COMMISERATIONS to Nathan Larkin, head honcho at Speak In Code on Jackson’s Row. His foraged dandelion honey concoction failed to triumph in the big New York gin cocktail showdown. “I was glad to have reached the last five and made the trip – the best cocktail won,” Nathan told us as we bumped into him, just back from the Big Apple.
We were en route for further proof of the hugely imaginative mixologist scene in Manchester at the moment. If Speak In Code’s leather-bound cocktail list has something of the illuminated manuscript about it then the new Cottonopolis drinks folio, The Principles Menu combines the scent of a Geisha’s boudoir with the swirl of a Hokusai print.
Of course, Japan has consistently informed both the food and drink offering at the NQ bar, everything about which transcends the parochial stamp of its name.
Last year the focus was on Japanese idioms; the latest instalment from bar manager Gethin Jones and his team takes inspiration from Japanese Aesthetics – a loose set of principles that highlight a multitude of aspects that allude to ‘beauty’ in Japanese culture. Pretentious? Who cares when the cocktails look so pretty and taste so good.
OK, beauty can be in the eye of the beholder. When we Instagrammed one image live from the penumbral bar the first response we got was “Weeds and twig, overgrown weeds and twigs”.
Extremely disrespectful to ‘Plum, Vetiver and Tannins’ (£10), an astonishingly savoury combo of Redbreast 12 Whiskey, Amaro Montenegro, Ume Plum, Vetiver, Port and Tannins, kingpin of the Principles Yugen sub-division.
The list is divided into five sections, representing various principles of living life in the moment. Yugen, for instance, is an “awareness of the universe that triggers feelings too deep and mysterious for words. Yugen embodies the notion of saying more by showing less, leaving the imagination to fill in what the senses can’t.’
To quote 15th century poet Shotetsu: ‘its quality may be suggested by the sight of a thin cloud veiling the moon or by the autumn mist swathing the scarlet leaves on a mountainside.” Outside it was bucketing down on Newton Street.
Of the six cocktails we tried the one we’d wax most lyrical about is another whisky-based (Johnny Walker Green Label) gem, ‘Sea Smoke & Sage (£10). If bitterness underpinned P, V and T here there’s a smokiness that’s quite beguiling from applewood smoked dulse and smoke house kombucha calling a truce with blackcurrant sage and green walnut.
Other of the new cocktails we tried were less challenging – ‘Raspberry, Hibiscus and Champagne’ and ‘Orchards, Cucumber and Kiwi’. A third stand-out, though, featured Diablesse Gold and Clementine Spiced Rums, for which Gethin is Ambassador. It really is a fruit bowl in a glass with acai berry, strawberry and orange blossom plus basil and lime leaf, the whole given a Caribbean undertow by washed coconut fat.
The menu, created by local artist/ designer/ tattoo artist Gre Hale, is a work of art in its own right, printed on beautiful, natural stock with a side-sewn spine reminiscent of Japanese binding.
“Our aim was to deliver a complete menu to our guests that was easy to navigate, that communicated the ideas of the Japanese Aesthetic without feeling contrived or themed,” Gethin told us. "Giving them something to think about and hopefully encouraging them to sit back and enjoy the little victories in life – such as drinking good cocktails.”
Also check out ‘Yum Cha means Sunday dim sum and then some’