As of October 2012, I am no longer a drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. CLICK HERE for details. I’m leaving up most of the info I posted then in case it might be helpful. Thank You.
WINE fans in my parish (Cork) may have noticed a few interesting changes for the better recently in that twilight zone somewhere between a few drinks and casual dining. Quite a few places are providing new and improved fun. I’ll return to some others later but because it combines two of my enthusiasms – wine and retro stuff – the last shall be first: a venue that opened three days ago.
7, Pembroke Street, Cork
Telegrams: “Mayne Pharmacist”
You know those time capsule buildings? For instance thisTube station sealed off in 1959 and only reopened in 2010 still festooned with original posters advertising the latest works of Deborah Kerr, Rita Hayworth and Alec Guinness? Yeah, that kind of thing. That’s what you need to bear in mind when you go in to Arthur Mayne Pharmacy & Wine Garden.
A bar serving mainly wine, coffees and simple plates of food, it is stuffed to the gunwhales with the stock, fittings and equipment you might find in an Irish pharmacy from the recent to the distant past. Everywhere you look, there are many decades’ worth of jars and phials, essences and unguents. Registers, ledgers and till rolls. When done well, collections of memorabilia can strike an atmospheric chord in a restaurant or bar. But there’s something special about this particular immersive retro 3D collection – because every scrap you see around you is the day-to-day stock in trade and equipment of the chemists shop that traded from this same building until recently. I mean everything – from the prescription ledgers under glass on the counter, down to the cardboard rolls of coppers (change as packaged and issued by the bank some time before decimalisation) among other ephemera in the front window.
The big difference between the example of the Tube station above and Arthur Mayne premises is that there’s nothing abandoned about the latter. Far from it. It was a going concern until recently (voluntarily ceding its pharmacist’s permit only in February 2011) and the pharmacist and leaseholder since the 1940s, Jim Byrne, has handed over the whole thing – lock, stock and Hai Karate – to Benny McCabe who has made only such changes and renovation as were necessary to turn it into a stylish wine bar. Benny is well known in Cork for the diverse collection of venues he has gradually developed over the years. There are the pubs (The Oval, South Main Street, The Mutton Lane Inn off St Patrick’s Street and Sin É on Coburg Street); a pub and restaurant, The Bodega on the Coal Quay; and the pub /night club, The Crane Lane on Phoenix Street, onto which Arthur Mayne connects.
Each is atmospheric and idiosyncratic: cosy memorabilia-stuffed Sin É ringing with traditional and folk music; family-friendly Sunday lunches amid the bevelled glass and polished wood of the Bodega.
Just before the new bar opened, Tommy Barker talked to Benny and other people behind the transition. As he points out, the chemist’s shop was a major photo processing lab, once the biggest in Munster it seems. The new venue will be a magnet for photographers, not only because it’s so photogenic, but because the stock in the display cabinets includes quite an arc of picture-making, from Box Brownies to Polaroid and Instamatics – all technologies which have been eclipsed in living memory. Cameras, projectors, photos and slides. Agfa. Fuji. And as a wistful reminder of relentless change, Kodak, which was folding and fading as Maynes was being renovated, is here too.
You can buy retro stuff by the yard. This, though, is palpably different – not only because it’s so specific to the site, but also because of the way it’s been curated. Alongside the dusty aphothecary jars, each with traces of its original contents, are brands of hairspray, razor blades, bath salts and condoms dating close to the present day. 1960s, 1970s, 1980s… It’s like a 3D Reeling In The Years. You may betray your age by which brands you recognise. Or even used. Elastoplast, Silvikrin, Rave.
They’ve all been accorded similar space and the same respect as those ancient generic glass jars, each bearing the dust it has earned down the decades. There’s something lovely about this brand archaeology. It would be a mistake to fetishise the items themselves – they’re only things after all, and wallowing in such sentimentality is surely an abandonment of the real world. But they are tangible mementoes, a dip into a world just as real as ours is, to the people who milled about the location you’re sitting in. We live in the present, but can dream of other times.
Unsurprisingly, given the riches in the cabinets, the decor is visually stripped back, all muted tones and shadows. Even the doors on the fridges behind the counter are opaque so we’re spared the glare of fluorescent light bouncing off a platoon of beer bottles: what you can see is the company you’re in, set against a century’s worth of memorabilia bearing the shadows of other people who have passed this way before you.
So. Anyone for a glass of wine?
Oddly, given its emphasis on the passage of time, Maynes has an up-to-the-minute system designed to press the pause button on time. I’ve long been a fan of the enowine dispenser system and am delighted to see it used in a bar in my hometown. This and other nitrogen-fed systems provide a way to keep wine in the same condition as the moment it was opened. You may be familiar with it from Eno Wine’s shop at the IFSC in Dublin, or at Bubble Brothers in the Marina in Cork. I’ve also seen it at pro tastings such as London Wine Fair. It allows a bar to greatly expand the number and variety of wines it can feasibly offer – after all, a barkeep can’t reliably expect to sell out every left-field minority interest wine every two days – but in a less labour-initensive way than the open-and-reseal systems many wine bars use.
Bottles are lined up in glass-fronted temperature-controlled cabinets. Each has a tube leading from the bottom of the bottle to a nozzle at the front. And as each serving of wine is dispensed, the volume displaced is replaced by a shot of inert gas (nitrogen). No air in there at any stage. It’s as if you’d just opened the bottle each time.
But arguably the bigger innovation with the system as seen in Mayne’s is that it’s self-service, and paid for with a debit card. You charge up your card with a tenner or whatever over the counter and off you go, brandishing your glass, to the wall of enowine cabinets. A little display over each bottle shows the price for each of the three different size measures it will dispense. (Here I have to lapse into uncustomary vagueness: unlike the tastings I attend, which are like a mashup of sensory lab and trade fair, I have absolutely no intention of milling about in a bar wth a notebook and pen. It would be a bit intrusive I think and I’d feel like a right gowl doing it. Hence I have neither the precise names of the wines, nor tasting notes, nor the volumes of wine in each measure. I might add them later).
In the absence of numbers I’ve named the three measures as follows.
♦ The taoscán Nowhere near what we’d sit down to sip, this is a similar measure to what you might pour at a tasting session. Because, crucially, it provides more than enough to judge the colour, smell and taste of the wine in hand. And indeed enjoy a sensory journey. You could really have fun working your way through the cabinets trying each wine one after another, pausing to properly swirl and sniff each. If you’ve never done it, please do: Anyone who’s done so will tell you what a revelation it can be, that it will change the way you view wine for the better. Even wines you don’t like the look of: try them. Given that this bar has made it so easy for you, it’d be a shame to pass up the chance. And that’s the way to choose a wine to settle down with, not the diktat of any expert or me. Hurrah!
♦ Oh that’s a daycent glass This is what I would call a glass of wine. It’s the size I’d choose to pour at home or out and about, and it’s the size I’d drink at Mayne’s when I’d settled on one bottle after dallying with the small taoscáns above. This size also has the benefit of leaving plenty of room in the glass for air – which you should really regard as a component of your glass of wine. To me, this middle size is the Goldilocks serving – neither too big nor too small. Just right.
♦Ah lads, steady on All right, I confess I haven’t actually seen this measure. But really I see no point in pouring any more than the middle size. But sure don’t mind me. Suit yourself, you rascal.
In my brief look around I particularly enjoyed some wines from Rioja and Ribera del Duero as well as an outstanding spicy torrontés. It’s fitting that Maynes happens to have a torrontés on offer and that it turned out to be so pleasing to at least one punter (me). Because that’s a perfect example of the system in action and the benefits it brings – to bar owners certainly, but also to any of us consumers who get over our reticence and use the opportunity to taste widely (L’Atitude 51 also serves a choice of measures from its extensive list).
I love the torrontés grape and coincidentally, I’m recommending one in my column in tomorrow’s Irish Examiner. But it’s a bit of an unknown. I can’t envisage too many people committing to a whole glassful from a standing start. And if they did, many of them wouldn’t like its honeyish apparent sweetness.
But made available for convenient tasting as one of a series, each costing you little over a euro, delightful left-field minority-interest wines like this will find the people who don’t yet realise they love them. And that’s a win as far as I’m concerned.
This is all new to me. You won’t find any pub or wine bar antics in the columns I used to write for The Irish Examiner which were almost entirely about home entertaining – off-trade wines, beers and ciders. But a sense that something was stirring prompted me to lunge for the first time into a few posts about bars. A good handful of decent beer specialists have been emerging. From the international powerhouse Porterhouse which opened its Cork outpost on Sheare’s Street in February, to The Hub (aka The Market Tavern) on Anglesea Street. Remind me to tell you a story about the building it’s in. Plus of course the three old dogs for the long road along the north channel of the river — The Franciscan Well brewpub on North Mall, Bierhaus on Pope’s Quay and The Abbot’s Ale House on Devonshire Street North. Other recent revelations (to me) include L’Atitude 51, where An Crúibín used to be, The Pav on Carey’s Lane and Le Chateau on Pana. Each has gone a long way to catering for people who have switched to home entertaining and want to emulate that comfort and quality on their increasingly rare forays into town.
Although I have quit writing those columns Long story — see here I might return to this topic. Broadly in keeping with the way I did those newspaper columns, I won’t be accepting complimentary drinks etc, and if I have any connection with a venue I mention, I will declare that interest. ♦