Keli Rivers is a hospitality industry veteran, having worked in kitchens and bars from Tokyo to San Francisco over the past quarter-century (including world-famous bar Whitechapel in the latter city). She took up a post as Sipsmith‘s US brand ambassador a few years ago and has since been working hard to help this pillar of the British craft gin movement to gain a foothold in the States. Keli was named Brand Ambassador of the Year in the Icons of Gin 2021 and has recently published a cocktail book with David T. Smith.
Gin Magazine (GM): Tell us how you got into the gin industry, and how you got to your current position.
Keli Rivers (KR): My great aunt taught me how to make her favorite gin cocktail when I was seven and since then I have always loved gin. I started my hospitality career as a chef and would bartend on the side to make a little extra spending cash. After 10 years working every position in the kitchen, I made the switch to full time behind a bar. 2006 was a glorious time in San Francisco for cocktails – fresh ingredients, finding old cocktail books from the late 1800s, and no allocations on American whiskey. I was managing a barbecue spot with a large Bourbon selection and started to notice that the distillers making craft whiskey usually made gin to sell while their whiskey aged. I realised I had to get whiskey neat drinkers to care about gin and cocktails otherwise these small independent distillers wouldn’t be able to keep the lights on. It was then I found a passion in introducing drinkers back to the category of juniper spirits.
GM: What drew you to Sipsmith? The brand is obviously a big player in the modern gin scene in the UK, but how is it viewed in the US?
KR: I was first introduced to Sipsmith on my annual London holiday in 2010. I came across our first distillery and fell in love with its balanced approached to juniper and citrus, but it was really the texture that created my fanatical relationship with the brand. Each time I would visit, I would mule two to four bottles back with me and introduce it to the [San Francisco] Bay Area bartenders. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait too long for Sipsmith to be imported in.
While I do my very best spreading the botanically beautiful gospel of our gin, the US doesn’t have the built-in culture of after-work G&Ts at the pub as the UK does. There is more education and trialling that has to be done to win over new drinkers coming into the category for the first time or again after a long hiatus. Gin doesn’t say, let’s do shots at the bar or have a tropical drink at the beach – but sip by sip we are making headway, which is easy to do when you have such a great gin to work with.
GM: Tell us one thing you are proud of in your career, and one thing that you may do differently if you had the chance again.
KR: I am really proud of the variety of positions, roles and responsibilities and different styles of bars and restaurants I’ve been able to work with. I’ve always been excited to open a new place, I’ve done it more than 30 times over the course of my 28-year career and every time I learn something new. If I had a chance to do something differently, man where to begin? Honestly, I would have liked to experience things a little more fully as opposed to rushing through – I miss so much about working behind a bar, working side by side with amazing people every day. Oh, that and start my retirement plan way earlier!
GM: What is the best piece of career/life advice you have been given?
KR: While I have been given a fair amount of career advice, I echo one from my favorite GM I ever worked for on a weekly basis: “Pick the hill you want to die on.” There are a lot of things out there to get worked up over, to spin out about, but stepping back and realising that sometimes it’s best to see it play out and go from there.
GM: What do you find most exciting about the modern gin industry? What part of the industry should we be watching for interesting developments in the near future?
KR: I am most excited about the gins coming out from countries that are just starting to distil gin. While it might not be classic in regard to flavour profile, there are amazing botanicals, distillation processes and base spirits out there that haven’t been unlocked before. While not all of it is good necessarily, there is something so inspirational about them. I feel like they are Pokemon and I’ve ‘gotta catch ‘em all’!
GM: Are there any gin producers (besides Sipsmith) that you really admire?
KR: I love the innovations coming from Tarquin’s – since I haven’t been able to travel this last year I have amazing friends in the UK that are, hopefully, holding on to limited releases for me. Rock Rose always has a place on my shelf – it’s Navy Strength is so good. Spirit Works is a hometown favourite; its Sloe Gin with the addition of distilled sloes really gets me homesick (Spirit Works is in CA and I currently live in Brooklyn, NY).
GM: If you were a gin style or gin cocktail, what would it be and why?
KR: While the Negroni is my favorite cocktail of all time, I think of myself more as the 1919 recipe Soixante-Quinze, also known as the French 75. This version is an equal split base gin and brandy cocktail with a barspoon of lemon juice and grenadine. The original, a foot in two worlds, and strong enough that you only need one!