Alex Kammerling, former Grey Goose ambassador and the man behind his new eponymous spirit, Kamm & Sons, talks labours-of-love, heritage and finding inspiration in the strangest of places.
Kamm & Sons Ginseng Spirit
Originally I trained as an artist and a sculptor. The hardest thing with Kamm & Sons was developing the recipe – and it’s something I do relate to making art: you need to taste it and you need to step back, sometimes for a couple of weeks, then return to it with fresh eyes.
I first had the idea for Kamm & Sons when I was helping develop Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength Gin. Originally I had an idea for three products, but ended up concentrating everything on just one with the aim of making it like a general health tonic.
I went through everything that I could dig out which held any historical use of being a medicinal cure and came up with a list of 100 different botanicals – roots, herbs, spices, barks – and infused them all in alcohol separately for tasting. The one that stood out most was the ginseng. On its own it’s pretty foul – let’s say ‘distinctive’ – which is why it needs a little help from the grapefruit and everything else. But it has a really unique taste and thousands of years of medicinal use.
People aren’t sure whether it’s a skull, an antelope, a gazelle, or whatever. It doesn’t really matter. But if people ask, I’ll tell them about it.
The story is that I was about a year into developing the recipe and I’d hit a bit of a wall. So I went to India with my ex – we’d only just split up – and our daughter. I bought this enormous wooden holy cow’s head in Cochin. I’d seen similar things about, but I actually went back to Cochin because I just had to buy one of them. And I brought it back with me, my two year old daughter under the other arm.
I don’t know whether it’s just coincidence, but from that point on everything started moving again. It’s been up there on my wall looking down on me since. So when I wanted a really strong logo, I just thought: perfect. It’s not an easy thing to explain to people. But I’m proud of it – it’s my prize possession.
Kamm & Sons is a really different product and no one is sure where it’s going to go. It doesn’t pigeon-hole easily – but I don’t want it to. I want it to just be Kamm & Sons.
Consumers don’t know what category Campari is, or Jägermeister. Most people are only just at a point where they know that Bacardi is a rum. So I want the brand name to come before what it is. Like Pimm’s: if you asked someone walking by who was drinking Pimm’s what category it comes under, they wouldn’t have a clue. Most bartenders wouldn’t even say that it was a fruit cup. Aperitif? Spirit? They just wouldn’t know. It’s Pimm’s and people drink it as Pimm’s. And that’s where I want Kamm & Sons to be.
Kamm & Sons is basically me in a bottle. Doing this takes up a lot of headspace, and there were times when Grey Goose was all-consuming. But at least once every week for the last five years I’d take some time and sit down with it on the sofa on a Friday night, just working my way through a couple of cocktails and spirit-mixers – tonic, bitter lemon, ginger beer, Coke – to see what it needed.
Originally, it was never even going to be called Kamm & Sons. I applied for trademarks for so many different names – ‘Aqua Vitae’, ‘Xing’. Then it got to a point where I just thought: “You know what? That’s fucking good. And I actually do want to put my name on it.”
When I first started out, I remember telling some Australian friends about it and about how James Pimm was a bartender who came up with his recipe called Pimm’s. So they suggested I should call it Kamm’s. Now here it is called Kamm & Sons and they’re like: “Told you. ‘Kamm’s ‘n’ Coke.’”
The Grosvenor50ml Kamm & Sons
15ml Punt e Mes
5ml Islay whisky
Strain into a small coupe
Garnish with a lemon zest
I’m really excited about Twitter. For someone like me who has their own brand and something to say about it, it’s brilliant. Other big brands, they’re just company employees Tweeting about it. But I am the brand; I am the bottle. And that makes it more poignant.
I can be more personal and – okay I have to watch what I say – but I don’t have to conform to any corporate brief. And that’s been a brilliant bit of brand-building for me. Through Twitter and Facebook, people are going to my site and ordering books and ordering bottles. I’m basically making sales and all while I’m sitting on the bus. It’s free marketing. Anyone – any brand – that doesn’t get on it is basically mad.
The recipe has actually become a family secret. I’m the only person who knows it, along with my grandfather, my brother and my dad. Not even the distiller knows it. I pre-weigh all the various botanicals then basically just take a huge mixed bag of ingredients down to the distillery. Sure they might be able to tell that there’s some of this or some of that – but they could never recreate it.
To have your own distillery is great – I mean Sipsmith have an amazing story. But what happens when they grow out of that site?
Whereas that’s not part of my story. Kamm & Sons is London-designed and London-made by an ex-London bartender, but my story is not about the place – it actually doesn’t matter where it’s made, as long as the distillers do a good job. Thames Distillers down in Clapham are making it using a small pot still and they’re giving me a great product. And because this all began with my small batches I want to keep it along those lines.
Because it’s quite bitter, I’m really after those foodies who are into their acquired tastes: their anchovies and olives and truffle oil. It needs a more mature palate, Kamm & Sons. It’s a great aperitif, so with all the current interest in food, cookery, ingredients and provenance, now is a great time to have a drink that taps into all of that.
There’s such a massive divide out there between the people who know what they’re drinking and the masses who just haven’t got a clue. But that’s changing. I mean, 69 Colebrooke Row, where I was doing a few shifts, they do 95% cocktails. People come in there and ask for Ward Eights and Aviations and drinks that aren’t on the list.
They just walk in and say: “Can you make a Sazerac?” Damn straight we can. And that – it’s just cool.
I did start dabbling a while back in the molecular trend, but it’s just not my thing. The caviars and foams and the rest of it: I’m interested in them and I’m encouraging experimentation, totally. But simplicity, for me, is the key. Drink Kamm & Sons neat as a Negroni, drink it with tonic, drink it with bitter lemon. I’ve done all the work on this recipe to get it to that point where you can just enjoy it straight up. Just as it is.
I’ve had a Venn diagram floating around online showing Kamm & Sons at the intersection between Pimm’s, Hendrick’s and Campari. Well that was actually part of my business plan.
Hendrick’s were doing really well, and I loved their style and loved the bottle when it came out, and I’d taken inspiration from that. But I also wanted to be more modern. I didn’t want to be quite so old-school about it, because the problem with designing a brand that looks like it’s old is that it’s not – it has a ten year heritage, it hasn’t got a hundred year heritage. So I sort of felt that that was a bit … dishonest? Not dishonest, maybe, but I wanted a brand that took inspiration from old apothecaries and the past, but that looked modern. Hence ‘Established 2011’ on the label. I’m proud of that. It’s a new product. It’s of the moment. I’m not trying to be an old brand.
Even in style in general there’s that old fashioned look – and with my old fashioned, geek glasses I sort of adhere to that too. But you need to move with the times. But also I didn’t want it to be too trendy. I wanted it to be more classic – and I hope, I feel like that’s the case.