Cocktails, cold drinks and (vegan) hot dogs come to the Northern Quarter
Nathan Larkin opened clandestine cocktail bar Speak in Code on Jackson’s Row barely a year ago. It fast became the talk of the town for its clever, detail oriented drinks. When we heard he was going for venue two even before celebrating SiC's first birthday, we were equal parts surprised and impressed. He invited us to check out the new place, Double Down and have a chat about what makes him SiC.
Altogether you’re looking at about 100 hours of labour into a £10 drink
Fans of Speak In Code’s candle lit ambience - perfect for illicit conversations - and eccentric tonics and tinctures might wonder what to expect from this new basement bar in the Northern Quarter. It’s similarly covert, round the side of The Corner Boy and downstairs. You wonder if you’re sneaking somewhere you shouldn’t be. Inside it’s skate-punk chic with subway tiles, graffiti and a classic hip hop soundtrack. If SiC is Berlin, Double Down is New York.
“I don’t want to use the words ‘high-end’ or ‘classy’”, says Nathan, “but it’s got something extra. We can be trashy and throw loads of skate art and skate decks everywhere but - with respect to other bars - there are certain things we just don’t want to touch. Cocktails are our passion. We want to be able to go somewhere and and get a fantastic drink with high quality service but in an environment that’s as relaxed as possible.”
Impeccable service is something SiC is known for. There's a cult-like investment from the team which has recently expanded to include Gavin Wrigley - head of education for the European Bartenders School - as business partner.
“It’s important to have everybody feel part of the project. My guys know exactly how much money has been put into the business and where every penny goes. There’s nothing held back from them."
"We have a drag and drop ethos over every project that we do but I’ve heard people say, for example, 'I want to open up a zero waste bar'. I always think, you’re opening a bar with a zero waste policy - not a zero waste bar. At some point you’re going to drop a piece of blue roll in the bin. It’s like the whole plant based movement. Everything I do is plant based but there’s no such thing as the perfect vegan. You do as much as you can. I don’t think you should be strangled by the concept. That’s why we’re subtly vegan.”
You’d be forgiven for not noticing. The keen-eyed might spot coconut milk or aquafaba although Nathan says he’s even moving away from that at Double Down.
“We don’t use any foamers at all. A whiskey sour is just base spirit, bitters, lemon juice and a sweetener. It’s a bold move - there are people who like a creamy mouthfeel.”
It's a continuous learning curve, "When I opened SiC I had eight weeks to set it up. The menu was designed and written on a train journey to Manchester. Testing the drinks was when we opened the doors. But a lot of bartenders came to me and said ‘every drink is a competition drink’ - if they read this they’ll probably be like ‘what a douche’. I am a douche. It’s ok."
He describes the cocktails at Double Down as ‘super-quaffable’. “You can smash one or two back as you chow down on a huge hotdog and just junk out a bit.” The hot dogs in question are huge bangers with hip-hop themed names like Big Daddy Kale and are almost indistinguishable from their meaty cousins.
A bold root beer float with porcini and chicory ice cream stands out on the menu. That boldness reflects Nathan’s personality. He’s worked hard to build his brand, making ‘a ton’ of sacrifices along the way including being sober for nearly eight months.
An impressive range of non-alcoholic drinks was inspired by a ‘salty’ reaction to Nathan asking for alcohol-free drinks in various bars on a recent trip to NYC.
“It opened my eyes a bit to offer something more interesting - even the glassware - to make people feel included. The Tepachi one is a good example. It’s a pineapple cordial blended with lemon verbena, cinnamon, clove and smoked paprika, topped with soda and served on a clear ice block. It feels like you’re drinking an actual cocktail.”
The cocktails at Speak In Code aren't named, but numbered. People come to SiC with lists saved on their phone. "They’re like, I’ve tried one, two, six, eight, nine… It’s just a memory thing, but where else do you get that?”
But it wasn’t just a stylistic choice to use Roman numerals.
“We started as a pop up bar. The first ever pop up bar was in 402AD in Rome where politicians used to get together and discuss social affairs. They had wine on tap, so you’d be sat around this table and everyone would just get lairy and drunk and nothing would actually get done. So a bar - short for barrier - was put in place where somebody would serve the alcohol, to a point. But also, in 79AD when the Romans were passing through from York to Chester they settled in the Castlefield site - that’s where we get Mancunian from.”
He teases that the next menu at SiC will nod to his musical roots with a design based on vinyl sleeves. “It’ll be easier on the eye but still crazy”
At Double Down - which is owned and operated by Nathan and Gavin but comes under the umbrella of hip hospitality brand Selina NQ, which recently took over that whole block - he's learning to adapt to a new clientele. "Whatever your salary is, whatever you wear, whatever your lifestyle is, it doesn’t matter. Everyone’s welcome and people naturally behave themselves at Speak In Code. There are places to get lairy. That’s a place to go for a catch up; to sit and relax."
"We’ve had to switch our mindset slightly. In the NQ there are more crowds of people and larger groups are generally louder. There’s already been a couple of broken glasses. But there are people doing good things around here: we’ve got Wolf at the Door, we’ve got a Michelin star now, and it raises the game around you. We just need to make sure that if someone’s ruining someone else’s experience, we’re on it."
Nathan says they've had very few complaints at SiC. "One guy gave us a two star review and said ‘pretentious’ but never replied when I asked what made him feel like that. It’s been six months and I’m still cut up about it!"
In response to criticism about prices, he gets specific, “Other places are buying their products. It’s pre-batched; nothing homemade. The clear ice we make is a 72 hour process. The syrup is a four part process of a rosemary, cinnamon ginseng tea infusion which is a couple of hours. To extract grapefruit oils from peel takes 24 to 30 hours. We make our own rhubarb bitters, which is an 8 hour process. Altogether you’re looking at about 100 hours of labour into a £10 drink.”
"You can argue that a classic is a classic but my Last Word is going to be different to the next guy’s. Does this person use bottled or fresh lime juice? What gin do they use? What kind of maraschino cherries? For our demerera syrup we make a 'sea-cret' sauce with smoked sea salt - very Werther’s Original. Whatever we can make in-house, we will. Not only for authenticity but added value."
This obsessive attention to detail has really worked for Speak in Code and, while it's a different beast, that same creativity and passion is tangible at Double Down too. Nathan says he's already looking towards building his empire with a third or even fourth venue.
Oh and about that logo, when I first saw it I thought it seemed a bit, well, rude.
"It’s open to interpretation" Nathan smiles, "but we’re doubling down on what we do - it’s all about taking a risk."
Double Down, 21 Hilton St, Manchester M1 1JJ