In Conversation With Bruce Lerman

Only two months to go before the Leeds Gin Fair takes place at the amazing Corn Exchange building. To get me into the mood and find out some background I took a stroll to The Hedonist Project to speak to Bruce Lerman, one of the organisers of the event.

The reason we met at one of the most achingly cool cocktail bars in Leeds is because the aforementioned Mr Lerman is a joint owner of, well, the joint. Having a bar is not something into which he has aimlessly drifted, but has been an ambition ever since he was a young boy. Not for him the normal dreams of becoming an engine driver or astronaut, not on your life – his mother told him that he said wanted to work in a bar before he knew what a bar was. Bruce was born in Silsden, near Keighley, but spent his school years in Scotland.  He must have had a bus pass. He returned to God’s Own County to take a degree in Sports Event Management at Leeds Metropolitan (now Beckett) University for which he was awarded a BA (Hons.). Whilst studying he did what many students before him have done and found a job in a bar and hey presto, ambition realised. It was during this time he also met his fellow Hedonist director Dan Crowther, as well as Sam Fish, with whom they organised last year’s highly successful Leeds Rum Festival.

After graduating, Bruce held various positions, being a director of Canal Mills, a post he has held until recently, but the most important was the setting up of The Hedonist Project. At first it was a peripatetic company touring events and festivals, but three years ago they decided to find a permanent home and that turned out to be 156 Lower Briggate. After a couple of years of successful trading, during which time the bar changed character, being variously a rum shack and a gin joint until last year, it was refurbished and morphed into the cocktail lounge it is today.

In order to keep the discerning palates of the Leeds cocktailerati interested, the bar’s theme changes with the seasons. The first destination was Spain and the cocktail menu read like a cross between Don Quixote and a travel guide to relate the story behind each drink. Currently the East Coast of the USA is the theme, so the menu has been reworked and the paintings and photographs changed. At the beginning of March the spotlight switches to Japan so it is all change again. Whilst I was chatting with Bruce, a very talented local artist was putting the finishing touches to her mural at the end of the room.   

The plans for later in the year involve local restaurants, with which they hope to collaborate by having a pop-up bar and educating their diners in the pairing of food and cocktails. No such expression in Mr Lerman’s vocabulary as standing still. Although his eyes are trained firmly on the future, he has not completely abandoned the past and The Hedonist Project still goes on the road to cater at events and festivals throughout the country.   

Meanwhile, back at the Leeds Gin Fair, Bruce says that this year’s event will be better than ever. It takes place from 7.00pm on Saturday 13th and Sunday 14th April and, although samples will cease to be dispensed at 11.00pm, there will be a bar open until midnight. Food will not only be provided by those Bao Boys but also by the Corn Exchange’s own Humpit, so there’ll be something for everyone. As well as the food and drink there will be presentations in the studios off the main space, where guest speakers will be bringing their expertise to share with the attendees.

Bars and catering seem to be as much of an obsession of Bruce’s now as they have ever been and to call it a vocation is to undersell it – bars are his life. He said that the profit motive, whilst obviously present to some degree, is not the only driving force. His real aim is to educate people in the pleasures of various drinks and make them appreciate what goes into making them. During our conversation, Bruce told me that he promised himself that, should he ever have a boring day, he will pack it in. I am sure that he will never let it get boring. I don’t think he knows what boring is.

Feature photograph by Stan Graham.

Stan writes Let’s Do Lunch for Leeds Living.  He also reviews special events for food and drink, which sometimes takes him beyond Leeds.  He has also developed an interest in writing on culture, most frequently dramatic and musical theatre.

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