With CVs that span from New York to London, Irish duo Aaron Wall and Ciarán Smith went back to their roots to find the unique ingredient for their first cocktail bar
When Aaron Wall worked at the London Cocktail Club (LCC), founder JJ Goodman would ask him, if he was going to open a bar, whether it’d be in London or his home city of Dublin. Wall’s response was that he didn’t care where it was, his aim was simply to have his own venture one day.
‘JJ would always respond, “No way man, you have to do it in Dublin – you’re such a homeboy”,’ exclaims Wall. And there the name of Wall’s first independent venture with fellow Irishman Ciarán Smith was born.
Wall’s former boss was, in fact, responsible for Homeboy being London based. The Essex Road site previously housed an LCC outlet, but it was deemed unsuitable for the brand, with its focus on basement bars in high-footfall areas. With nine other parties vying to take on the lease – which would revert back to LCC if the next incumbent defaulted on it – Smith and Wall spent months convincing the LCC management team to give it to them.
‘When I first went to JJ, he said, “I’m not saying you’re going to get the lease, but if you’re going to do it, I want to see the gnarliest, baddest Aaron Wall getting shit done the way you want to get shit done”,’ says Wall.
Wall and Smith’s way of getting shit done, in turns out, centres on the idea of Irish hospitality.
The pair met eight years ago when Smith was working at The Shelbourne, Dublin’s equivalent of The Savoy, and Wall was working as a Bacardi brand ambassador. In the intervening years, they kept in touch. Smith moved to New York to work at the Waldorf Astoria then London to take up a position at The Dorchester. Meanwhile, Wall headed up several high-profile bars in Dublin, before being lured across the Irish Sea to work as LCC’s head of training and development, then moved to Shoreditch’s much-celebrated Callooh Callay.
‘We spoke a lot over the years about what good service is and always had the same focus on customer-centric hospitality,’ says Smith, ‘so when I moved to London and this site came up it all just clicked into place.’
Homeboy may be located in north London, but they’re keen to bring a hefty slice of what they refer to as ‘modern Irish hospitality’ to the city. They talk passionately (and extensively) on the subject.
‘Irish hospitality is all about making guests feel at home, serving deadly – that’s Irish slang for great – food and drinks, and making sure everyone has a damn good time,’ says Wall. ‘Whether we like to admit it or not, most Irish people have a bit of a party trick – a bit of entertainment. You wouldn’t believe it to look at me, but I’m quite the flair bartender, no one expects that off a man of my size.’
‘Whereas I’m just charming,’ chimes in Smith, laughing. ‘I do tell a good story and I’ve been known to sing after a couple of pints too.’
The low-key neighbourhood vibe of Essex Road is arguably better suited to Homeboy’s ethos than the high-octane atmosphere of LCC. The front section of the bar, which was still being fitted out by Wall’s father when Imbibe visited, is being decked out to resemble a living room, complete with a fireplace, and the decor will be a relaxed mix of brick walls, wooden fittings and leather banquettes.
‘It won’t just be Homeboy by name,’ says Smith. ‘We want to make is really warm and inviting, so people come in and stay till last orders.’
Comfort food and serious cocktails
The bar will serve Irish beers and, of course, Guinness will be on tap, while the simple food offering will include Da’s Irish Stew and Ma’s Brown Bread, borrowed from Smith and Wall’s respective parents. Cocktails will, however, take centre stage, with an entire section of the drinks list dedicated to Irish whiskey serves.
‘People tend to put [Irish whiskey] in drinks designed with bourbon or Scotch in mind – drinks that are stirred down and brown,’ says Wall, ‘but it also has those subtle complexities a gin would have and the woodiness, roundness and spice of a medium-aged rum.
‘Most Irish whiskeys don’t have the astringency of Scotch, which comes from the peat, and there’s more to them than that sweetness you get from American whiskeys and virgin oak casks.’
Smith and Wall have created a twist on Harry Johnson’s Whiskey Smash as their signature drink, which they claim was likely made with Irish whiskey as it was the top-selling whiskey in the world at the time. Their version combines Roe & Co, Noilly Prat, orange bitters and a homemade spinach and mint syrup.
‘Instead of using lemon, the spinach contains oxalic acid, which is similar to the malic acid you find in apples,’ says Wall.
The Irish Coffee will be another signature. They plan to use Dead Rabbit’s Irish Whiskey and are working with Off the Cuff to create a coffee bitter that’ll incorporate ‘loads of different herbs and spice’ to pick out the coffee notes. They’ve also included The Wogan, which is Wall’s take on a Daiquiri, using Teeling Small Batch, apricot brandy, lime, sugar and salt.
‘I was doing a job at the Irish Embassy when [former Swift bar manager]Nathan Shearer walked up to the bar and ordered a Daiquiri,’ says Wall. ‘Obviously it had to be all Irish products and no rum, so I made this up on the spot and it worked out really well – he wouldn’t let anyone else taste it, he thought it was that good.’
In their classic and contemporary cocktail repertoire, Smith and Wall are championing the Champagne Paloma, a mix of Patrón tequila, clarified grapefruit sherbet and acid mix, topped with Moët.
‘Clarifying helps keep the carbonation,’ says Walls. ‘We’re doffing our caps to the guys at Three Sheets with this technique – they’re a big inspiration.’
Far from puffing themselves up in superlatives, Wall and Smith are so effusive about the creations of their fellow bartenders, you’d be forgiven for wondering which bar they’re actually trying to promote. Swift, they say, has perfected the Irish Coffee, while The Luggage Room in Mayfair and The Sun Tavern in Bethnal Green both do ‘fantastic cocktails with Irish whiskey’.
Interestingly they say the burgeoning Irish whiskey category (which has expanded from four working distilleries five years ago to sixteen today, with a further fifteen in the offing) has a similar approach to knowledge sharing.
‘The great thing about the Irish whiskey community is they’re all helping each other, with the attitude that if they’re all creating good whiskey, it’s helping the category as a whole,’ says Wall. ‘Irish whiskey was once the top-selling spirit in the world – I think it’ll reach back up to its former glory.’
After an interview that’s well and truly burst the dams of its allotted time slot, Imbibe reluctantly exits the venue into a night that’s pissing down with rain. Proving that Irish hospitality is neither a myth nor a stereotype, the pair offer their last pack of Taytos and an umbrella.
Homeboy opens on 6 December at 108 Essex Road, Islington, N1 8LX