Just over a decade ago, Mancunian brothers Max and Noel Venning were pulling pints behind the bar at The Railway Inn in Didsbury.
Now the pair are renowned for their cult cocktails, running four London bars of rapidly increasing repute: Three Sheets in Dalston, Little Mercies in Shoreditch, Bar Three in Spitalfields (in the basement below Blixen restaurant), and the newly opened Top Cuvée in Islington.
It’s a small empire, and a tale of self-made success: Max (30) and Noel (31) have garnered not just the appreciation of London’s cocktail lovers but also the recognition of industry greats.
Max beat celebrated bartenders Alex Lawrence of Dandelyan and Remy Savage of Artesian at The Langham to the title for Bartender of the Year at the CLASS Bar awards earlier this month, having earned his stripes working for Tony Conigliaro, renowned cocktail wizard and creative director of the visionary Drink Factory group. On the same evening, the pair also won Bar of the Year for Three Sheets while Bar Three in Spitalfields was named New Bar of the Year. It was quite a haul.
Despite the doors their achievements have opened for them (awards ceremonies, invitations to glamorous establishments around the world – shortly after I meet them, Max is jetting off visit new cocktail bar The Cambridge Public House in Paris, and Noel is heading to the famed Balvenie Distillery in Dufftown, Scotland), their feet are firmly planted on the ground.
“We’re living a charmed life where we get to do what we love everyday, work with fantastic people and have a laugh. When you run a business there’s tough times, but we deal with it and have fun,” Max reflects earnestly.
When I meet them to sample their infamous French 75 at Three Sheets, a bottled, carbonated take on the classic cocktail (typically made with gin, lemon, sugar and champagne, theirs consists of gin, verjus, lemon, moscato and orange flower – scroll down for the recipe), I want to know the secret of their success.
In their company, I suspect it's their laid-back vibe that holds the key: it reflects their signature style, which is easy drinking, long drinks: cleverly made, with a simplicity which belies the great care taken to create them. “Drinks should be punctuations to a great evening, but not the whole point of it. Music, lighting, conversation, energy are just as important. When we’re full on a Friday or a Saturday, it’s just electric,” says Noel.
I refer you to the Almond Flower sour, a light, well-balanced gin sour with homemade honey and almond flour syrup with egg white, and the Shiso Miso – a malty, fat-washed whisky, infused with the umami of miso and garnished with fresh shiso leaves, pictured here.
The Whisky + Milk at Bar Three is another famed creation: an infusion of Woodford Reserve bourbon and milk-washed earl Grey tea, the phenols in the whisky and the tannins in the tea split the milk. It's strained until clear, retaining the body and the texture of the milk, paired with sugar and bitters and spritzed with a cedarwood aroma. The result is akin to the softest, roundest Old Fashioned.
“It’s stripped back: we just wanted one shelf of booze, no intimidating cocktail equipment. Theatrical bars do great stuff, but it’s not our style. Why do people go to bars? To meet friends and to relax. We’re just as happy if someone would rather have a lager or a glass of wine.”
February has been busy: Top Cuvée launched last week, just days after that hat trick of awards at the CLASS bar awards. Launched in collaboration with Brodie Meah, a former Dinner by Heston Melbourne and Leroy Shoreditch bartender, Top Cuvée is a wine bar and bistro, with head chef Dan Miller – formerly of Naughty Piglets and Michelin-starred pub The Harwood Arms – on board to oversee the food.
And yet, remarkably, the pair seem relaxed. The defining characteristic of a good bartender, says Max, is temperament. “It comes down to patience, personality and an openness to engage with people – whether someone on the other side of the bar wants to have a friendly chat, is hitting on you or is being rude. Temperament is the most important thing. If you’re slammed or running out and everything’s going wrong, it’s the ability to maintain a level of calm and realise that everything is going to be fine.”
As well as their amiable personalities – which, along with their cocktails, add a feel-good buzz to the atmosphere – the brothers may also have Edinburgh and Manchester’s thriving nightlife to thank for their grounding in bars, cocktails and the business of nightlife.
After those early days at The Railway Inn, Max worked in bars and nightclubs including Rick’s Hotel while studying Geography and Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. When he returned home, he worked at Socio Rehab, the hottest bar in Manchester’s Northern Quarter at the time. Noel, meanwhile, tried his hand at two degrees – music and ancient history – neither worked out, so he went back to Manchester to work for Crazy Pedro’s, the tequila and mezcal-centric party bar and brainchild of Lyndon Higginson (who also owns The Liars Club, Cane & Grain and Junkyard Golf in London).
It wasn’t until they opened Three Sheets in October 2016 that the pair worked together again. The moment Max stumbled across the site that would become Three Sheets was serendipitous. He’d been living on Shacklewell Lane in Hackney and in Haggerston, and knew the area well. “I’d had a really bad day at work and I was thinking to myself: how long am I going to do this for someone else? I walked past and the estate agent was standing outside. It was a coffee shop called Betty’s Cafe: I’d been before, but hadn’t realised it was on the market. I took his business card, rang him later and put an offer in."
“We signed on it and handed in our notices on the day of the Brexit vote. Because of the size of it, it's small business rate exempt and for the first six months it was just us working. We worked out that the break even point was super low and we’d really have to mess it up for it to go wrong. We got the keys on a Wednesday, cleaned it up and opened on the Friday night until we refurbed it two months later.”
The rest is history: “It’s been a natural process: an opportunity has come up, or friends have suggested doing something together and we’ve gone along with it and just said yes to everything,” explains Max. See you at the bar.
The French 75, reimagined
“Although this is quite a detour from the classic French 75 formulation (gin, lemon, sugar, champagne), it’s a great cocktail for a celebration or pre-dinner aperitif; it takes a little patience but is well worth it. We have regular customers who never drink anything else,” explains Noel.
Here, we provide the dangerously easy-to-drink recipe from their book Batched & Bottled: Cocktails to Make Ahead (£18, Quadrille – available to buy from Telegraph Books) – in case you fancy making a bottle for yourself.
- 110ml Star of Bombay gin
- 180ml minerally, dry white wine
- 50ml Minus 8 Maple Brix Verjus
- 25ml Minus 8 Red Verjus
- 45m1 2:1 sugar syrup
- 1ml dash orange flower water
- 345ml chilled water
- 30ml fresh, unstrained lemon juice
- 2 jugs, at least 1 litre
- Coffee filter
- Preferred carbonating method (SodaStream, soda siphon/ cream whipper or carbonation rig – you can buy the equipment online, visit a homebrew store or refer to Batched & Bottled for more guidance on this if needed).
- Sterilised bottle, at least 1 litre
- Combine all the ingredients in one of the jugs, adding the lemon juice last. Don’t stir!
- Place in the fridge for around 30 minutes.
- When you go back to the mix you’ll start to notice a cloud-like formation floating to the top. This means it’s ready to strain with a coffee filter and funnel (put the coffee filter in a funnel and run some cold water through it to remove any lint. Then put the funnel over a jug or bottle and pour through the liquid that needs to be strained).
- Put it in the fridge to get it cold.
- Once cold, carbonate using whichever method suits you
- Pour it carefully (to keep the fizz) into the bottle and seal. Store in the fridge. It will keep for 1 week
- Pour into a flute, or over ice in a wine glass if you fancy