Following its 10th birthday celebrations at the end of last year, east London bar Callooh Callay has crafted a new, particularly personal menu and is unleashing it upon the Shoreditch bar scene on 10 April. Imbibe sat down with founder Richard Wynne and operations director Jon Everid for an exclusive first look – and taste – of the list
Ask any bartender worth their salt-rimmed glass to name some of the best cocktail menus to come out of the London bar scene, and you’re likely to hear Callooh Callay mentioned more than once. From its sticker-book menu to the colour-wheel concept that snagged it a Spirited Award, the Shoreditch bar has made a name for itself based on the creativity of its cocktail lists.
The team at Callooh are aiming to continue this tradition with their latest menu, styled after the Haynes Car Manuals of the 1980s – though the concept trades cars for bars.
Titled ‘The Cocktail Bar Manual’, the menu is divided into nine sections meant to provide instructions for creating a successful bar, including ‘The Plan’, ‘The Team’ and ‘The Build’.
Each section contains drinks that somehow reflect these instructions. ‘We asked the team to develop drinks that relate to, say, our business plan, or the local area, or the interior design of Callooh,’ Richard Wynne, founder of Callooh Callay, tells Imbibe.
And it was truly a team effort. Led by Everid and bar manager Will Hawes, each of Callooh’s bartenders was responsible for at least one cocktail on the 26-strong list.
For some drinks and themes, the bartenders took quite a literal approach. Builder’s Breakfast, for instance, represents ‘The Build’ section by riffing on the idea of builder’s tea. The cocktail itself is a rum punch with beer and a tea-and-biscuit syrup, and it’s designed as a sharing drink, served in a flask and poured into mugs.
Other drinks strike a more personal chord. Wynne points to Nan’s Orchard, a mix of apple cider brandy, pisco, apple-pie syrup and ginger cordial, as one of his favourites on the new menu.
‘Nan’s Orchard is based on the fact that my nan lent me money to open Callooh. Our team took the idea and ran with it, thinking about their own grandparents and eventually imagining that these grandparents have an orchard. There are some drinks that appeal to me not just because of the liquid, but because of the story behind them.’
Of course, the liquid’s pretty appealing, too. The Artful Eight is a particular highlight of the list, an electrifyingly blue hit of smoky mezcal and subtle yuzu inspired by the street art of east London. Tales of the Coconut is another standout, a shaken riff on a Sazerac that's boozy and rich with coconut, yet even-keeled from the dilution.
And while Imbibe didn’t sample any of the non-alcoholic selections, found in the ‘Keeping a Clear Head’ section of the menu, we've a feeling the house-made kombucha of the week is bound to be a hit.
The making of a menu
‘We wanted to put together a guide to how to build a bar, and the Haynes Manual concept suited the idea perfectly,’ Wynne says.
Indeed, choosing to model a menu after a classic automotive manual makes an almost-surprising amount of sense for Callooh. The concept is nothing if not quirky, and its instructive nature brings the interactive element that the bar has become known for, even if it is a bit more subtle than a sticker book.
‘The interaction comes from the way you find your drink,’ explains Wynne.
The menu was designed with three different ‘ways of reading’ in mind. Guests can choose their cocktails from the contents page, which lists all the drinks and their ingredients. They can also read the entire 23-page tome, delving into the story behind each cocktail. Or they can flip to the index of ingredients in the back and find their drink of choice that way.
‘We tried to look at every area in which people might ask questions,’ operations director Jon Everid says. ‘The idea is to cater to every type of order you’d get.’
But just because the Haynes Manual concept was well-suited to Callooh, doesn’t mean the execution was entirely smooth sailing. The menu is more than a year in the making, and the concept changed quite a bit in the process. In fact, the team’s final ‘eureka’ moment came just a few weeks before Imbibe previewed the cocktail list.
‘We changed the concept in a big way,’ Everid says. ‘Originally, we were using the manual to explain what the drinks were, with an Old Fashioned section, a Martini section, a Sours section. But then we realised that sectioning the menu from the bar perspective made more sense.’
‘Our original concept was the same as most menus,’ Wynne confesses, ‘sectioned out by lighter drinks, then heavier drinks. We realised there's so much more to a Callooh Calllay menu historically than that. So instead of just deconstructing a menu, we thought, let's deconstruct the whole bar concept.’
A change in season
Considering that the bar celebrated its 10th birthday at the end of last year, it’s fitting that the menu’s concept is more than a little self-reflective.
One does get the sense that Callooh is embarking on a new chapter. A few years ago, you might encounter a – gasp! – startender behind the bar. Now the team is mostly made up of younger, up-and-coming bartenders who are starting to making names for themselves in the industry – and this new menu gives them the platform to showcase their skill.
For Wynne, the Haynes menu is more than a list of shiny new drinks; it also marks a different way of thinking. ‘We basically put everything we did to open the bar on a piece of paper, and the bar team managed to turn it into drinks. We’re showing that we’re not just a bar anymore – our team is becoming more of a family. It’s us at our most vulnerable.’
Family? Vulnerability? That’s a tall order for a cocktail menu – but if any bar can pull it off, we reckon it’s Callooh.