It’s Friday afternoon on one of the warmest days of the summer so far and the No. 27 Bar at five-star The Shelbourne is the place to be. Just as intensely as the sunlight streams in the high double bay windows is the flow of orders to and from behind the bar, and Prosecco and G&Ts are the order of the day.
It is little wonder then that Bar Manager Sean McGoldrick breathes a sigh of relief as we slink up the grand stairs and into a cool, quiet drawing-room; not too far from the madding crowd, but it certainly feels like we are deep within a private country manor house.
In a city that hosts growing number of hipster bars and casual dining restaurants, where shabby equals chic, I appreciate the deep armchair with its heavy, richly coloured fabric, the gleaming solid wood round table and the huge crystal chandelier dripping from a high ceiling – not a filament bulb in sight.
“Every day is almost exactly the same to be honest,” says Sean when I comment on the bustling bar downstairs. “That’s partly the reason why I wanted to come to work at The Shelbourne, because every day you have to be on your toes.”
As Bar Manager at The Shelbourne hotel, an iconic landmark in the city for over 100 years, Sean is responsible not only for the bustling No. 27 Bar & Lounge, but The Horseshoe Bar too: a Dublin institution whose rich red walls are lined with original artefacts and memorabilia, if only those walls could tell stories.
And there is a lot that goes on in between: managing and training staff, facilitating VIP requests, developing cocktails lists, ordering new products, and what Sean considers most important maintaining a superb standard of service.
From Celbridge originally, Sean says the hospitality industry always held an air of intrigue for him.
“I loved the community spirit in bars; whereby you would walk in and everybody knew your name, or you would go in after a football game and everybody was having fun and you’d make new friends. I was fascinated watching the bar men at work.”
A trade that translates across continents, Sean used his experience in Irish bars to work his way around New Zealand, Australia and most recently London; where over a five-year period he found a flair for five-star service, and it was at the trendsetting Ham Yard Hotel, that revolves around a tree-filled garden right in the centre of Soho, that he developed the skills for spotting the next up and coming bar trends.
“They were very on the ball trend wise and they have specific people just to look at what is coming up next. So when I first arrived there I was completely fascinated by this.”
“They were always looking for the next brand, or the next spirit. I came from Irish bars which had a bottom shelf for regular spirits and a top shelf for premium spirits; when I walked in here they had five different layers and whiskies for a couple hundred pounds a shot – and people were buying them!”
Sean says at The Ham Yard he learnt not only how to spot a trend, but the importance of staying two steps ahead. “If you go back ten years, the role of a bar manager was pulling pints, ordering stock and no one really cared about much else. But now the role of a bar manager and the public’s perception of alcohol has changed.”
While Sean says before orders primarily involved “vodka and soda water with lime, or a pint of Guinness,” now, because of what he calls the ‘Hendricks Revolution’, customers are coming in expecting a diverse range of alcohol brands and are asking ‘which one haven’t I tried?’”
Given the high standard he had become accustomed to upholding, before he moved home to get married six months ago Sean admits he was worried about where he would work in Ireland.
“I was putting off applying for jobs and my wife was getting worried as we were getting married in two months and I was due to come home in a month. But I insisted that I would only go home if I got a job in the Shelbourne and just by luck an opening came up. I flew back, interviewed and fortunately I got the job.”
“In the end of the day, there are not many hotels in the world with a history like The Shelbourne. You can go to the most luxurious hotels, you can go to the Maldives, you can spend thousands upon thousands, but nothing matches the history The Shelbourne has.”
On the difference between five star hotels in London and Dublin Sean insists that there is little or no difference. “The expectation is exactly the same here at The Shelbourne, from both management and from the guests.”
And while much of the charm about The Shelbourne lies in its history, Sean has brought with him a modern approach to their drinks offering.
“Every aspect of our bar is there for a reason. Every season we change what drinks we offer. For example, we recently got mescal in a type of tequila which is very popular in New York and London and Pisco a Chilean Brandy, another one which is huge in London but not quite here yet but we have just added that on to our list lately.”
On developing The Shelbourne’s cocktail list, which is recreated seasonally, Sean says: “a cocktail menu is just as important as a food menu now, you only have one shot to make a good impression and if you don’t get it right it can affect your reputation.”
“The Shelbourne always had a great cocktail list but I look at things a little differently.”
“For example, we took The Bramble, a cocktail created in the 1980s, made with gin, lemon,sugar syrup and flavoured with crème de mûre, but when we were developing the new list I said to the staff ‘how do we make it our own?’ So we got an Irish gin, Gunpowder and made our own crème de mûre.”
Elsewhere on the menu Sean is particularly proud of An Cailin Rua, a twist on a gimlet, and the Aged Old Fashioned, which sits for four weeks in an aged barrel.
Looking forward he predicts vermouth and aperol are going to be next big trends, “there is a whole different range of low alcohol cocktails coming from Europe.”
On Dublin’s bar scene Sean says: “I was gone for nine years but now that I’m back I see that the scene is definitely changing. It’s much more competitive which is a great thing. What I like about it is that its building up the trade of bartending again.
“We offer an apprenticeship for young guys and girls that start on the floor and work their way up to bartending and it is great to see.”
“It’s not about just throwing a drink anymore. Bartenders are taking their time, making sure it’s done properly, and customers are willing to wait. There’s a new energy around town regarding cocktails.”
At the heart of this new culture is Sean himself. Simultaneously upholding tradition and pushing bartending boundaries, with Sean McGoldrick behind the bar The Shelbourne’s golden reputation as a drinks destination is shining brighter than ever.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.Erica Bracken Erica Bracken