Why Leeds is mixing its drinks - the cocktail revolution

Leeds has some of the best cocktail bars in the country but it is often overshadowed by places like London and Edinburgh. An event next week aims to change all that'¦ Neil Hudson reports.

It’s 30 years since Tom Cruise shone a light onto the humble world of the cocktail bartender and who knew it could be so dramatic? Yet the flamingo of the drinks world remains as popular as it ever was.

These days,when bar owners want to pull in the crowds, they talk of ‘instagram happy cocktails’ - brightly plumed, often deliberately overcomplicated concoctions (possibly involving dry ice) which will soar on social media and do wonders for their bar.

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For decades, cocktails have been targeted at women, the ethos being, if you attract them, men will follow and hey presto, your bar will be busy.

On June 1 & 2, Leeds Town Hall will host Cocktails in the City, an event which is being supported by no fewer than 18 of the city’s bars and restaurants and sponsored by some big names, including online drinks vendor 31Dover.com and Disaronno.

There will be a number of innovative events over the two days. For example, how do you fancy sampling sparkling Martinis in the clock tower of Leeds Town Hall? There’s also a cocktail-based three-course tasting menu, courtesy of Pintura. If that doesn’t open your umbrella, there’s a chance to learn how to make your own espresso Martinis at home with a masterclass from cocktail expert Stephanie Rainbow. You’ll never have to go out again!

Dariush Afshar Haghighi, 28, is one half of a cocktail centred collective which is aiming to put Leeds on the mixology map. Together with business partner, Filippos Filippopoulos, he runs The Watermark, which aims to offer help to existing and upcoming bartenders, giving them access to top of the line equipment and the time and space they need to develop and perfect both old and new recipes.

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He said: “The thing about cocktails is that, if you have an interesting drink in your hand, one than looks amazing, people notice it from across the room. Cocktails have always been popular but now there’s a lot more detail involved. So, a lot of the processes which you would find in the kitchen of a chef, we now also use, such as to extract the flavours from certain ingredients we use to make the cocktails.”

It’s this attention to detail, this finesse, which has helped make cocktail bars some of the most popular in the city. Dariush cut his teeth at The Alchemist in Leeds, where he was head bartender, before moving down to London with the same company and eventually back to Leeds, where he was latterly head of development.

“There are some really innovative bars and bartenders here in Leeds and we want to enable them to develop their skills and just to shout about the city a bit more. A lot of the time, talented bartenders will start in a place like Leeds but then have to go elsewhere, to London and even abroad, to make a name for themselves. London and Edinburgh often steal the limelight and that’s not saying they don’t have good bars, it’s just that Leeds also has some of the best bars in the world.”

At present, Dariush works three days at Epicurus: Death & Taxes, Cross Belgrave Street but regularly opens his personal kitchen at his home in Beeston to bartenders from across the city.

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He adds: “Cocktails have always been fashionable. They are an alternative for people who don’t necessarily like hard liquor, they are by design very accessible and that’s also a social thing. What we are interested in is enabling bartenders across the city to develop their creative skills.”

Eighteen of the cities leading bars will be popping up to showcase a new range of signature drinks drawing ideas from ingredients, places, events and people that have made Yorkshire and the city of Leeds famous around the world.

The bar line up brings together the diverse drinking experience on offer in Leeds, from glamorous rooftops to chic restaurant bars, secret speakeasies to party bars. Cocktails in the City aims to bring them all within sipping distance of each other.

Manachain Monaghan, 28, from Below Stairs, South Parade, which opened in January, has taken the mindset of cocktail making to another level, consulting with a behavioural psychologist in a bid to remove what he calls “work triggers” from the bar area. It’s all about tweaking things to affect the mood of the place, such as the height of tables, levels of sound, colours and aromas.

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“The idea is that when you come in, you won’t be reminded of work. So, there’s no white paper, no glaring screens, we even cut half an inch off some of the chair legs, so they are not the same as office chairs. It’s tiny details and possibly most people won’t notice that we’ve done that but the overall effect will be it feels more relaxing.”

Manachain, who used to run Monk Cocktail Bar, Buxton, adds: “I’m looking forward to the event, we have some really talented bartenders here on our team and I think it’s just about getting the word out a bit more. Cocktails are wonderful in that they are so creative. You can have an idea and within a matter of minutes, you can see that in your hand. In the same way that people go out for a fine dining experience… sometimes you will just want a burger and a beer but then on other occasions, you want something that’s a bit more thought through and is more aesthetically pleasing and cocktails are the equivalent of that.”


A full line up of bars and brands to be confirmed shortly but will include:


Below Stairs

Blind Tyger

East 59th



Harvey Nichols


Lost and Found

The Maven Bar




Thewlis Lounge

The Watermark

Vice and Virtue

Tickets are £15 and includes a welcome cocktail worth £6.50

Friday June 1: 6pm-11pm

Saturday June 2: 3pm-11pm

More information on experiences, bars and brands can be found at: www.cocktailsinthecity.com