Sauce sessions with a difference: On The Vodka Trail with Manchester’s finest hosts, The Liquorists

By David Keane

MM embark on The Vodka Trail with Manchester’s favourite tour guides – The Liquorists…

What does it mean to be a ‘bartender’?

From the brief spell when I worked behind bars, I surmised that it was all about late nights and hangovers. It was all about guys and girls and waking up in the backs of cars.

Bartenders sorted their friends out with drinks and everyone was a ‘friend’. Customers you didn’t know were a hassle unless they gave good tips. It was all about the staff experience, not theirs. It was all about the ‘scene’ – whatever that meant. 

Needless to say, most the bartenders I knew didn’t last long and neither did I. I left thinking that bartenders were unscrupulous characters who probably shouldn’t be trusted. Aside from those I was friends with, of course.

Then I met The Liquorists.

Going off the name, you don’t need me to explain what field they work in, aside from saying they have taken the art of bartending to a whole new level – and are growing steadily as the premier drinks industry consultants in the north.

The Liquorists, made up of the ever-smiling duo Tom Sneesby and Jody Monteith, offer everything from event management and product launches to bartender training and general public tasting sessions. When it comes to drinks there’s not much these guys don’t know, with over 20 years in the industry. And now they are taking this experience and using it to promote ‘excellence’ within the industry.

WE ARE THE LIQUORISTS: Jody Monteith and Tom Sneesby

“We aim to bring the standard of drinking in Manchester up to a level that everyone deserves,” Tom says, as we chat following one The Liquorists’ current offerings – The Vodka Trails.

Manchester had, and still largely does have, a very student-driven bar scene, he explains. In a lot of bars it’s more about cheap offers and resorting to sugary pre-mixed drinks rather than being about the ingredients, the taste and the experience. And Jody agrees.

“The bartenders who create a lot of noise have tended to be from Edinburgh, London, Leeds. We’re from Glasgow and Manchester. We want to put these places on the map in this industry,” he says.

Both Tom and Jody grew up working in bars. Originally from Glasgow, Jody has worked in pubs all his life, from a micro-brewery and then on to cocktail making. Tom started out doing general bar work in Tiger Tiger, and has never looked back, with Socio Rehab and Black Dog Ballroom being just a couple of the bars he has managed.

It was early in 2010 when the pair formed The Liquorists, not long after meeting.

Tom explains: “We immediately hit it off and found we had the same passions for bar tending, cocktails and organising events. We knew we could work together at something special using the expertise we had developed.”

This involves teaching people the basics of bartending and cocktail making, giving them an understanding of flavours and ingredients and how they work together, so that from there it can have a knock-on effect.

I shudder at the thought of what the guys would say if they knew what kind of bartending I had seen. Tom, it seems, has read my mind.

“There are so many bartenders out there making ‘cocktails’ without even the faintest idea of the basics or how what they are doing works, “ he says. I sit quietly listening without saying anything and he goes on. “You can’t just walk into a kitchen start cooking the steaks or expect to be a head chef. People have to work their way up, learn slowly and master the ground skills before trying more flamboyant things.”

But the pair are aware that such a change in the industry will not come quickly or easily. In fact, they believe it shouldn’t.

“We had to serve our time before we ever mixed a drink. We spent months waiting tables while mastering the basics before we were ever allowed near the bar to serve a customer,” says Jody.

Tom joins in: “Look, we don’t want to come across as if we are thinking bartending is brain surgery. It isn’t. It’s simple ratios in terms of what you put in. But there is a certain art to it and that is what we want to nurture and make sure people appreciate, both bartenders and those enjoying the drink. The more you understand it, the more enjoyment you can get from it.”

So how do The Vodka Trails fit into this?

They are described as an ‘urban exploration’, in which you get to sample five different vodkas and five different cocktails, with nibbles along the way. You are accompanied by a part drinks expert, part tour guide who can enlighten you on the wonderful world of vodka (and there’s a lot more to it than you thought!). Best of all, this is set out across five of the coolest bars in Manchester: Epernay, Socio Rehab, Blackdog Ballroom, 24 and Hula.  

Tom and Jody kindly invited me along to one of their trails, the ‘guide’ for this particular one being Barry, manager of Epernay. Barry is such a jovial and amicable character it’s impossible not to instantly enjoy his banter, and with his flat cap and faint Dutch accent he made a perfect tour guide.

He’s full of little nuggets of information along the way – and a good job too, because otherwise I’d soon lose interest in drinking vodka with it being one of my least favourite liquors! But with Barry’s humorous style and the attention that is lavished on you in each venue, it is impossible not to get caught up with ‘the trail’.

Vodka originated in Poland (before making its way to the widely believed ‘home’ of the spirit, Russia) as a medicine, originally on cuts or bruises, but eventually drank as a cold cure or even to settle your stomach – ironic considering it is responsible for upsetting more stomachs these days. It is due to these medicinal origins that vodka is traditionally drank as a ‘shot’.

And there were plenty of shots to enjoy on The Vodka Trail. We were able to sample everything from Finlandia to Belvedere and even the super premium, small batch Cariel – a vodka from the home of Absolute ie Sweden which even left me, the vodka-fearer, wanting more.

But how are The Liquorists able to offer so much (five exquisite cocktails, five slightly less ‘tasty’ shots, nibbles in every venue and a taxi service between bars, not to mention all of the stuff you learn along the way) for £35? This is where The Liquorists’ business comes into its own.

Using brand involvement, they have the likes of Bacardi, Grey Goose and others behind their tours so that the customer is able to enjoy an evening worth over £125 at a snip of the cost.

“Without doing this, it would be so expensive very few people would do,” explains Jody.

And it is impossible to ignore the fact that people want to know more about what they are putting in their bodies these days.

 “Folk want more and more education these days,” Tom says. “Look at cooking – it’s on every channel on TV now. Everyone wants to know how to cook better, use fresher ingredients, eat healthier, think about their carbon footprint. There’s a real boom in the desire for education. It’s the same with drinking.

“We give them a platform where they can come along and have a go, whether it’s with a cocktail making class, one of trails, or a taster session.

“It happened years ago with chefs. Everyone wanted seasonal fruit and veg. the problem with the drinks industry is that we can’t always move with these trends. For example, it is hard for the drinks industry to reduce its carbon footprint when tequila simply has to be from Mexico, or whisky has to be from Scotland. That said, there are ways we can move with this. For example, when making cocktails, it’s so important to use seasonal fruits.

This point seems to strike a chord instantly with Jody.

“Definitely. There really is nothing better than fresh Scottish strawberries. You won’t want to go back to some grown in wind tunnels after tasting them!”

But having been involved in bartending and cocktail making all of their lives, the pair describe working as The Liquorists as a ‘passion’ more than a job.

“It’s very fun for us, and we’re lucky enough to get paid for this!” Tom says, clearly enthused. “But it is a very scalable model. We won’t lie – obviously we do want to make money, who doesn’t? But this is something we are very passionate about. We want to educate people, and make people appreciate their drink more, experiment more, experience more.

“Going into a bar is an experience. How you are treated when you are there can affect your entire perception of your evening so it is very important.”

I feel it’s time to come clean. After all, it wasn’t all the bartenders’ fault anyway – while I worked in a decent bar, we never had decent ingredients and had zero training. I briefly recount my experience to the guys. They chuckle, but aren’t surprised.

Tom laughs: “That doesn’t mean you were a bad bartender, but at the same time not having the best ingredients doesn’t mean you’re exempt from caring about the experience of your customers.

“It starts the moment you walk into the bar, from the lighting, how clean it is, the mood, the clientele, and then on to the obvious stuff, like how you are served, how much care is put into your drink and so on.

“A bad experience ruins a bar’s reputation and can ruin a customer’s night. And while it may be the biggest cliché in the book, the customer is always right because without them the bar couldn’t open.”

They couldn’t be any more right. It is always the smallest incident that people remember the next day, even through the worst hangover. It could be the taxi driver who was rude. It could be the bouncers who wouldn’t let you in. But it could well be the bartender who didn’t know what they were doing and left you thinking ‘that sucked’.

And the more people know about how good things can be, the more likely they will be better. If customers expect more from their experience and from their drinks (and so they should when paying city centre prices) then bartenders will have to deliver.

And that is why what The Liquorists aim to achieve is such an exciting prospect.

It will be interesting to watch what happens to the bars in and around the area they are involved with over the next few years. Watch this space.

To join one of the The Vodka Trails visit   

You can also visit The Liquorists at or on

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