serve up drinks that excite the tastebuds of Birmingham. Perched at the very top of our Frederick Street home, Sam and team are more like family than anything else. We thought it was about time time for a catch up.
Q: Sam, it’s been a long time since we met like this, a month before opening your doors for the first time. Do you remember how that felt?
A: Scary and exciting, but hands down the best decision I’ve ever made!
Q: We distinctly remember at the time raising a quizzical eyebrow at one of your key offerings: mead. It seems that since then the drink has really crept back into the tasting consciousness of specialist (and non-specialist!) drinkers across the country. You’ve even caught the attentions of the Guardian-reading intelligista. What’s the deal?
A: Yeah, even I will admit to being sceptical about the mead offering. But since our doors opened the public have been extremely receptive. We’ve sold over 4000 servings of mead and introduced around 3000 people to the category! We were even invited by the English Heritage Company – the UK’s biggest seller of mead – to develop a cocktail for them and consult with their historians.
Q: Is mead going to continue this exponential growth until we’re up to our eyeballs in the stuff?
A: Yes! If we have anything to say about it. We currently stock 15 meads from 3 producers, but we are planning to explain this to 25 from about 15 producers in 2019.
Q: That is quite the selection. Now let’s get real for a second, opening any kind of drinks business these days isn’t exactly easygoing. What’s been the toughest part since the doors have opened?
A: I think the hardest part is being hidden from the public without a shopfront. We regularly have JQ locals stumble upon us who had no idea we were there. Luckily we do what we can to combat this with social media and word of mouth.
Q: All the more exclusive we say. Let’s balance it with a highlight, you must have some high points from your first year trading?
A: Definitely working with the English Heritage Company has to be the highlight, as I mentioned. It was certainly good for my career too! Also seeing the success of some of the unique events we’ve put on for customers. Our “An Evening Inspired by Studio Ghibli” has been a sell out each and every time we’ve done it.
Q: And how has the cocktail offering developed through the year? I definitely remember the Banana Colada from last year. Is it all the same or chop and change?
A: Your banana colada will return! We’ve tried a lot over the year, some great drinks have come and gone, we now have a great selection of what we’re calling “Vanguard Classics” which are our best received drinks. These are available all year round in addition to our rotating cocktail menu.
Q: It seems like every year we see the stable of Birmingham’s bars expand, adding completely new concepts and drinks into the mix. Are we seeing a food and drink renaissance in the city?
A: Yes, this year we’ve need some amazing new venues open, The Birmingham Whisky Club, 18/81, Nocturnal Animals, The Wilderness JQ, Lucky Duck, Tiger Bites Pig to name a few! They’re all adding to the Birmingham food and drinks scene in a positive way and we should always support our fellow independents.
Q: Second years are always tricky – we’ve been there – but you must have big plans for 2019. What’s on the cards for The Vanguard?
A: We have a lot to come. We’ll be doing more events, we’re creating a mead in collaboration with Gosnells (we’re keeping the details quiet for now!) and more experimenting, kicking off with a month of takeovers in January, with each week focusing on a differing spirit such as Sake, Vermouth, Brandy & Sherry.
Sam, we can’t bloody wait. Check out The Vanguard’s website for more information on opening hours or to book a table.