Don’t Believe Everything You Read
Winner of the “World’s Best Cocktail Bar” award the website proclaimed. Interested? You bet I was interested! This title was bestowed upon the bar at the Merchant hotel, Belfast by the prestigious Spirits Awards in 2010, held during the Tales of the Cocktail festival annually in New Orleans. Prior to this announcement I had not come across the Merchant but then perhaps I wasn’t actively looking for a cocktail bar in Belfast. A little digging revealed that the Merchant had in fact been building up to this accolade by collecting all sorts of other awards such as “best drinks selection” in the preceding years.
A quick peek at the menu online suitably wet my appetite and with a free weekend just crying out for an exotic trip abroad in my diary, I soon found myself booking a flight across the water. Skip forward a few months and we arrived at the Merchant to find it every bit as glamorous as its snazzy website proudly displays it to be. I shall gloss over much of the detail of the non-cocktail elements of our stay but suffice to say it is a rather splendid hotel and well worth a look should you find yourself in need of accomodation in this interesting city.
In the interests of conducting a thorough assessment, a full two nights of ‘testing’ were undertaken. Despite our best efforts, the menu was far too lengthy to get anywhere near trying all the drinks. The bar itself is delightful, think traditional 5 star hotel seating/decor but with an atmosphere that is much more conducive to a relaxed evening than some of the more formal establishments in London. Complimentary nibbles of olives and cheese straws are suitably moreish and those who enjoy a good ogling of a back bar will be rewarded with an impressive spirits selection.
Regretfully my positive comments must end there, for this is no longer a bar worthy of its title as the world’s best. The drinks read very well on the menu but in almost every case were executed without the level of attention that they needed. Heavy handed doses of citrus, lashings of bitters running down the outside of the glass, and a reluctance to shake anything for more than two seconds resulted in drinks that were at worst undrinkable, and at best distinctly average. Interestingly the stirred classics often turned out much better than the house specials, and whilst often unexciting were at at least a reliable fall-back after a particularly average libation.
Service was fine, if devoid of any knowledge. Questions from adjacent tables of “can you recommend a drink” were met with, “they are all in the menu”, and invariably resulted in the customer ordering a beer or G+T. This is an unforgivable error in an establishment of this type, I don’t expect the serving staff to be bartenders, but they should at least be able to guide a customer through the menu. An inability to say ‘no’ to anyone walking off the street also resulted in scenes not dissimilar to Oxford St on the first day of the New Year sales.
So what happened? A refreshingly honest call from the food and beverage manager after we returned home revealed that their bar manager, Sean Muldoon, and several of his team had recently parted company with the hotel. The resulting skill shortage had ‘forced’ the management to bring in several less experienced bartenders who were “not up to scratch”. Now I can understand this must be a difficult situation to be in, but why not pare down the menu, restrict access to sensible numbers of customers and ensure that what you did serve was of a decent quality?
All in all, it was a very average visit. A real shame because the potential (and probably former glory) were plain to see. The menu reads very well, the bar itself is beautiful, and they have a great spirits selection. All they need now is someone to make the drinks great again! So lesson learnt, don’t listen to everything you read.