If you’re a fan of exemplary food and booze, you probably have your eye on the many Top 50 lists that are updated every year. The Top 50 Cocktail bars list is a barometer for the best movers and (cocktail) shakers of the UK bar scene with Manchester cocktail bars the likes of Schofield’s and Speak In Code repeatedly making the cut.
But a new bar tucked away near the Science and Industry Museum that has only been open a matter of months has been nominated for one of the Top 50’s special awards: Best Newcomer. We had a chat to Adam Taylor from Project Halcyon about what this nomination means to him and his team.
“Any good cocktail bar would strive for that level of recognition,” says Adam, “To be nominated literally six weeks after opening is pretty incredible for us. We’re definitely the youngest bar to have ever been nominated. We’d love to win but the nomination itself means the world.”
Adam, who used to run another Manchester cocktail bar Mecanica in the Northern Quarter which was nominated for the same award last year, tells us his hiring strategy at Project Halcyon was a little unusual.
“Outside of management, I exclusively hired people that had only worked in hospitality for 18 months or less, largely in party bars or dive bars. I don’t think you should have to grind 12 hour bar back shifts for five years straight before you get the opportunity to do something amazing. I wanted to give people an opportunity to be part of something.
“Every member of the team has input on the menu, the service style, what products we stock. Everything is a team decision and a team effort. [If we win the award] there’s no single person on the team that can stake a claim to it. We’re all going to the awards. We did it together,” says Adam.
Adam describes his team at Project Halcyon as ‘incredible.’ They’ve all already won or been nominated for awards. Jake Nicholls, Adam’s ‘right hand man’ and previously at Junior Jackson’s was awarded Manchester Bartender of the Year.
Reah Owen was nominated for rising star at the Manchester Bar Awards last year when she worked at Clubhouse. She was the youngest person to ever be nominated for that award. Adam says she’s one of the best people he’s ever worked with, describing her as incredibly hardworking, and super talented.
Adam explains that winning the award would mean a lot because going to a newly opened bar is risky. With bars opening and closing all the time in the current climate, you don’t know if a new one will succeed. So Adam reckons getting that level of recognition reassures them that they’ve made the right decision.
“I just want to create as many opportunities for them as I possible can,” he says.
Award ceremonies can be a bit of a schmooze-fest but Adam and I agree it’s also nice to be in the room with a community of people who are all aiming high in their chosen field.
“Being above average is really difficult and sometimes it doesn’t make an awful lot of business sense. A cocktail bar has got to be one of the least profitable businesses you can open. You do it for the passion. You want to be hospitable. You want to have something that you’re proud of.”
We’ll come back to that later but first I want to talk about the drinks. Adam and the team at Project Halcyon have developed something special with ingredients you can’t get elsewhere.
“Every drink has an awful lot of work that goes into it before it even arrives at the table. We pre-batch and pre dilute our Martinis and keep them in the freezer at minus 14 and serve them out of the bottle at the table. We use clarified banana juice for the House Vodka Martini which gives it a super silky mouthfeel. In the House Gin Martini we use a clarified rhubarb juice that brings out the botanicals in the gin. Even something as simple as a Martini we take very seriously,” says Adam.
But there’s more. Project Halcyon’s in-house lab facilities means the team can make their own spirits and tinctures like a chestnut distillate made by redistilling vodka with chestnuts or a black garlic tincture – a kind of bitters made from fermented garlic. One drink comes with a Rooibos tea soda. There’s a lot of tech and a lot of prep but Adam tells us he wants their drinks to be approachable and not bamboozle people with tech, saying, “Hospitality is for the guests. The science is for us to worry about.”
But I’m still impressed when Adam tells me house cocktail Act of Vanity incorporates a lacto-fermented blueberry syrup cut with three types of bitters, a cacao nib liqueur and Midori. I’ve seen Midori popping up on a lot of high end Manchester cocktail bar menus lately, as well as other retro liqueurs like Blue Curacao and Malibu. I ask Adam, are these types of kitsch ingredients having a comeback?
“There is definitely a trend of oldschool alcoholic beverages making a comeback. Things become fashionable, they fall out of fashion. Ten years ago, gin and tonic was just what your nan drank. Then gin went through this massive renaissance and all of a sudden, everyone was drinking it.
“A lot of 90s ingredients are coming back but they’re being reinterpreted. Midori was used because it was bright green but actually it’s just a really good watermelon liqueur. I think it’s the same with like the whole RTD movement. Bacardi Breezers are cool again, everyone’s drinking Hooch. Everything is a trend.
This return to kitsch-ness seems slightly at odds with the recent trend towards minimalist with cocktails with a big hunk of ice, very unadorned. Just because retro spirits are hot, don’t expect cocktail brollies to make a comeback anytime soon – not in high end bars anyway.
“Things are quite elegant looking right now. Edible garnishes is a really big thing currently, but also, no garnish because sustainability is becoming much bigger. Throwing a lime wedge on there just because you can isn’t really the vibe anymore. Bars are no longer keeping seven different types of berry to garnish every gin different way because it’s not sustainable,” says Adam.
“Bars are also starting to use more advanced techniques to deliver drinks quicker,” adds Adam, “We use all of this incredible tech in the distillery and lab to deliver our drinks so much faster. The faster we get you your drink, the more time we have to be hospitable to you.”
And that, says Adam, is “literally the name of the game”. Most people are not going to start distilling chestnuts through vodka at home but great service, that feeling of being looked after is why people will always return to bars and restaurants. Adam thinks not everyone has their focus in the right place.
“Unfortunately I think it’s something that’s being a little bit forgotten about in this massive new era of cocktail culture,” he tells us. “The industry is almost obsessed with the technology behind the drink. Whereas we are obsessed with hospitality. We care about our drinks. We’re very serious about them and we put a lot of work into them. But the drink is just one part of being hospitable.”
So at Project Halcyon, you’re going to get a beautiful, technically impressive drink served by a team that wants to give you the most hospitable experience they can, and let’s not forget, the space itself is also super impressive.
“Project Halcyon is a beautiful space. Not many people have that level of plush environment at home. This comes back to what bars were to begin with. The public house was an affordable taste of luxury. That’s very much what Project Halcyon is supposed to be. Everybody should have the opportunity to enjoy luxurious things. No one should be priced out of that.
“It is a really big space but the nice thing about it is there are all these different areas. We aim to sit our guests in different places each time they come. You get a different experience depending on where you are.
“You’ve got the incredibly comfortable bar seats, or the booths near the grand piano, or we’ve got these really nice sofas down by the collection area where you can see our spirit collection. As you go further back, there’s the Absinthe parlour, the distillery and the lab. It’s really cool because you get to explore every time you come.”