Murdo MacLeod has become immersed in the cocktail culture and his pop-up bars are serving the best of parties. He spoke to Ismail Mulla.
Murdo MacLeod is looking to shake things up on a national scale with his pop-up bar business Zest Mixology.
The cocktail mixing entrepreneur is on a journey – one which has taken him from the music industry to bringing life and drinks to private decadent parties.
He started off in the advertising department for Ministry of Sound’s magazine. While at the magazine one of his clients was drinks brand Bacardi.
“They presented to me a great career structure in terms of progression so I moved to Bacardi,” he says.
It was here that he found a passion for cocktails.
Mr MacLeod said: “When I joined Bacardi I had very little cocktail experience. My first job within that business was sales representative within Soho and Covent Garden.
“I had 200 bars which I would have on my database and I would need to go around those bars and talk to the bars about cocktail menus.”
Mr MacLeod, who was born on the banks of Loch Ness, became “very fond” of cocktail culture in this role.
Bacardi saw his keen interest in cocktails and made him spirits trainer to the cocktail sector.
“They funded me to go on cocktail-making courses with some of the best cocktail consultants in London,” he said.
Mr MacLeod then went on from there to train 5,000 cocktail makers.
In 2011 the cocktail connoisseur decided to break out on his own with Zest Mixology. At first the Leeds-based pop-up bar concept looked to cater for small Come Dine With Me-style dinner parties.
“The average invoice value was probably £300,” recalls Mr MacLeod and at this stage of the journey he was doing everything from answering the phones and packing the glasses to making the cocktails.
However, the entrepreneur kept in touch with the network of bartenders he had developed and they now form a ‘golden circle’ of 50 subcontractors.
Mr MacLeod said: “Over the last six years we’ve developed into a business which has got ten employees, 50 subcontractors, major clients, major contracts with places like the NEC.
“Now we’re dealing with things like decadent private parties where you have got 100 guests in your home. We’ve got about 100 metres of pop-up bars in stock and available for national delivery as well as thousands of units of glassware.
“It has been a huge journey to here from then. We’re going to stay on that trajectory for the next five years going forward.”
In addition to its Leeds base, Zest Mixology recently opened a warehouse in London to allow it to better service clients in the South.
Mr MacLeod is also eyeing a warehouse operation in Europe to cater for demand in the continent.
He added: “We’ve got a strong plan in place to double the size of the business in terms of revenue within the next 12 months.
“That is actually quite easily achievable based on recent contracts that have been won and are now in place.”
Zest landed a three-year deal with Amadeus, contract caterers for the NEC, earlier this year which sees it pour cocktails for exhibitors wishing to entertain clients at the venue and the company is targeting similar agreements.
Cocktail mixing is very much an art for Mr MacLeod and his business is all about providing a memorable experience.
“It’s a great deal about performance,” he says. “People are buying from us because they want an experience around the drinks.
“We don’t provide bartenders that put their head down and just serve out cocktails at pace. That’s not what we do.
“We provide bartenders that are heads up bartenders, that engage with the guests at just the right kind of level to create a really positive experience around a bar.
“We also provide flair bartenders who provide highly visual juggling routines with bottles to delight and excite the guests.”
While he may have moved away from the bright lights of Soho, Mr MacLeod is still very much immersed in cocktail culture.
His favourite drink is the Zombie, which he says is “by far” the most underrated cocktail.
“Underrated because people look at the ingredients list for a Zombie and are perhaps put off by the amount of spirits that are in there,” he says. “However, if you balance the flavours perfectly it’s like a symphony in your mouth.”
When asked if he misses the music industry, Mr MacLeod says it was just a chapter in his journey.
The biggest challenge for Zest Mixology has been finding the right people to come and work for the business. It’s a challenge that will continue to present itself as the business grows, says Mr MacLeod.
He said: “Finding these people and then taking them on the journey is my biggest challenge. However, I’d like to say that my business has grown with double digit growth every year consecutively for the last six years and I’m taking people on the journey with me.
“My pledge to my team is to develop them on the journey as the business grows.”
As a James Bond fan, I ask the mixologist the million dollar question.
Is 007 ordering his martinis correctly?
“It should be stirred,” he says. “The reason it should be stirred is because stirring a vodka martini will give you a really smooth and creamy texture of the spirit. When you shake it you’re going to get shards of ice that are floating within the drink, which detracts from the smooth texture of the drink.”
It seems Mr Bond needs to book a party with Zest.
Murdo MacLeod factfile
Title: Managing director and founder of Zest Mixology
Date of birth: 14/04/77
Lives: East Ardsley
Favourite holiday destination: Es Vive Hotel, Ibiza
Last book read: Anyone Can Do It by Duncan Bannatyne
Favourite film: The Hangover series
Favourite song: Bad Romance by Lady Gaga
Car driven: Touareg, R-Line
Most proud of: Buying a dream home with my fiancé
Education: HND in Business and Music Management for The University of Durham; CIM diploma in Marketing from London Met