Tucked away in the burgeoning financial district of Leeds City Centre, Below Stairs serves up masterful blends of the high-brow, the humble and the homely. And at barely a year old, the bar proves itself to be wise beyond its years with an intellectual, narrative-driven approach to cocktail making
Featured Libation: Scandivarian
‘The Black Forest – pine trees, ripe cherries, the allure of a log fire, and of course that famous gateaux’ reads the Below Stairs description for the Scandivarian. It could easily be dismissed as pretense or hyperbole if it wasn’t such a dead-on depiction of just what the drink brings to the table. The peppered pine spice and rich, black forest, fruitiness of the cocktail come from a generous slug of Monkey 47 gin, while chocolate bitters and Cherry Heering impart a rounded and decadent depth. A charred dill and hickory wood chip sprinkling at the base of the Nick and Nora glass adds both a touch of theatre and a campfire charm to the whole thing. It’s more than a cocktail, it’s a short story in a glass. EJ
The Ace in the Hole:
The Aperitivo Menu
For those that like their cocktails to come as more of a carbonated caress than a whisky-forward kick in the teeth, Below Stairs have you covered. Their aperitivo menu boasts a carefully-curated collection of low-abv, low-cost concoctions perfect for the more moderate amongst you. It’s rare to see a menu that doesn’t relegate its less boozy options to the deepest darkest recesses of its repertoire, but Below Stairs’ aperitivos are shining examples of how skimping on the kick doesn’t mean skimping on the concept. Their 12 O’Clock Somewhere cocktail, for example, is a light, dry and zesty little number with a uniquely caffeinated kick. A blend of coffee-infused sweet vermouth, ginger beer and lime, it’s a drink so fresh you could almost imagine drinking it for breakfast. EJ
The Secret Ingredient: The Tramonto Spritz
Yes, it’s a cocktail rather than an ingredient, but it’s also an absolute tour de force of smaller flourishes that come together to make a serious symphony of a drink. Any one of its constituent parts is a tiny triumph in itself: House pink peppercorn and earl grey bitters; a homemade peach and white balsamic shrub; atomised rosemary and oyster shell sea salt spray. The expertly balanced, coastal allure of the Tramonto simply could not exist in the absence of these elements. By all accounts, the cocktail is a shining example of what Below Stairs does best: It creates experimental and experiential cocktails that remain grounded and approachable despite the mixological gymnastics at work in the mix. EJ
Get the Round in: Mannie Monaghan
Quickfire questions answered in the time it takes Below Stairs’ founder to mix up a round (or two) of off-menu B sides & rarities
How important is the idea of a cocktail’s narrative to you?
It’s the whole reason we drink, isn’t it? We go out or we gather round to either tell our stories or make new ones. That’s what we want to capture with our cocktails: the spirit of our daily narratives. Also, our drinks can get pretty esoteric and experimental, so the stories we attach to each one help to keep things approachable. A guest might not be immediately familiar with a particular spirit or ingredient, but everyone can relate to the smell of the coast, the warmth of a fire, or that nip of whisky your mum would put in your morning porridge as a kid. Ok, maybe I’m alone on that last one.
You go to some pretty extreme lengths to make Below Stairs a sanctuary from the stress of the streets above. Tell us about them. We’re all about the details, and we like to keep our approach to bartending as interdisciplinary as possible. We’ve spoken to behavioral therapists, aromatherapists, you name it. We’re based right at the heart of the financial district, so we try to avoid any ‘work triggers’ down here. Our menus are pink and tactile, to avoid any officework associations. Chairs are set to a certain height to avoid the all-too-familiar feel of the desktop slump. We even perfume the bar just before service. It’s the little details that probably go unnoticed by most, but if there’s any detail we can tweak – tiny though it may be – to put a guest more at ease, then we’re willing to try it.
Speaking of the little details, your coasters are something special.
Pretty cool right? Each one bears the name of the cocktail that’s placed on it. They’re all done by a very talented, Berlin-based tattoo artist by the name of Daisy Watson. We just gave her full creative control over how she sees the cocktails based on the stories behind them and she nailed it. Not only is Daisy behind our bar sign, her work is dotted around the bar itself, too.
How important is the idea of sustainability here at Below Stairs?Sustainability is a big deal for us. We have a three month turnaround on our menu development, which keeps things pretty seasonal. We constantly work with local growers to see what will be available each season and we work from there. That once landed us with half a tonne of damsons, which was pretty interesting. Even the leftovers from that went on to make a damson porter. Waste not, want not.
Rumour has it that you pretty much built this bar yourself?
Yup, my brother and I built the whole place with our bare hands. I was electrocuted 6 times in the process. Totally worth it.
Words by Will HALBERT