Craft beer. Tick. Craft cider. Tick. Craft whiskey. Tick. You might think that at this point, we’ve reached peak craft.
Not so, if the past month is anything to go by. Two Dublin spots have launched new craft-cocktail menus since the end of July, tapping into the buzz around authentic drinks.
At Balfes which is part of the Westbury Hotel, Head Barman Vik Naiko said the month-old craft cocktail menu has proven popular with customers, both tourists and locals.
At the upmarket watering hole just off Grafton Street on Sunday, Naiko stood behind the gleaming bar under a shelf of green herb plants, and described his five new additions.
The avocolado is, as Naiko tells it, a healthier take on the more traditional pina colada, because he substitutes avocado for the milk and cream.
The Malika Favre, named after the French pop artist whose work adorns the walls, is a fragrant cocktail of home-made rose-petal syrup, vodka and lychee juice.
The summery concoction is inspired by Mauritius, where Naiko’s from. But it will only be available until the end of September. After that, he will start working on a new craft-cocktail menu for the winter. Spices like cinnamon are likely to feature, he says.
What Are Craft Cocktails?
So far, these cocktails sound like, well, cocktails. How have they earned the epithet “craft”?
In short: they involve home-made stuff. Naiko infuses his own spirits, cooks his own syrups and sources what he can locally. For some ingredients, like lychee juice, he has to look further afield.
He tries to keep the cocktails simple, though. Nobody should ever go thirsty waiting for their order, he says. The cocktails should always arrive at the table within five minutes of the order, he explains, as he erratically rattles a cocktail shaker.
Introducing: The Blend Inn
At the other end of town, with warm candlelight, cushy chairs, red wallpaper and cardboard deer heads, 57 The Headline bar is playing host to the pop-up Blend Inn, which also started up last month.
Blend Inn, run by Native Blenders, sells less faraway-sounding cocktails than Balfes, but that is because its aim is to source all ingredients locally.
Native Blenders – aka Mick Reddy and Pieter Reid – have worked together in various Dublin bars over the years. Reddy worked in the Bernard Shaw and Twisted Pepper as a promoter before working with Reid, who is a mixologist, at the Little Green Café in Dublin 8.
The pair have since combined their talents at the Generator Hostel and Teeling Whiskey.
They were taken on by the hostel to transform its image. They introduced craft beer and locally sourced produce with great success, says Reddy.
“Not only were the sales increasing, but they were sourcing the stuff from better producers,” he adds. More and more big companies are saying that they source ingredients locally; Reddy sees this as a sign that there is a market for locally sourced food and drink.
Bottle Batch Cocktails
Next, working for Teeling Whiskey they began to make batch cocktails – prepared and bottled beforehand, then served with a glass of ice – as an alternative to shaking cocktails on the spot for events like Bloom and Taste of Dublin, where there weren’t even any sinks available, explains Reid.
This is when it hit them that there was a gap in the market for batch bottle cocktails.
Unlike the US, Ireland has lost the idea that bar tending is a trade, says Reddy. He sees barmen being incapable of making high-quality cocktails as a business opportunity.
Batch bottle cocktails are common in London, New York and San Francisco, and make it possible to serve cocktails quickly at a busy bar, says Reid.
“It actually makes more sense, because you can be a lot more refined than you can with a single cocktail,” he adds.
His negroni cocktail, for example, is equal parts gin, vermouth and campari. “You couldn’t be off with the measurements . . . you’d just be killing somebody,” he jokes.
From Old-Man Pubs to Dive Bars
As a mixologist, Reid likes seeing the emergence of cocktails, but doesn’t like the idea that’s they’re only for people in cocktail bars.
“In other countries this doesn’t occur much. They’re all one,” he explains. “You know, you can order a beer, or a margarita, from a dive bar.”
Bar staff will pick out any bottle of beer and tell you all about it. “Why can’t cocktails be the same?” he asks.
Reddy praises the mixologist’s palate – both his parents were chefs – and explains that they are working in the Newmarket Kitchen in Bray during the week to develop their products, while they use Saturday night’s pop-up as an opportunity for market research.
Every Tuesday, they also try to visit a distillery, brewery, farm or other potential supplier. They are set on sourcing all their supplies here in Ireland, but trying to get Irish-made bottles has proven really difficult. “It [craft] isn’t just a buzz word for us,” explains Reddy.
Once they iron out the details of packaging and preserving, Native Blenders also hope to have some light bites to complement each specific cocktail.
Courgette crisps and whiskey-soaked raisins are looking like possibilities, and Reid thinks candied bacon would go well with the Bogman cocktail, an aperitif-style cocktail with peated whiskey.
There are six cocktails on the Blend Inn menu so far, some of which are twists on classics. The light-pink Luke Kelly mixes ginger beer, Teeling whiskey and raspberry shrub, a fruit syrup.
“Very nice,” says Sinéad Reilly, tasting one at Blend Inn. “I plan on drinking them all night. I’m not sure what’s in it, but it’s got a real kick.”
As a startup, Native Blenders have been having problems getting everything in order with Revenue and with licensing. They aim to sort out all the red tape by January, though.
“What we’re hoping is, in the next three months, some big player goes, ‘These lads are alright,’” says Reddy.
Early next year, they want to ramp up to selling batch cocktails to bars, and some day they hope to see them stocked at off-licences.
Reddy doesn’t drink alcohol, which Reid says suits him fine, because he can do all the tasting and still be driven home safely.
We’ll have to wait and see if craft cocktails take off too.
Craft cocktails are available in Balfes on Balfe Street for €12.50, or on Saturdays from 7pm at Blend Inn, upstairs in 57 The Headline on Clanbrassil Street, for €8.50.