Monday, March 14, 2011

Blythswood Square: The Loungerati Selection

THE LOUNGERATI provided an exclusive chapter for a new cocktail menu at one of Great Britain's most prestigious hotel bars. The Salon at Blythswood Square, winner of the Scottish Licensed Trade Award (SLTN) for Spirits Bar of the Year, and runner-up to The Bar at The Merchant Hotel in CLASS Magazine's Hotel Bar of the Year, has released an outstanding 42-page Compendium of Vintage & Contemporary Mixed Drinks & Cocktails.

A neoclassical terraced building, constructed in 1823 and envisaged then to be Glasgow's architectural centerpiece, is now the glamorous focal-point for the city's Scotland With Style philosophy. Remodeled in 1926 as headquarters for the Royal Scottish Automobile Club, and famously hosting the start of the 1955 Monte Carlo Rally, the imposing landmark received a £25 MM redevelopment courtesy of boutique hotel group, The Town House Collection, opening in November of 2009.

The Salon at Blythswood Square
When entering this five-star hotel, unless you have a key for one of 100 elegant bedrooms, a table in the fine dining restaurant, an appointment at the luxury spa, or a bathing costume for the rooftop hot tub, ascend a spiral staircase sweeping around a three-story, Art Deco chandelier. On the first floor landing, glide gently across a white marble floor, and on through a pair of Romanesque columns into an historic space lit by two majestic fireplaces and sensuous red shades—at one time the area doubled as a catwalk for ladies of the night—reflecting gilded cornicing and glassy winks from bottled liquors. Aim for the latter, and take a seat on one of the bespoke Harris Tweed Hebrides bar-stools. The feel is old world and yet vibrantly urban. 

This is the city's ultimate destination for cocktails and, although Glaswegians may be too self-deprecating to compare, it's their riposte to other finalists in CLASS Magazine's "Hotel Bar of the Year," including Mayfair trio Artesian Bar at the Langham, Coburg Bar at The Connaught, and Dukes Bar at Dukes. The Head Bartender here is Mal Spence, a slim, handsome, dark-eyed 32-year old that SLTN recognized in November as "Mixologist of the Year." Spence, who was the first Scottish bartender to represent Great Britain at the Havana Club Grand Prix World Final, has worked in this industry for 12 years, honing his craft at Glasgow institutions Bar Soba and Bar Ten, earning recognition at Salty Dog, running the bar program at One Devonshire Gardens and, until 2009, Rick's Bar over in Edinburgh.

Mal Spence
These days, he leaves the competing to his protégés, and their successes—winning or placing at practically every cocktail contest they enter—are (whisper it) testimony to his leadership: Scott Ingram triumphed in The Caledonian Bartenders Cup, and former colleagues, Sam Kershaw and Steve Martin were, respectively, Grand Finalist in the Appleton Bartender of the Year, and first runner-up at the World Class (UK) Finals. Recently, Spence's influence has stretched beyond just his peers, by way of a cocktail column he authors for The Herald, one of the oldest newspapers in the world. Yet as he would agree, any originator needs an oracle.

"I've taken a huge amount of confidence from Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry at The Bar at The Merchant Hotel in Belfast. For me, The Merchant will never be equalled. It has set the standard for how it should be done, without arrogance or pomp, just well-made drinks by nice guys, with no compromise. If it wasn't for Sean Muldoon," he insists, "I would never even have dreamed of doing what I'm doing at Blythswood Square. He's been a major inspiration." Muldoon, who is in Manhattan preparing to open new venture, The Dead Rabbit, is also (with Steven Pattison) co-founder of The Connoisseurs Club, a beverage program-cum-knowledge exchange that's done more for Belfast tourism than its Titanic Dock and Tony Blair combined.

"It has played a big part in that," Spence confirmed. "Until The Connoisseurs Club started bringing guys like DeGroff, Petraske, and Wondrich across for seminars, the influence, connection, and relationship with the New York scene was quite distant." 

That New York-style of cocktail culture was something Spence fell in love with via the reportage of his friend, Graeme Jamieson, on the British bartender forum, Barbore. When Jamieson's drinking buddy, Sam Kershaw, returned from a stint at Death & Co. to take up residence at Rick's Bar in 2008, an idea was planted in Mal's head: "Sam would tell me all about the drinks, bars, and bartenders: their technique sounded so authentic. Thus, the Loungerati collaboration came about while I was at Rick's," he reveals. "After dedications on our cocktail list from Sam and I to Graeme (ask him for a Jamieson's Run or Chevalier Rose), I had the notion to incorporate a list of his and Fredo's choosing."

It was an idea that gained momentum once all three finally got together in the same room. "When I had a chance to visit, I caught up with Graeme and our first port of call was Brooklyn's Clover Club. Everything about it pretty much changed my thinking on barsthe atmosphere, bartender, clientele, lighting, music, serviceeverything was nailed like I've never seen a bar do before. I also got the chance to meet and talk with Richard Boccato, who was then in the process of opening Dutch Kills, and Graeme introduced me to Fredo, too; I really didn't want to leave."

Mal's work on The Salon bar-book has taken him the best part of a year to realize, and the result of our Glasgow-New York collaboration has brought to his hometown eight of the best contemporary American cocktails. According to Graeme, "Fredo has been curating selections at events here for a while, but I elected for potations that hold a re-emerging memory, whether it was the company, or lasting significance of an evening. They each have a special personality and I'm sure they'll create something magical in the minds and mouths of whomever has the nous to order them."

For Fredo's part, he chose competition-winning cocktails that showcase the passionate bartenders who invented them, especially their understanding of ingredients. "When we started Loungerati," he explains, "one of the underlying missions was to share our vision of craft cocktail-making by supporting establishments and barkeeps who excel at creating them. To be honored with a chapter in a cocktail tome at a bar with the gravitas of The Salon at Blythswood Square, by a craftsman like Mal Spence, makes me overjoyed and very proud. I want to fly to Glasgow and taste the entire menu!"

This sentiment is understood by well-informed loungers in the west of Scotland: "It's amazing to see the response," Mal says. "So far, we've sold over 80,000 cocktails, averaging around 300 on a Saturday night. Each contains hand-pressed citrus to order, all are made to spec., and every one is devoted the same amount of time, attention, and love as if it were the first or last drink ever made." To meet demand going forward, The Salon is expanding from a two- to a four-station bar manned by a team of five. "The Loungerati selection is the favorite for my team to make," he added. Probably just as well.

The Salon at Blythswood Square. 11 Blythswood Square, Glasgow, G2 4AD, Scotland, UK. Telephone: +44 (0)141 208 2458. Book flights now.

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