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Cocktails and the City: The Alchemist

Thea Euryphaessa yearns for a cocktail transformation

Written by . Published on January 6th 2011.

Cocktails and the City: The Alchemist

When I started this column three years ago, my aim was to elevate the reputation of cocktails. They’d had a bad rap. Froth-lipped beer drinkers mocked them from darkened corners of public houses; wine drinkers looked on bemusedly while twiddling their glass stems and giving good nose. Alcopops, drinks for birds, blah, blah, blah.

There’s clearly talent behind the bar (I doff my cap to the knowledgeable, impassioned Dave Ray), but it’s spread too thin over far-too-many offerings.

But those of us who’d sampled potations from the subtle, more nuanced end of the cocktail spectrum knew better. We knew the pleasures of savouring a crisp, elegant, but nonetheless kick-ass Martini. We did dinner the old-fashioned way: commencing with aperitifs, winding down with silky, sensuous digestifs. We appreciated the tradition, mythology, and history that enshrined Mint Juleps, Hemingway Daiquiris, El Presidentes; partied hard with fun-loving Caipirinhas, Margaritas.

You see, cocktails are an art form. Well, at least when made properly. Made with respect, subtlety, passion, the highest quality ingredients, and (preferably) served in the correct glassware, they can be poetry in libation. Simply exquisite.

Problems arise when they miss the mark... which unfortunately, in Manchester, is more often than not. Take when cocktails are seen as little more than a licence to print money (Revolution, you know who you are): run-of-the-mill ingredients thrown together by inexperienced barkeeps with palates as subtle as Al Pacino’s acting.

Which is why, at this point, I feel I should nail my colours to the mast; state my preference regards cocktails. I neither like nor want gimmicky, syrup-laden concoctions. I want to taste the booze... but ever-so-subtly enhanced. Put another way, it’s the difference between a G&T made with Plymouth Gin and Fever-Tree tonic water (sophisticated, exquisite, smooth) and one made with Gordon’s Gin and Schweppes tonic water (artificial, full of chemicals, bleugh). The folk behind Fever-Tree have really upped the ante by producing such outstanding mixers. Trust me, once you’ve tasted them, you’ll never look back.

Anyway, on to new kid on the block, The Alchemist, in Spinningfields. My tasting cohort on this occasion was foodie about town, Sian Astley (click here). Apparently, The Alchemist wants to be known as a Cocktail Bar – a proper one. Well, I have news for the owners. Serving cocktails does not a Cocktail Bar, make. Want to be known as a Cocktail Bar (as opposed to A. N. Other bar that serves cocktails)? Start with the basics. Then get them right.

If you want to get all fancy, head down the molecular route, that’s fine; just so long as you get your prima materia (alchemical term for ‘raw material’) right. And in the case of a bona fide Cocktail Bar, your classic cocktails are your prima materia. As esteemed, established Cocktail Bars such as Corridor and The Modern have shown, it’s all about foundations, foundations, foundations. Innovative ideas and new creations keep cocktails fresh and interesting. But only if your foundations are solid and every last member of staff knows exactly what they’re doing.

If The Alchemist wants to build a reputation to rival the likes of the above-mentioned, I suggest they rethink their menu. Streamline, dedicate a section to the classics, and build from there. There’s clearly talent behind the bar (I doff my cap to the knowledgeable, impassioned Dave Ray), but it’s spread too thin over far-too-many offerings. Again, take a leaf from Corridor’s book – they have this methodical approach nailed. Mojo’s, too.

We sampled fifteen different cocktails (professionals, us). Of those fifteen, no one drink jumped out at me (actually, to be fair, the Chilli & Mint Daiquiri – £6.95 – was enjoyable). Overall, my impression was that drinks erred on the sweet side, with the spirit left fighting for its life.

Each drink bled cloyingly into the next, with only a Negroni (£6.95) and White Martinez (lovely fresh nose, £6.95) to break things up. But even here, the Negroni, which, when made well is the Muhammad Ali of cocktails – floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee – was overtly bitter.

The drinking equivalent of going toe-to-toe with both Klitschko brothers, we were both bludgeoned by it. The Bloody Mary too, lacked depth and body (or ‘chewiness’ as Oz Clarke might say). On a glassware note, purists look away now – they don’t use Martini glasses, favouring champagne coupes all the way (so this season, dahling). They do, however, serve shooters in wee conical flasks. Fun, tacky, or sacrilegious? You decide.

Thing is, a city the size of Manchester should have far more connoisseur-oriented cocktail bars. There’s a Great Big Hole in the market and it’s still crying out to be filled.

On my wish list: an elegant, sophisticated hotel lobby of a bar with deep, comfortable seating; intimate corners in which to schmooze, read books, conduct affairs to remember; an inspired cocktail list (preferably seasonal), and smartly attired, unobtrusive staff who smile genuine smiles and truly, madly, deeply know their cocktailing onions.

It’d be called The Library, or something similar. They’d do the most decadent brunch in town, room aplenty to spread the Sunday papers out, and relaxed enough to nurse a hangover with a Prairie Oyster by a crackling fire. Is that too much to ask?

The Alchemist is at 3 Hardman Street, Spinningfields, City. M3 3HF. 0161 817 2950

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6 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousJanuary 5th 2011.

A bit baffled by this review. The cocktails here are pretty great, if you ask me. In fact the only place I'd rate apart from Corridor (which itself was a bit off the boil last time I went). The Modern's cocktails are totally bog-standard, I have no idea why it gets mentioned.

Although, anything is better than the absurd Cloud 23.

DibigoJanuary 6th 2011.

A bit cringey that. Some guys inner wank fest dreams about what he'd call his fantasy cocktail bar? It's just a bollocks blog rant about how much he knows about cocktails since he got 101 Cocktails to Drink Before You Die for xmas a few years back. Alchemist is a slick bar though.

MoregeousJanuary 8th 2011.

Ouch! Thea, you're certainly a cocktail purist, liking your drinks non-sugary, kick ass and traditional. As your side-kick that night I'd have to agree that many of the ones tried did err on the side of sweetness, though being partial to all things sugary, this wasn't so much of a problem for me. I loved the idea of the strawberry caviar bubbling up through my Prosecco, and that the staff worked on it to get is more fruity as the flavour was a tad weak. The Negroni was very bitter. The frozen orchid was a cool touch. One of the cocktail making staff had never tasted grapefruit. The chilli and mint daiquiri was lush. After 6 cocktails I should have been more drunk but the owner has to pay for his pad in Cheshire somehow ;-) Dave Ray was a delight as a host, old school TGI's and the perfect Bacon protege. The Alchemist was fun and intended to be so, therefore fills a gap in the Manchester market, but I know what Thea yearns for. When she finds it, you can betcha I'll be offering to be her right hand, Martini slurpin woman again.

EARL OF DIDSBURYJanuary 8th 2011.

I wander if all the panacea chavs and the broke students have filled the place yet? might pop down for a Tanqueray and fever tree if they haven't

GordoJanuary 9th 2011.

Blimey Earl, you must be a real pain to be out with. Which is your tribe that is so much better than the rest?

PaulJanuary 9th 2011.

On a brighter note Sandinista of Leeds are opening up at the old site of Sensations at 2 Old Bank Street

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