The Alchemist has expanded to its 13th location with a new bar in Nottingham. Report by Mark Ludmon. Pictures by Laurence Hudghton
Bar owners and designers are accustomed to hitting problems during a build. Maybe they encounter structural weaknesses, or a supplier lets them down. But at the latest site for The Alchemist in Nottingham, it was something a bit different. “Since work began on the interior of the building, there have been several spooky instances of things moving, doors slamming and footprints left in wet concrete,” says John Macaulay, co-founder of leading interior architecture and design studio Macaulay Sinclair. But, rather than be perturbed, they made the most of their resident friendly ghost, dubbed Annabel. “Whether it’s practical jokes or communication from ‘the other side’, we decided to have a bit of fun. Annabel is featured throughout the bar and restaurant in a variety of ways, and we hope people enjoy the somewhat tongue-in-cheek reference.”
Ghosts were not the only challenges facing the creation of The Alchemist over two floors in the old Prudential Assurance building in King Street, designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the architect of London’s Natural History Museum and Manchester Town Hall. Dating back to 1893, it has the protection of a grade II listing, but this fitted the bar’s concept perfectly, with the brand’s immersive experiences and sense of theatre, inspired by the dark and mysterious arts of alchemy. “The original features within the interior provided an incredible backdrop to our proposals for the site,” recalls John at Macaulay Sinclair. “The historic Victorian features – decorative ceramic glazed faience pottery and embossed tiles, mosaic floor, feature plasterwork and other original features – align perfectly with The Alchemist’s brand, and we were really excited by the creative possibilities of the space.”
With restrictions on adapting the listed space, Macaulay Sinclair came up with a bespoke solution. “The existing interior presented some major challenges in the design process,” John explains. “For example, fixings into the listed building needed to be kept to an absolute minimum and carefully controlled. The ceilings and original volume of the ground floor space had to be retained and kept intact and visible. We designed a system of free-standing steel frames, which fits inside the walls with a physical separation. The arrangement supports all the air conditioning equipment, ducting, lighting, wiring, not to mention the music speakers and decorative features of the ceiling.”
The brand has evolved massively since it first appeared in 2010 in Spinningfields in Manchester, developed by Living Ventures, co-founded by Tim Bacon and Jeremy Roberts. Since The Alchemist went it alone in a £13million buy-out with Palatine Private Equity three years ago, investment has gone into refurbishment as well as expansion, with £1,650,000 spent on Nottingham. Macaulay Sinclair has been on board since carrying out a rebrand of the Spinningfields bar in 2015 which set the formula for future openings. “The main influence is always, as with any new site for The Alchemist, for it to be an advancement and development of the brand design,” John adds.
The result in Nottingham is what The Alchemist team refer to as a “copper-cased wonderland”, with dark and mysterious interiors and gothic artworks – a very different look from its former incarnations as Brazilian restaurant Tropeiro and a Hard Rock Café. As at all The Alchemist bars, the approach to cocktails has a theatrical flourish, developed under the group’s head of bar operations Felix Crosse and delivered in Nottingham by a team led by bar manager Adam Marsden.
Each drink is listed with a two-letter initial like the elements on the periodic table, reflecting the appliance of science. The Mad Hatters is a sharing drink presented at your table with a Bunsen burner and boiler, mixing up Ketel One vodka, Cointreau, citrus and summer fruits with billows of smoke, served in tea cups. Dry ice is also used to great effect in the Bubblebath, which mixes Tanqueray Gin, Aperol, Chambord, lemon juice and apple juice into what they call a “fairy liquid”. Tanqueray is also used in the Lightbulb Moment, combined with Pimm’s, ginger beer, raspberry, lemon juice and mint and served in an actual light bulb.
Open from 9am weekdays and 10am at weekends, food is available from breakfast and brunch, with tasty dishes such as the Mish Mosh which is broken eggs with chorizo sausage, cheese, bacon, spinach and mushroom, served with toast. Drawing on international cuisines, lunch and dinner features the likes of tandoori seabass fillet with sautéed vegetables, seared tuna loin with Mexican rice fritter and chilli tomato salsa, and katsu chicken in panko breadcrumb with crispy kale and rice. Reservations are available until as late as 10pm, with the venue staying open to midnight six nights of the week and 11pm on Sundays.
After the Nottingham bar opened in February, The Alchemist is next lined up to come to Cardiff, due to be launched in a former NatWest bank in St Mary Street later in the summer. It will be followed shortly after by Bristol, taking over the premises of Rise and Friska in Queens Road, which will bring the brand up to 15 sites, with more planned, backed by new banking facilities from Santander. “It’s a real joy to be able to announce plans for our continued growth at a time when there seems to be a lot of uncertainty in the sector,” says managing director Simon Potts.
The management are also celebrating after being placed 36th nationally in the annual Sunday Times Best Company to Work For league table, moving up from last year’s position at 63. “The last 18 months have been monumental for us as a brand, and this has all been made possible by the dedication, passion and talent of the Alchemist people,” Simon adds.
The Alchemist, 11 King Street, Nottingham NG1 2AY
Tel: 0115 950 9416
Behind the scenes
Interior design: Macaulay Sinclair
Main contractor: Interiors UK
Lighting design: Tyson Lighting
Loose furniture: Taylor’s Classics
Bar system: Dawnvale
Planting: I Want Trees
Originally published in the April 2018 print edition of Bar magazine.