Londoners might think the world stops at the M25, but there are plenty of exciting bar scenes outside the Smoke. Tom Sandham packs his aspirins and heads out with high hopes
As the old adage goes, those who drink together, stick together. Or something like that. Which might explain why, when one fantastic bar opens in an area that was previously a barren alcohol-less desert, others often follow in hot pursuit. Like mole hills popping up in a lush green field – albeit much more welcome – they draw crowds of connoisseurs eager to sample the wares of the neighbourhood. In the second of this two-part series, we’ve taken a look at some of the best bars in Glasgow, Leeds and Bristol. It’s not all about London, after all.
Glasgow – ‘M8 Squared’
Glasgow offers a lot more than head-butts and neds these days, and the discerning drinkers in the city keenly support an emerging cocktail scene. Ervin Trykowski is the Glasgow representative for the Scottish Society For Professional Bartenders, and says: ‘Glasgow has an up-and-coming bar scene with bucket-loads of personality and, when you find that perfect bar, it’s more than rewarding.’ Mal Spence of Blythswood Square agrees: ‘There’s definitely a cocktail cognoscenti in the city, most likely developed by Glaswegians’ trips to Edinburgh and beyond, so it’s nice to have an appreciative audience.’ Unlike the other cities covered, the best bars are widely dispersed so don’t exactly fit into a neighbourhood. As a result, I’ve gone for a large square shape that takes four of the best on board. It’s like a Monopoly board without the fake money. Or that dog. Two of the bars run parallel with the M8, so the new area is called M8 Squared.
Eat, drink and be merry. These ’tenders are top talent, so drinks here are damn tasty, says Trykowski of the place. ‘Ivy is a bar that has opened up the rum market to Scotland. Carrying more than 100 rums, this independent bar also offers a seasonally changing cocktail menu, tying in an impressive restaurant menu. It’s never afraid to take on a challenge – there’s the recently opened El Escondita, for example; a cosy tequila lounge at the back, boasting
up to 50 tequilas.’ Enough said.
1102-1106 Argyle Street, G3 7RX
Notable for its impressive bourbon selection, this bar is named after big-drinking Charles Bukowski’s alter ego. You’ll also get a decent bite to eat if you’re looking for pizza to line the stomach, and it’s the sort of low-lit den Bukowski would’ve laid claim to. It’s also close enough to Blythswood for those less than keen on exercise – for as Bukowski himself once wrote: ‘My ambition is handicapped by laziness.’
239 North Street, G3 7DL
A smart hotel bar, this is the perfect place for cocktalians to reside during 24-hour imbibing sessions. While away your early mornings with some fine mixed drinks, with excellent service in grand surroundings. Spence, who heads up the bar here, says: ‘I reckon we’ve kinda monopolised the cocktail market in the city centre, judging by the business levels, and the fact that the most popular drinks here are Daisies, Clover Clubs, Daiquiris and Old Fashioneds.’
11 Blythswood Square, G2 4AD
MacSorley’s. Music. Drink. Food. Says the website, simply. One reviewer described the place as having ‘no neds or pre-clubber types’ – a mantra for life, no doubt. A historic site in Glasgow, the boozer underwent a facelift a few years ago and today is a decent stop for food and music, as its own mission statement suggests. There are many more worth a visit, but this conveniently completes the ‘M8 Squared’ idea.
42 Jamaica Street, G1 4QG
Leeds – The Northern Quarter
For me, Leeds remains one of the great nights out in the UK, possibly the best, and the area around Merrion Street is a great example of its laid-back approach to imbibing. Mal Evans, who owns Mojo, says: ‘We opened after asking advice on where we could go to play loud music without bothering anyone. The site was a closed-down hairdressers, and we did up the building ourselves. It had nothing nearby – and now it’s a “destination area” known as the Northern Quarter! [But] we have a good sense of camaraderie with those who promote Leeds as a whole.’
Live gigs with British music talent are on the menu here, and the venue smacks of an old-style cantina that encourages you to dance while shooting in the air and shouting Arriba! Arriba! The tapas and cocina grub has attracted discerning diners, and the cocktails have been developed by some of Leeds’ most talented bartenders. The Middle Class Mariachi, with a class clash of El Jimador repo and Pimm’s in the same glass, sums it up nicely.
5/5a Cross Belgrave Street, LS2 8JP
Mojo has been a shining light in the Leeds scene for years, and the concept flies equally high in Manchester and Liverpool. Music images adorn the walls and the drinks policy is discerning but relaxed. The most recent bartender choice was the MOJO Swizzle: El Dorado 3yo White Rum, lime juice, orgeat, pineapple juice, Ting grapefruit soda and a dash of Angostura Bitters. But anything blended here always tastes great.
18 Merrion Street, LS1 6PQ
The last time I was here, the big hand was pushing 5am on a Sunday and the crew was largely made up of bartenders coming off their shift. The late licence isn’t the only reason to sing its praises, though; you’ll get a reasonable mixed drink and a worthy selection of beers to go with the eclectic music carry-on. Quite a scruffy decor and not much in the way of seating, but the perfect way to end the night.
12-14 Merrion Street, LS1 6PQ
Perhaps one of my favourite bars in Leeds, it offers up a simple combination of excellent beers and spirits to chase them with. Cold meats, pies and cheeses come out on a board, and you can sit at the bar for hours thanks to friendly service that comes complete with authoritative liquid guidance. The beer list is exhaustive, so there isn’t any one that captures the mood here – I tend to go with the American guesting on tap if I’m too bamboozled by the booze choice.
24 New Briggate, LS1 6NU
Bristol – The Triangle and Around
It’s been a slow burn, but Bristol is finally emerging as somewhere to enjoy a discerning drink. The Triangle is a particularly pleasant hub and, travelling up into Clifton, you have an area with a laidback vibe that escapes the hectic town centre. Which makes it more of a rectangle, I suppose, so let’s call it that: The Bristol Rectangle. ‘You’ve picked four quality bars here, opened out of passion instead of financial drive,’ says Ben Jones of All About Bar Ltd in Bristol. ‘But it’s worth checking out others as well. The Rummer at the other end of town is also a favourite haunt of off-duty bartenders. St Michael’s Hill is a very chilled area that’s great to go to for a drink in bars like Chin Chin.?And Tiki culture is finally here with the new Tahiki on Queen Charlotte street.’
For a long time this cocktail hideaway was so speakeasy it didn’t get a mention, but it has stood the test of time to establish itself as one of the coolest spots in town. It’s a tiny place and a bit of a hike from The Triangle, but worth the wander thanks to its Germanic charm and classic menu. Enjoy a Martini here – one of the better offerings in town.
52 Upper Belgrave Road, BS8 2XP
Whitelock & Grace
Heading from Hausbar down to The Triangle, you’ll pass this cocktail establishment by Clifton station. It plays on the themes of the classic cocktail era, so the word ‘speakeasy’ has been bandied about and you can expect the standard exposed brickwork and some leather on the furniture. The team references the ‘soulful soundtrack’, and the vibe of the place fits the style of drinks. It’s a bartender favourite, so ask for a Corpse Reviver or a Negroni and you shouldn’t be disappointed.
Whiteladies Gate, BS8 2PH
With a café cool vibe that’s in keeping with Bristol’s easy-going community, this is all about the coffee, cake and wi-fi during the day – the number of bars that still don’t offer wi-fi is, frankly, astounding – and cocktails for a pre-club crowd at the weekend. It prides itself on being ‘the preferred “busman’s holiday” venue for other discerning bartenders on this side of town.’ Recommendation enough.
55 Queen’s Road, BS8 1QQ
Hyde & Co
Staff are suited and booted, glassware is cut and lighting dim. But there’s a very British feel about the place and its success is evidence that Bristolians, who are far from pretentious, are prepared to sample a serious drink if the vibe is right. Look out for Hyde & Co’s barrel-aged cocktails – true to their policy of sourcing locally wherever possible, they’re made using local cider barrels.
2 The Basement, Berkeley Crescent, BS8 1JY