Cocktails in The City took residency at Leeds Town Hall this weekend. I experienced my first cocktail festival late Friday afternoon. Luckily, I made some notes.
Feeling very small, I walked into the town hall greeted by the King of Organs standing powerful like a doorway into heaven. Colour-changing lighting illuminated the hall, giving it a haunting, dreamy feel. All of our favourite places to eat and drink in Leeds had their mini-bars set up, flaunting their competitive potions for the festival.
I felt out of my depth walking around what I thought was a hall full of cocktail connoisseurs… I mean I rarely drink and I probably have a cocktail once a year. I’m very basic at cocktail picking. ‘’A pornstar martini please’’. Is my usual ask. And honestly, I choose it for its name as I pretend I’m a Russian model in a James Bond movie just because I have heels and a little lipstick on, a drastic change from my usual loungewear and mom jeans. Nothing to do with the flavour of the cocktail itself.
BBC and Smoke Stacks Paul Dunphy was the DJ for the evening. He was standing under the King of organs orchestrating our puppet strings below like GOD. Funk and soul music echoed in our ears, people’s hips involuntarily swinging as they walked up to the bars to choose their drinks.
My fellow crew were also filming the event and I ended up carrying one of the cameras for them, only to realise soon after it had no SD card in it. Gutted or maybe not so gutted, it made me look really important so I carried it around for a while.
Andrew Scutts, the man behind Cocktails in The City, welcomed me with a handful of tokens and took me down to the Town Hall cells to wish me all the best for my Cocktails in The City experience. The Mavern bar was set up downstairs and it felt like I was transported to somewhere close to Harry Potter’s Diagon alley. The bartenders had GULP (I don’t say this word often) sexy leather aprons and top hats on. A taxidermy baby chick accompanied me at the bar. I chose the Mavern’s twist on a Victorian drink, Apothecary’s Highball. They used a whisky called Sexton, distilled by a company only one year in business. The promoter explained to me it was created to appeal to a younger audience and more females, because whisky is commonly seen as an older man’s drink. They had me try it on its own first. My only other whisky experience was around ten years ago. It was basically me drinking a glass of acetone. I did that because ironically a maturer man convinced me I’d like it.
By this point my partner had arrived and met me just in time to shot my first drink. He was given a glass of whisky before he took off his jacket and looked just as nervous as I was. At a hundred expressions a second we sipped the whiskey slowly, and the promoter, amused by our theatrical faces, kindly asked us to shot it. It helped! It actually tasted of something. We could taste an aniseed note to it. My cocktail was ready by this point, finished with pretty dried flowers and an apricot to garnish – a strong, tall drink with a subtle sweetness to it.
Half way through my first cocktail, anxiety kicked in. ‘’I’m doomed. I’m not going to last another few cocktails.’’ My partner shook his head in disappointment at my very low tolerance. Nervously, I walked over to the royal quarters. The Grantley Hall had set up space on top of the stage, looking over the peasants below them. The service was on point. We had been seated, napkins set up and menu in front of us before I could blink. I chose the Lucky Peach, made with peach ciroc, cacao blanc and akashi tai yuzushu, a Japanese mixer. The cocktail was full of pretty, edible lilac flowers. (I really hope they were edible). I ate them and a forbidden fruit looking dessert. The dessert was made up of white chocolate and filled with some kind of mousse. The dessert and cocktails complemented each other really well. My partner wouldn’t know because I ate his before he had a chance to change his mind on ‘’I just don’t have a sweet tooth.’’ (rolling my eyes).
Tattu had, for me, the coolest set up of the event. Their floors and whole bar were covered in clouds of dry ice. We tried a sweet, orange Brockmans cocktail from them. It had a Japanese fruit I’d never heard of which tasted like hot pepper sauce without the spice.
Toilet trips and some dodgy Mom/Dad dancing later, we tried the Real Ladies Marmalade cocktail at The Black House bar. My notes on my phone say ‘’ a short, sassy, sweet cocktail’’. I think that means it tasted as fierce as it sounds. I chased the crew before they left to hand them over the pointless camera I wanted no responsibility for. Their reaction to me at this time of the night was a cause for concern. It was just short of 8 p.m. I hiccuped back to my partner and demanded food. A pricey pot of sticky rice and broccoli shortly after settled me down.
After our food break, we wandered into the tasting rooms for rum and whisky that were hidden behind black curtains and set up like a fortune teller’s tent. Skulls, Bones and Tarot cards spread over the table. I was very surprised at how we all sat around listening like good boys and girls at carpet time, knowing we would soon be rewarded by another alcoholic beverage from the mixologist explaining the history of the drink. During our first class, we talked about the most awarded rum of 2019 Neptune. We were given a quick history of rum and how this one was made and where it acquires its taste. I went away knowing that if you open your mouth a little when you inhale you can identify more smells. After various smells of a few dozen bottles of scents, we had nose fatigue. The mixologist tip was to smell far up your arm to neutralize your nose. I drank mine with coconut water and it made a huge difference with how smooth it tasted. It tasted of caramels and vanilla. An interesting fact I learnt is that 70% of those notes come from the wood the rum is aged in.
We ended the tasting session with an interesting look into the world of whisky brought to us by Poison teaching us the legacy of the Jim Beam family. The youngest award winning cocktail connoisseur, Ellis, accompanying the bartender made us a freshly squeezed mix of orange, wine, fennel, pollen, lemon grass, pear drops and Belgian beer shot to drink before our whiskey.
Time was up. I still had one token left, not that I needed another drink. Most of those people who looked like expert cocktails consumers earlier were stumbling out of the grand Town Hall doors. Surprise! They were human, just like me!
I learnt that the UK is one of the most competitive places in Europe for cocktails and I have a newfound respect for the art and love that goes into making alcohol. You have to take your time sipping rum and whisky. Respect your body and don’t rush anything. Also, I still really want a leather apron from the Mavern. We really enjoyed Cocktails in The City, who went out of their way to ensure a great time was had by all – and I hope to join them again next year.
Unless captioned, all photographs provided by Cocktails in The City.