Darlington-born Saturday Kitchen wine expert Olly Smith on his love of cocktails

He may be known best as the resident wine expert on Saturday Kitchen, but Olly Smith knows a thing or two about cocktails too. Catherine Scott reports.

Olly Smith enjoying a glass of red wine. Picture: Catherine Benson.
Olly Smith enjoying a glass of red wine. Picture: Catherine Benson.

Before entering the world of wine, Olly Smith was involved in something far more child friendly.

For nearly ten years, he was a screenwriter for television and film, including shows such as Pingu and Charlie & Lola.

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“I just love animation, it’s so free, There are no rules. You can travel through walls. I found it very liberating and I really loved writing for a younger generation,” says the father of two, who was born in Darlington and grew up on Jersey.

“I especially liked Pingu which has no words so the actions have to convey emotions. I was fascinated by that. I actually think it has helped me to communicate messages today.”

Smith gained a reputation for being good at his job and also being fun to work with – his sense of humour is infectious.

“Work started to come my way,” he says modestly.

He had never really planned to leave that work until a friend suggested Smith enter a competition called Wine Idol run by Australian wine company Hardys who were looking for a new wine communicator.

“It was a bit like Pop Idol but for wine and no one really knew about it,” says Smith.

“I had a Saturday job when I was 18 delivering boxes of wine for a wine merchants. I felt there was so much more that could be done to help people learn about different wines. I have

been interested in wine every since and sent myself a few courses over the years.

“My friend said I should enter the competition because I was always talking about wine.”

Encouraged by his wife Sophie who was pregnant with their first daughter Ruby at the time, Smith decided to enter the competition and of course he won.

“The prize was an audition to appear on the programme Good Food Live – not even an appearance, just an audition.

“I was doing food and wine pairing with Yorkshireman Brian Turner. I did okay and the show invited me back and then it started to snowball and I was doing it full time. I went from screen writing to talking about wine,” he recalls.

“The was incredibly fortunate that the wine industry took me under their wing. I travelled the world and it’s been an honour to be able to forge a new career.”

After stints on Food Uncut and Taste for Sky One, Amanda Ross at Cactus TV gave him a break on the Richard & Judy Wine Club, which, in turn, led to Saturday Kitchen in 2006.

Fifteen years on, he can still be seen in front of the camera as regular wine expert on Saturday Kitchen now presented by Matt Tebbutt who took over from James Martin. During lockdown Smith and Tebbutt ran successful online wine tasting and events Matt & Olly’s Lockdown Love Inn he also has his won successful podcast talking to a wide variety of celebrities who have one thing in common – their love of wine. Guests have included Pink, Sam Neill, Trudie Styler and Sting and Kylie Minogue.

Even during lockdown Smith presented his early morning wine pairing via video link to his home in Surrey – something that is still happening today.

“Once we got to grips with the technology it worked really well,” he explains. “Although I really miss being in the studio with all the chefs.”

Instead Smith had to cook the dishes at home and then choose the wine to pair with it.

One of his favourites is wine from Greece, where he has holidayed annually for nearly 30 years, until the pandemic hit.

“I love Greek wine – it is so under-rated,” says Smith, who is aware of the power that his recommendations have.

“There was one Greek wine I recommended a few weeks ago on Saturday Kitchen and sales of it from Majestic went up 1,000 per cent. This wine is from one small producer in Greece and that will change his life. But I recommended it because I really like it.”

Smith say the challenge is to communicate his love of a particular product.

“I want people to be as excited about a wine as I am and for them to believe me. I don’t hold back.”

He is excited about the new tinned wines that are hitting the market.

“I think they are a great idea. It is a really good way of getting people to try new wines without the investment of buying an entire bottle.

“I am excited about the cans of wine being produced by Tommy Banks and his brother James.

“I love Tommy’s food and his sustainability ethos and the wines they are putting into tins from South Africa is really exciting.”

It is clear Smith is passionate about wine and now he has tuned that passion to cocktails.

His new book (his sixth) is called the Home Cocktail Bible and contains more than 200 recipes for cocktails for people to make at home.

“Like a lot of people during the first lockdown we made cocktails at home. I love cocktails there is something elegant and sophisticated about them.

“I got excited about blending different spirits and came up with a flavour wheel. I think a lot of people have spirits at home but aren’t sure what to do with them.

“The simplest decision of which spirit you’re in the mood for will always guide you to the right cocktail.”

As well as the flavour wheel, the book is split into chapters based around each spirit.

“I don’t want this just to be a coffee table book, of course I wanted it to look beautiful with fabulous photographs, but above all I want people to use it. Some people feel intimidated by making cocktails by I wanted people to realise that you can make them with minimal ingredients and minimal fuss.”

So which is his favourite cocktail ?

“I am really into rum at the moment,” he says. “I find its flavours really festive and I just love a Daiquiri. Ernest Hemingway famously came up with his signature Daiquiri using maraschino cherry and grapefruit as the key ingredients.

“I came up with one using a bunch of my favourite flavours including blood orange and pink grapefruit juice and red wine syrup. The publishers said I should call it the Olly Daiquiri and so I did.” He says key to many of the cocktails are the sugar syrups and rather than buying a ready made one he likes to make his own.

“It is really easy and makes such a difference. It is just sugar and wine which you heat until the sugar dissolves. You can keep it in the fridge until you need it.

“For me cocktails are so evocative and they are great way of making memories.”

Home Cocktail Bible by Olly Smith is published by Hardie Grant Quadrille £20. ollysmith.com

Fact file

Olly Smith was born in Darlington but grew up in Jersey and went to school in the UK.

After working as a scripwriter he moved into wine and was named International Wine and Spirits Communicator of the Year, Drinks Writer of the Year at the 2016 & 2017 Great British

Food Awards and UK ambassador for the Food is Great campaign to China.

Olly is listed in Debretts as one of the 500 most influential people in the UK.

He is the celebrity Drinks Ambassador for the Ideal Home Show. He has award-winning Glass House wine bars aboard P&O Cruises and is, author of six books, a successful wine app and his own range of glassware.