In case you hadn’t noticed, Madrid is obsessed with gin tonics. Chalkboard signs touting the British classic dot the narrow sidewalks and hang in the windows outside even the most cutre of bars, with many claiming in typical Spanish hyperbolic fashion to have “el mejor gin tonic” not just in town, but del mundo. They might be bold, they might be wrong but they’re not too far off — TIME recently named Spain as the best place in the world for a G&T.
It was luck… complete luck that 18 months later, gin became fashionable.
With an upgrade from the traditional highball glass to a balloon glass and a range of garnishes available, the Spanish have made it their own unofficial national drink. Even Fodor’s, the renowned travel company and guidebook publisher, puts drinking a gin tonic right up there with other Madrid must-dos like visiting the Prado and eating jamón ibérico.
On the copa cusp is Ellie Baker, whose British bar and restaurant Bristolbar ranks as one of the top spots in Madrid to enjoy a proper gin tonic.
Ellie didn’t always know she was going to live in Madrid, much less own a bar and restaurant here. The plan was to study Spanish in a city closer to home before setting off across the Atlantic to make wine in Chile. An enologist with a degree from the University of Brighton, Ellie was disappointed with the cheap Chilean wines available in the UK and was convinced that the climate in Chile could produce some fantastic ones. But the Chile plan was derailed when, just one month into her stay in Madrid, Ellie met an industrious and charming Gallego who later became her husband and business partner.
“Fran was raring to do some business. He had a company set up but we didn’t know what to do with it. I said ‘Well, I wrote a business plan to set up a bar in the UK whilst I was studying and I’ve got all the hospitality background. Why don’t we set up a bar?’ And we ran with it,” Ellie says.
The two of them started scouting the upscale Salamanca barrio for locations but turned up empty. Desperate to find a place, they crossed over Paseo de Recoletos and found a disused decoration shop in the trendy Chueca area. “I think it’s a blessing in disguise, or however you want to look at it, that we found this place because I think the area has probably accepted our concept a bit better than maybe Barrio Salamanca would have. People are bit more open minded here maybe.”
Once Ellie and Fran found the premises on Calle Almirante, Ellie quit her day job teaching English to focus on opening the bar and had a huge hand in designing the interiors. Here she put her basic Spanish language skills to the test: “I had more building – albañil – vocabulary than other vocabulary in general,” she laughs heartily. The building work took three months and Bristolbar opened its doors on June 2007.
Putting up a very British bar in a city enamored of Irish pubs and decidedly less so of English food was a huge gamble. Nobody else had done it before. “When we first started, the a la carte menu was a little bit wishy washy. There were a few British dishes but there was a lot of Spanish food,” Ellie explains.
That changed when a Spanish food journalist popped by in their first six months of business for an interview and offered Ellie some constructive criticism: be decisive about your menu. “And I took it on board and changed it around within a couple of months and he was totally right. The more British food made it, the more successful we’ve been.”
More nimble shifts ensued as Ellie and Fran quickly noticed that gins were by far the biggest long drink that they were selling to their predominantly Spanish crowd and so started beefing up their gin offering. Four months after they first opened, the couple launched Gintonize: a concept club specializing in gin within Bristolbar.
“We said, ‘Right. British bar, gin and tonic is very British, and nobody else is really talking about it — we’re going to specialize in that.’ So I started off with 60 gins on my list, of which a rather large chunk I was bringing over personally in a suitcase from the UK,” Ellie laughs, “and occasionally getting my mom to bring them over in her suitcase. It was crazy when I look back to it now.”
Crazy, but well worth the hassle as just a year and a half later, Spain’s gin boom set off and Bristolbar was at its forefront in Madrid. “It was luck — I can’t pretend I predicted that there was going to be a gin boom — complete luck that 18 months later, gin became fashionable.”
While her Enology and Viticulture degree and her love of Chile and its wine didn’t get her the vineyard of her dreams, Ellie still ended up producing spirits in a different country, albeit gin and back in her homeland. Ish was an offshoot of Gintonize: Ellie did a limited edition of Whitley Neill (also called Gintonize) which was so successful that it inspired her to start producing her own.
“In fact, what we wanted to do was distill in the bar. But this is a listed building and our lawyer said, ‘Don’t even go there! I don’t care how much you’d pay me, I would not be prepared to try and pull that one off for you.’ So that didn’t happen which was really frustrating,” Ellie bemoans.
Since then, a bar with the same idea opened in London to astounding success and rave reviews.
Distilled in England, Ish is performing fairly well at 80,000 bottles a year. Not bad for a small boutique brand.
There’s no question that the Spanish love their gin, but it’s really more like borderline obsessed. Ellie says some people come in and hem and haw over a 12€ menú del día but have no problem dropping 15€ for a gin tonic. “It’s crazy but it is so true,” she reveals.
That’s not to say that the crisis hasn’t affected them. Gin tonic might be a pick-me-up but sales of the mix are definitely down, according to Ellie. “If we were pure restaurant, we’d probably be struggling. Being bar and restaurant definitely helps. People might come in with the idea of a gin and tonic and then because you do have the menu, they might pick away at something even though it’s not a ‘dinner’ as such.”
In the six years of dealing closely with the Spanish on a daily basis, Ellie says she’s learned a few unexpected things about them: “Despite the “mala fama” of the la comida inglesa, they are surprisingly open to try it. And they want to be led. They’re much more willing than I thought they would be to let me guide them, give them recommendations both in food and drink.”
As for advice for other expats who want to set up shop in Madrid, Ellie says to “have a clear idea and run with it. No wishy-washiness!”
I've been living in Madrid since 2007, married to a madrileño since 2008, and mom to our son since 2011. Tech is my thing. I love salmorejo, matrimonios and cazón adobado. I don't watch football.
Image Credits: Luis Rodriguez