Neil Sowerby discovers why we go to bars, why we like cocktails and why we all sit around together
BACK in the Seventies when telly audiences were in the mega millions, the original Upstairs Downstairs was a kind of prelapsarian Downtown Abbey. It set the template for subsequent contrasting master-servant prisms on a changing world (perhaps The Remains of the Day did it more subtly).
So my anticipation of South Parade cocktail bar Below Stairs was of flummoxed skivvies donkey stoning the steps of big houses, which was the demographic of South Parade a century and a half ago (when a brand was something burnt into your skin, not an excrescence of Bierkellers, San Carlos and Sukhotais).
The bar is exactly what it says on the label, a tradesman’s entrance of yore down some stone steps into a basement. Very discreetly signed; I missed it first time. I’ve missed it ever since after reluctantly dragging myself out of the first cocktail bar in Leeds I’ve ever really loved. Don’t blush, Manachain (Manny) Monaghan, male model, award-winning mixologist and co-owner with brother Jamie.
Five years’ apprenticeship running the Monk Cocktail Bar in Buxton have given them the grounding for this cocktail venture that would not look out of place in a major European city. Leeds was chosen because they loved the potential of the underground space.
So laidback, smart and it has got five taps of decent craft beer, too (‘Jamie and I like a refresher’ – Manny).
Ever impressionable I ordered my refresher, a schooner of Wild Beer Fresh. With it came a complimentary ‘bartender’s handshake’, a Tipi-Tini-Rary, an emerald nod to the young siblings’ Irish back story, combining whiskey, Lustau vermouth and Chartreuse Verte.
Relaxing rapidly, I forgot to confirm one claim in a preview that they consulted a behavioural psychologist on how to make the bar relaxing. He earned his corn.
"It all stems from telling stories – once upon a time we did it around a campfire..."
In that same Leeds List preview Manny explained:
"We have two driving ideas behind everything we do at Below Stairs – tell the story and keep it simple. We wanted to explore why we go to bars, why we like cocktails and why we all sit around and do this thing together.
"It all stems from telling stories – once upon a time we did it around a campfire with our elders, learning about our history, now we get drinks after work and share our stories.
“We really wanted to delve into that with our cocktail list, so all our drinks are inspired by simple emotive elements – that means we can we can make crazy esoteric drinks that use loads of bizarre ingredients, but if you understand the story behind it, you understand what it tastes like.”
Not quite what they’re doing in the more conventional Alchemist in nearby Greek Street, where prices are remarkably similar. There you’d find nothing similar to 109 Miles to Filey, described as “A walk down the Yorkshire coastline. Salt in the airy, dewy wild flower meadows, pebble beaches and crashing waves.” Enjoy the Seaweed Tanqueray Gin, the wild flower eau de view and Islay seafoam, but don’t trust the edible pebble.
La Huerta, homage to the green belt around Valencia (a savoury melange of saffron gin, PX sherry, fresh orange chamomile bitters, paprika, black walnut, smoked salt) is also a thing of rare beauty, edible paper creating a tableau of bull and bullfighter on its creamy surface.
Finally the benefits of a good Primary Education, apparently a stiffening preparation for a snowy walk, the equivalent of buttery, sugary porridge (with vermouth, Bols genever and Irish whiskey adding oomph). Resisting the high octane global fusion that is the Plantation Hopping Zombie, it was time to go Upstairs, which (being Leeds) was not at all snooty.
Below Stairs, 12 S Parade, Leeds LS1. Tel: 07837 888520