By Gary Thornton
An industrial estate on Dalmain Road isn’t the most obvious place to find Mediterranean-inspired treasure but, hidden away in a shed outside the Keynote Studios, you’ll find brothers Rob and Jim Berry carefully crafting a range of vermouths, amari and cocktails − inspired by traditional Sicilian recipes, but nurtured in Forest Hill.
I caught up with managing director Rob Berry to find out more.
Where did it all start, and how did you end up in Forest Hill?
We had both always worked in hospitality, but I married into a Sicilian family in 2009 and, like many families in the region, they had their own recipe for making Amaro, a herbal, bitter and sweet spirit commonly drunk as a digestif after meals. We started to make it ourselves, but then thought that as recipes for Amari differ from place to place, we should do a London version, using botanicals that are found locally rather than in the mountains around Palermo.
Using Culpeper’s London Dispensatory, we came up with our own recipe for Dispense Amaro in 2014, which uses some of the herbs and botanicals which are common in the area, such as chickweed, hops and yarrow. These produce a more medicinal, less sweet flavour which we think captures the essence of our region.
As we both live in Sydenham, we wanted to find a base nearby, and we moved into the Keynote Studios in 2017.
What is the origin of the Asterley name?
It’s our mother’s maiden name. We would have chosen Berry Bros, but obviously someone else got there first.
How do make your Amaro?
Our recipe calls for quite a complicated process − we take neutral grain spirit at 96% abv, cut it with filtered water, and use it to macerate citrus and dried fruits. Separately we macerate the bitter herbs and hard spices in another spirit reduction, and the remaining botanicals in English red wine. After a month the three liquids are combined with sugar, to produce the end result.
You sell a Britannica London Fernet − how does this differ from Dispense?
Common Fernets, such as Fernet Branca, are typically a super-charged version of Amaro, with a higher ABV and less sweetness. We have toned it down a little for British tastes, so we include London porter and coffee, making it more approachable and palatable by rounding off the more bitter notes.
You also make two types of vermouth?
Yes, we have a dry version − Schofield’s, and a sweet − Estate. We again use English wine, a combination of whites (Bacchus, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay) for the dry, and red (Pinot Noir) for the sweet, and aromatics such as lavender, jasmine and camomile. European vermouths typically use a neutral wine, so the role of the botanicals is more important, For us, we wanted something which brings out the character of both. It’s a more playful and friendly version of a vermouth, and drinks as well neat over ice as in a cocktail.
How did the Asterley Bros Cocktail Club come about?
We already had a range of Christmas cocktails, but with the first lockdown in 2020 hospitality dried up practically overnight, and we knew we had to do something different to replace lost sales. As people were stuck at home, we had the idea of creating different cocktails and delivering them to members who sign up for a monthly subscription. We include mixers, snacks and also samples of different Amari from around the world.
How do you come up with the cocktail recipes?
We have different cocktails themed around the four seasons, and they are our own take on classics such as Negroni and Manhattan − the only condition is that we have to include one of our own spirits. We work with Joe Schofield, an award-winning bartender who runs his own bar in Manchester, and he develops and tests each recipe.
The cocktail packaging is very striking. How did you come by it?
It was a deliberate decision to be different from the classical look of the other products. We wanted it to reflect the fun of cocktails, and we found the artist Ryan Gajda on Instagram. Ryan creates a different image for us each season, which appears on the packaging and on a limited edition print which goes out to subscribers.
You have an online shop, but where else can we find your spirits?
They are stocked at places like Hawksmoor, Claridge’s and Harvey Nichols, but also more locally at Two Spoons, The Butchery and Clapton Craft.
And finally, what does the future hold for Asterley Bros?
We’re raising funds for expansion at the moment, so we can take on more full time staff. It’ll mean moving to larger premises, but we want to remain in Forest Hill.
For more information, and for the online shop visit www.asterleybros.com.
Asterley Bros Cocktails
• 25ml Estate Vermouth
• 25ml Doghouse Distillery ‘Doppelganger’ Aperitivo
• 5ml Cherry Liqueur / Creme de Cerise
• 5 Dashes Aromatic Bitters
• 2 drops Citric Acid tincture (20g citric acid / 50ml water)
1. Add the ingredients to an ice-filled glass
2. Stir for 10 seconds
3. Top with soda
• 25ml Victory Bitters
• 20ml SCHOFIELD’S Dry Vermouth
• 15ml Wild Strawberry Liqueur (Merlet Fraise de Bois)
• 2 dashes Orange Bitters
1. Add the ingredients to an ice-filled wine glass
2. Add 75ml tonic or rose prosecco
3. Stir for 10 seconds
4. Garnish with a slice of orange