The early Irish summer is, this year anyway, the high season for bar openings and this month has seen the début of any number of places slinging everything from poitín to trendy beers. None of those boozy delights for me, however, as the most talked-about newcomer does not offer alcohol at all.
Since its annunciation, The Virgin Mary has had a flurry of media coverage, which is no surprise given the industry-insider credentials of the principals and the novelty of the offering. This is definitely not a labour of alcohol-free love, but a foray into a new drinkie niche. One might cynically note that there seems to have been far more righteous indignation at those mocking the concept than there has been any actual mockery. We are conditioned to believe that the idea is being met with disbelief, ridicule, laughter, and worse but it seems that it is encountering something far worse – a shrug. In any event, I have no assumptions as I make my way to Capel St.
There are a few parties of various ages and stations there when I visit on a glorious midweek evening. The location was, until recently, an unremarkable furniture shop. Today the door is open in the best continental style, and the room is an attractive one, all muted colours and herringbone floors. The herringbone carries over to the upholstered barstools, which could have been dressed by Magee.
For a place with its media game so emphatically on point, the first impression is lacklustre. A fair pile of used glassware is piled up on the bar, being attended to very slowly. Even though only two people are seated at the bar, this and some haphazardly-placed staff personal effects make the remaining seats unwelcoming. I order, I pay – by contactless means, as cash is not accepted – and I retreat to a table by the window. It has just been vacated. It will not be cleaned.
Spritzes are having their moment now – a toe-curlingly smug article in the New York Times about how we’re doing them wrong proves as much – so I opt for a “Ceder’s Spritz”. It is assembled somewhat at random with ice introduced in the middle of the process, handled into the glass, but the end result looks well enough, with a coiled ribbon of cucumber. Ceder’s calls itself “a distilled non-alcoholic alt-gin” and if any part of that makes sense to you, have at it. It’s about thirty quid a bottle for water with essence of herbs, like homeopathy. “Ancient and pristine Swedish water,” they promise. And here’s me with my modern water like a fool.
Now, a Spritz is defined by the balance of bitter, fizz, sweetness, and alcohol. With the alcohol out of the picture, it’s hard to introduce the bitterness of an Amaro, so this concoction offers a purely herbal experience instead. This is fine as far as it goes, but it shows that the disparate “alcohol” components are somewhat interchangeable. It doesn’t seem to matter, especially, that a proportion of this drink is alcohol-free sparkling wine, or that some of the herbal notes are from the “alt-gin” and some from the mixer. Ultimately, I’m drinking a €7 bottle of tonic. It’s Poacher’s tonic, which is a fine choice, and the result is pleasant enough.
Most of the other mixed drinks are similar in inspiration, and the list of other drinks is brief. Only four non-alcoholic beers, including a Heineken, is nothing that a typical Dublin boozer can’t manage. There is a nitro-keg cold-brew coffee that has promise.
For me, there’s certainly none of the joy provided by working through a boozy cocktail menu, no particular appeal in having another glass of fizz or fruit, but what do I know? I have certainly done stints of teetotalism but it’s not really for me. I don’t see why non-drinkers would want the trappings of a bar but with no alcohol, but then I was bewildered enough by vegetarian food that emulates the shapes of cuts of meat before they created vegetarian food that bleeds.
To each their own, and I have no objection to a bar with no booze, but with no alcohol to soften the rough edges, there is no margin for error. More is demanded in other areas, so that it is not simply less, defined only by subtraction. The service must be exceptional, and it is not. The execution must be immaculate, and it is not. There must be something that makes the experience a transformative one, and I don’t feel it. And I need a drink.
Words: Ben Walsh
Photo: Killian Broderick
54 Capel Street