A View from the City: Newcastle, UK

Hamish Smith speaks to Neil Donachie, owner of Shilling, Newcastle, UK

Tell us about Newcastle’s drinking tradition in terms of pubs, bars, and alcohol of choice.

Newcastle’s reputation most likely precedes itself as a city that drinks a lot. In many ways it’s true – Newcastle is very lively and people here have fun. There’s an honesty about hospitality in the north which prioritises having a good time and not taking yourself too seriously. That being said, Newcastle has a long and established history of making great beer, from Newcastle Brown Ale through to the modern day local craft beer movement, which has engulfed the city. 

At what stage of development is the bar industry at?

For a long time Newcastle’s craft beer bars have been gathering national awards. Bars such as the Free Trade Inn have become authorities to the country as a whole for the pioneering quality of the beer, but the city is still in its infancy in terms of cocktail recognition. This is not down to a lack of quality, but more of exposure. There are huge levels of potential in many bars in the city that need to be unlocked. The whole hospitality sector is currently exploding with new bars and restaurant openings and this is creating a lively and dynamic atmosphere. With the established reputation the city already has as a nightlife and tourism destination, it is only a matter of time before the cocktail accolades begin to follow.

What are the pioneering cocktail bars in the city and who are behind them?

Popolo has long led the way in terms of pioneering cocktails in the city. Although it has moved from the original site and changed its ethos to a more late-night market, its cocktails are more than capable of holding their own in any city in the UK. Alongside this, Alvinos has slowly gained a foothold in the national scene under the direction of Tim Ward, who has just recently moved on to a new project to be unveiled shortly. With its tongue-in-cheek menus (the latest one being an Argos catalogue), live DJs and several of its bartenders claiming national competitions recently its been a mainstay in Newcastle now for more than 10 years.

Could the city ever become known as a cocktail destination?

I’d like to see Newcastle gain the recognition it deserves from the national cocktail community. Watching the growth of the Liverpool cocktail scene in the past few years shows just how quickly things can escalate when the spotlight shifts and momentum builds. 

What are the challenges in terms of educating the market, attracting/retaining talent and drawing in investment from brands?

Newcastle’s biggest problem has always been its location. It doesn’t have the advantage that maybe Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and others have of being very close knit. We become overlooked by brands, which usually fulfil their obligations to the north of England by travelling to Manchester or Leeds, both of which are more than 100 miles away and expensive journeys to make via public transport on a bartender’s wage. But things are changing. The market here has become hugely receptive to cocktails but, like any hospitality sector, we need to work with brands to provide the customer guidance to help it grow in the right direction.