Cocktails: Stirring Irish tales inspire clever creations
Mixologists around the country are channelling characters from local lore and literature into stand-out cocktail menus
When done well, a cocktail menu becomes a statement of intent through which an establishment can express its identity. Photograph: iStock
There’s a drink listed at Lemuel’s Bar in Dublin’s Conrad Hotel that is the perfect excuse for procrastination, even if it presents itself as a cure for that ailment.
‘Writers’ Block’ is a punchy concoction of Writer’s Tears whiskey, homemade beer syrup and orange bitters. Served in a bottle hidden inside a book, its menu description reassures that: “Sometimes it happens to the best of us, no matter what you try you can’t seem to finish writing that text, email, novel, newspaper column . . .”
It’s a comforting thought, sitting amongst drinks inspired by the prolific Jonathan Swift, in a footnote to the four-part cocktail menu that is inspired by the marvellous journeys of Lemuel Gulliver. Never mind that Swift dubbed taverns “a place where madness is sold by the bottle”, or that his preferred spur to writing was a cup of strong coffee. Sometimes, we simply seek a shift in perspective, and what better to provide that than a tall tale – especially washed down with something strong.
From James Joyce Gin (the packaging of which is inspired by design features of the first edition of Ulysses) to Glendalough Distillery (with its logo of St Kevin, who stood in prayer so long that a blackbird nested in his hand), Ireland’s emerging drinks producers are tapping into our literary and religious heritage for unique inspiration.
And now clever mixologists are getting in on the act, channelling characters from local lore and literature into stand-out cocktail menus to evoke a sense of place in this land of saints and scholars – and scallywags.
There’s plenty of the latter on the cocktail menu at Fade Street Social, recently overhauled by Karl Cooney in his new role as head mixologist for the Dylan McGrath Restaurants. Cooney grew up in inner-city Dublin and took great pleasure in chatting to family and old neighbours to research the infamous local characters around whose personalities he based his menu’s flavour profiles.
Feeling “sweet and seductive”? Turn to the section inspired by Dolly Fawcett, a local madam and proprietor of Dublin’s famous late-night shebeen, The Continental Café. Feeling “strong, grounded and earthy”? There’s something in the Lugs Brannigan pages for you, inspired by the notoriously fierce Garda sergeant.
Lugs was born on James’s Street (where Cooney lived as a child), stationed in Kevin Street (where Cooney’s granny lived) and famed all around the Liberties for his mean look and tidy left hook. But there was a sweet side to this father figure of a lawkeeper, as captured in the ‘Jamebo General’, featuring Jameson infused with toasted barley and mixed with peach, vanilla and chocolate bitters.
“And when you taste the drink,” Cooney says, “it reminds you of walking around the back of Guinness’s late at night when they’re toasting their barley.”
[Other Dublin characters include Harry Mushatt, of Francis Street’s famed chemist. Known for his lotions and potions, it was Mushatt’s penny sweets and lollipops that Cooney remembers best from childhood visits and which inspired drinks like his Milky Moo-infused Absolut vodka with St Germain elderflower and Bols yoghurt liqueur.]
Besides giving mixologists fresh elements with which to conjure up new concoctions, Cooney loves that a narrative-lead cocktail menu adds a real talking point for customers.
“It stemmed from wanting to give the customers a little bit more,” he says. “And if they get a little history of the area and a little idea of what we do, then I think I’ve done my job.”
When done well, a cocktail menu can suggest not simply what to drink but the mood or even alter ego that you might like to channel. It becomes a statement of intent through which an establishment can express its identity; an entertaining diversion to refocus attention from your busy day and to prime you for the creative experience ahead.
For Andy Ferreira of Cask in Cork, the menu itself is an opportunity to make a real impact before people take the first sip. “It’s a way of putting into form all these weeks of work that we put into developing our drinks. It’s the way you tell your story.”
At Cask – named overall winner of the 2018 Bar of the Year Awards, and Best Cocktail Bar for two years running – the cocktail menu changes every 12 weeks and is inspired by the natural bounty of fresh and foraged produce that each season offers. The question of what booze to use comes next, and the name comes last – though it’s no mere after-thought: “We’ll spend a couple of days getting them right.”
Each name offers Ferreira’s team a chance to celebrate cultural references unique to the People’s Republic of Cork, whether people or places, songs or slang. Some are appointed in a spirit of serious respect – “the first-ever drink that we named here was after Katty Barry who, outside of Benny McCabe, was Cork’s most iconic publican” – while some, such as Father Mathew’s Failure (named after the teetotalist reformer), are clearly tongue-in-cheek.
[Others nod to Cork’s underground culture. The ‘Ball and Chain’ remembers the eponymous dance track that became an anthem of Cork’s halcyon-days dance club, Hooray Henry’s. Meanwhile ‘My Brother Knows Karl Marx’ pays homage to the Sultans of Ping’s iconic song, Where’s Me Jumper?. (The opening line continues “he met him eating mushrooms in the People’s Park”.)]
Back in Lemuel’s, the menu created by mixologist Alan Moore matches Gulliver’s surrealist visions with playfully creative cocktails. ‘Cue the Beam’ is inspired by Gulliver’s Grand Academy visit where he witnessed an attempt to extract sunbeams from cucumbers: the response is a blend of Ketel One vodka with elderflower, lemon juice, cucumber syrup and celery bitters – and a Champagne and cucumber ice lolly on the side.
“We love to be able to tell a story,” says Martin Mangan, general manager of The Conrad. “People love to sit at the bar and to be regaled and learn a little bit about where they are. And they love to watch these guys who are extremely creative, and who are reinventing the drinks industry.”
Six inspired cocktail menus from around the world
– The current #menuofuniversalvalues at the Little Red Door in Paris takes inspiration from its city’s philosophical leanings, following on from its architecture-inspired #menuofappliedarchitecture. lrdparis.com
– *Ism in Oslo themes its current menu around global problems faced by humanity with cocktails such as Global Warming, Ocean Pollution, Factory Farming, and Racism.
– Dandelyan in the Mondrian London takes the modern life of plants – and how we have manipulated them with our food systems – as a thought-provoking theme. Dandelyanbar.com
– At Trick Dog in San Francisco, a highlight of its brilliant back-catalogue is its Trick Dog Airways menu, with graphics representing the footprint of various international airport terminals – including a rather haphazardly sprawling Dublin airport. trickdogbar.com
– The team behind The Dead Rabbit and its sister-bar Blacktail in New York have taken the menu-as-story to extraordinary levels, with a series of evolving menus that bring place and people to life in ever-inventive ways. deadrabbitnyc.com + blacktailnyc.com