For bartender Darren Geraghty, working in a bar used to follow a predictable pattern: within a period of approximately three years, he would optimise the venue’s workflow, develop cocktails and implement the necessary upgrades to take the place to the next level before moving on to the next challenge.
Three years have passed already since he became part of the team at Candlelight Bar and Siam Thai, but far from polishing his LinkedIn profile and scouting for the next role, he tells me “this job changed everything.” For the first time in his 16 year-long career he has found a place that has embraced him as part of the family and in which he intends to stay for the long run.
Malahide’s Candlelight Bar is the happy result of the work of a family of restaurateurs who have come full circle. First there was Siam Thai, a restaurant which is now an institution with over two decades in business in the coastal north Dublin suburb, which sparked a successful spin off in the lively Dundrum Town Centre.
There, the first Candlelight Bar was born and two years ago, the concept – a sophisticated and modern bar with a fusion of Thai and Asian influences- was brought to Malahide. Both restaurants and the bars within them have a shared style, menus and ethos, and are currently run by Julie, Eoin and Robert Flanagan, the sons and daughter of founder Peter Flanagan.
“One of the chefs has been working with us for twenty four years,” says Darren, to emphasise the fact that the Flanagans’ management style, warm and personable, translates in very little staff rotation, a rarity in restaurants and even odder at bars.
Darren’s role involves the management of both Candlelight Bars as well as the use of his expertise to innovate and develop drinks as well as coming up with ways to, pun intended, raise the bar. Being one of the veterans in the Irish cocktail scene, Darren has the clarity to visualise the industry’s next moves.
We met in Malahide to talk about his thoughts on bartending and on where Ireland’s cocktail scene is going. We were accompanied by that venue’s bar manager, Daniel Shanley, who after six years in the company has worked his way to the top and is Darren’s right hand man and the day to day runner of the operation.
Building Ireland’s Cocktail Scene
“I’m a bit OCD about certain things”, Darren says and hands me a cocktail menu. He opens it and runs his hands through the surface of the beautifully illustrated page. “This is paper sourced from Egypt, it feels like a manuscript, it has a special ink” he tells me, explaining that lesser inks would ruin the delicate smooth feeling.
Just that gesture alone tells me two things: first, this is next-level attention to detail; second, if he can get away with this, the family is clearly not in the corner-cutting business.
Yes, “even the feeling of the paper is part of the experience” nowadays, but that wasn’t always the case. “When I started in this industry, Ireland didn’t have a scene”, he says, explaining that back then, in the 2000s “it was the hotels, because they had international guests, so you needed a standard.”
When I started it was all about Piña Colada and Sex on the Beach, there wasn’t a bartending scene.”
Both Darren and Daniel have a big respect and appreciation for London’s and New York’s cocktail scenes and while they’re aware that Dublin is a smaller market, they agree that there is one thing about Ireland’s that is unrivalled, even in the trendiest and more affluent hubs. “You’ll never find the warmth and hospitality of the Irish bar elsewhere”, says Darren.
Daniel points out another local strength, the flair for crafts. “We have now many people distilling and making finer drinks, whiskey, gin, poitín” he says. It’s not just alcohol, the list of Irish products of skilled craftmanship we discussed includes textiles, food and exquisite crystal glassware.
When asked if he feels he has a duty to use Irish ingredients in his cocktails, Darren sees it differently. “It’s not a responsibility, I think it’s because we’re proud of them. We don’t use Irish products blindly just because they’re Irish, the quality has to be there”, which is why he does have a wide array of Irish spirits and ingredients, but he doesn’t go fanatic so they’re accompanied by premium bottles from around the world.
It’s all about balancing different influences, after all, Siam Thai is remarkably influenced by Thai culture and so is the drinks menu.
“There’s More to Life than Cheap and Cheerful”
The narrative sounds familiar: a better economy meant more opportunities to try new things and travel, and therefore bringing new tastes and habits into the mainstream. When it comes to cocktails, “people have realised there’s more to life than cheap and cheerful, you’ve gone now from quantity to value”, says Darren who points out that it’s not just about a lot of mediocre drinks, but about making an experience out of your night out.
The cheap thrill era is gone.”
Daniels recalls a lavish “nose to tail” 12 course dinner paired with drinks he recently had the opportunity to enjoy in London. While impressed with it, he realises that its not accessible to everyone in Ireland at this time.
Daniel’s point is that “it’s not about bringing New York or London to Ireland”, instead, he advocates taking inspiration from global trends but “infusing them in Irish spirit.”
In this regard, some of the steps they’re taking at Candlelight Bar are oriented into making the venue as sustainable as possible. Eco-friendly ingredients, packing and procedures, one homemade tincture at the time are moving them where they want to go. Darren admits that it’s not gonna happen overnight, as suppliers need to get on board for it to truly be feasible.
Mindful Drinking and Embracing Technology
This aim to evolve towards a fully sustainable bar is not an isolated wish. Talking about the trends that will drive the drinks scene in the near future, Darren mentions the concept of “mindful drinking, being more aware of one’s environment”, for him, this includes lower ABV cocktails, less or no sugar, and of course, sustainability.
For Daniel, another important element we’ll see more of is technology, better implemented and integrated, modern bars are becoming more tech friendly but its use has to go beyond the gimmicky, it has to truly be part and make sense within the experience.
Darren estimates that they’re about 3 years away from realising this vision. Closer in the calendar, he shares their plans of opening their first City Centre location.
We leave the table and move towards the bar where Daniel and Darren have offered to mix some of the eye-catching signature cocktails they serve at the Candelight Bar. Daniel goes for a Bathtub Gin and Darren mixes a very unique rendition of an Old Fashioned.
“I’m fortunate to have developed a style”, Darren said shortly before demonstrating it, “people see a cocktail created by me and they say ‘this is very Darren’.”
Theatrical and quirky, meticulously presented and with a degree of flamboyance that only someone who really knows their trade can pull off, they are certainly “very Darren” drinks.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.