Experiential cocktails in a bar that’s as welcoming as your local pub, Below Stairs is something else…
Below Stairs has been a year in the making. Brothers Jamie and Manachain Monaghan set their sights on Leeds at the back end of 2016. They found the perfect space, a Grade II listed building on South Parade that they’ve converted from offices into a modern bar with nods to its history – and they’ve brought a wealth of experience with them because this isn’t their first.
The brothers already have a successful bar – Monk opened 6 years ago, but while their first venue may be in the sleepy spa town of Buxton in the Peak District, they were convinced it would fare just as well in the bright lights of the city. So they decided to put their theory to the test. They considered all the big players – Manchester, York, Birmingham, even London, but in the end, it was Leeds that won them over.
“We were just trying to find the right space, the right building,” Manachain told us. “This was the first location that we saw in Leeds, and I think we both just fell in love with it straight away. It took a bit of imagination, as it has only ever been an office, so it was just grey carpet tiles, white walls and fluorescent lighting, but it’s also a Grade II listed building, built in 1870, with the original glazed brick tiles in the light-well.”
Given their starting point, the transformation is all the more impressive. It would have been easy for them to go full-on 1920s for Below Stairs, but instead, they’ve taken quite a modern approach to the decor, giving it what they call ‘pockets of opulence’. Think herringbone flooring, eclectic antique furniture and ornaments that date back to the late 1800s when the building was first built.
It’s a cocktail bar through and through, they even offer table service, but despite the somewhat luxurious surroundings, the atmosphere is more akin to your local pub than a high-end cocktail bar. The whole bar has been designed to make you relax – and by that, we mean they’ve had a behavioural psychologist in to advise them. So there’s nothing here that will remind you of work. They’ve removed the screens, the glare, they’ve even taken an inch off the chairs so it won’t remind you of your desk at work.
And the drinks themselves are some of the best you’ll find in the city – they’re experiential, they actually recreate a moment, with alcohol, so you simply have to try them.
“Every drink on the menu has been created in-house, completely from scratch,” Manachain explained. “We have two driving ideas behind everything we do at Below Stairs – tell the story and keep it simple. We wanted to explore why we go to bars, why we like cocktails and why we all sit around and do this thing together. It all stems from telling stories – once upon a time we did it around a campfire with our elders, learning about our history, now we get drinks after work and share our stories. We really wanted to delve into that with our cocktail list, so all our drinks are inspired by simple emotive elements – that means we can we can make crazy esoteric drinks that use loads of bizarre ingredients, but if you understand the story behind it, you understand what it tastes like.”
Their 109 Miles to Filey cocktail is the perfect example. It’s designed to transport you to the Yorkshire coast, giving you a nostalgic reminder of the sea air, the wildflower meadows and the crashing waves, all in a drink. How we hear you ask? Well, they’ve done it in a very clever way. Seaweed distilled gin and wildflower eau du vie act as the base, with chocolate pebbles reminiscent of the rock pools you’ll find all along the coast. The ‘sea foam’ on top, usually made by the crashing waves, is here created with Islay Scotch. See, it really is experiential.
And that’s not the only one. How would you like to relive your youth with mamma’s porridge? Primary Education is inspired by a very personal story, as Manachain told us, “It’s basically inspired by the porridge my mum used to make for me, my brother and my sisters before we went to school in the mornings. We lived in a village called Flash, which is the highest village in Britain, and it was about half an hour walk to school. Quite often we’d be up to our waist in snow, so my mum would make us this really rich porridge that had this knob of butter on top and some dark sugar and she would put a tiny nip of whisky in as well – yeah, we started our bartender education early.”
To recreate the experience, they’ve used just three ingredients (well, they did say that they kept things simple). It’s made with butter-washed genever, porridge-infused Roe & Co Irish whisky and muscovado sugar syrup. Those two are part of a 12-strong cocktail menu, and each drink is as unique as the last. It’s this creativity that will make Below Stairs stand out – the city’s mixologists have serious competition on their hands.
But it’s not just cocktails. They’ve got 6 draught lines, two permanent, four that will constantly rotate. One of them is their house lager which is being made especially for them by Huyghe Brewery, the makers of Delirium Tremens.
They’re also going to have a hand-picked selection of spirits, but don’t expect to see your favourites behind the bar. They’re keeping it to as few as three of each spirit – but they’re doing it for a reason. They’ll be able to tell you exactly why they’ve chosen each drink – and which one you should choose, depending on your tastes, so don’t be afraid to ask for advice. They’re friendly chaps and they’re passionate about what they do. Oh, there’s one exception to the rule of three – they’re going to have a huge selection of Irish whisky, because, you know, you won’t find a name more Irish than Manachain Monaghan.
Below Stairs is going to give the city’s cocktail bars a run for their money, and when people realise that it’s here, it’s going to fill up fast – so squeeze a visit in now before everyone else catches on.
Below Stairs, 12 South Parade, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS1 5QS.