Macmerry 300: Dundee venues mixing things up

Group behind award-winning rum bar will continue to grow

AJ McMenemy behind the bar at The King of Islington
AJ McMenemy behind the bar at The King of Islington

By Dave Hunter

IT’S likely to be another eventful twelve months for Dundee bartender AJ McMenemy and his team.

Best Bar None Nite Zone Glasgow Christmas 2019

McMenemy relocated from Aberdeen to Dundee in 2016 to become bar manager at city cocktail bar Jam Jar. Two years later he is area manager of a six-unit group collectively known as Macmerry 300, with at least two more units expected to come on stream in the next six months.

The company – which employs a team of 67 staff across its current estate – is owned by Dundee footballer turned businessman Phil Donaldson.

But McMenemy’s stamp is also on every outlet, both in terms of the creation of the offer and in the recruitment, training and development of the company’s award-winning bartenders.

Having joined Jam Jar in April 2016, McMenemy was recruited a few months later to help Donaldson open a new sister venue – a speakeasy-style bar located in the basement of (and taking its name from) the former Draffens department store.

“When we did Draffens people weren’t too sure if there was a market for a speakeasy in Dundee,” McMenemy told SLTN.

“There’s definitely a market for people who want to enjoy a quality product. It was something the people of Dundee definitely wanted, because they were travelling to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow for nights out and for special occasions.”

Draffens opened its doors on Dundee’s Couttie’s Wynd – a historic alleyway running parallel to the city’s Union and Whitehall streets – in December 2016. The venue, which has no phone number, limited social media profile and is signed only by a single lightbulb above the door, was an instant hit with locals.

As a group we’re constantly progressing and always thinking.

“We underestimated the popularity of it,” said McMenemy. “It is really quite busy. It’s a destination venue in as much as you’re not seeing it and just walking into it – you’re seeking it out.”

Draffens hasn’t just been popular with the local clientele, however. The bar has also become the company’s creative hotbed, and several bartenders who have spent time there have made names for themselves in major cocktail competitions, including Sarah Berardi, Turtle Higgins, Dimi Savvaidis and Nathaniel Hampton.

McMenemy said: “People will never see us if we’re not there to be seen.  And now they’re curious enough to want to see what’s being done.”

By this time Donaldson knew he had the team in place to open successful, wet-led venues and so the next move was to redevelop a pizza restaurant on Whitehall Crescent he had owned for several years into a bar called Bird & Bear.

Though the venue – which opens every day at 11am – would continue to offer food, the drinks side of the offer would now be much more significant.

“People are much more happy to have food at a bar as opposed to stay for drinks at a restaurant,” said McMenemy.  “So we set ourselves up as a bar with a really good food offering.”

Winning ways: AJ McMenemy collecting the Rum Bar of the Year award at the SLTN Awards in November
Winning ways: AJ McMenemy collecting the Rum Bar of the Year award at the SLTN Awards in November

A refurb for established Broughty Ferry café bar Gracie’s was next (including a refreshed drinks menu), before the team turned its attention to another city centre unit.

The King of Islington opened on Union Street in early 2018 with a focus on rums and other sugarcane spirits.

“We’ve got rums from Japan, we’ve got rums from Mexico, we’ve got rums from Scotland and blended rums that have been imported to Scotland and distributed here,” said McMenemy.

The drinks list in the small, 36-capacity bar, has the theme of ‘across the seven seas’ with each page of the menu dedicated to ingredients from a different part of the world.

There is also a range of tasting boards and flights to allow customers to try new spirits. McMenemy said: “That’s the real joy in there: people come in with a want to explore, and we try to express that through the menu – that sense of adventure.”

It didn’t take long for The King of Islington to make its mark, winning the SLTN Rum Bar of the Year Award, in association with Sailor Jerry, Wood’s and OVD, last November.

There’s definitely a market in Dundee for people who want a quality product.

“A lot of people on the night thought we were trying to be humble when we said we didn’t expect to win anything, but honestly, we didn’t expect a single thing,” said McMenemy.

But the team isn’t slowing down. Following the success of Draffens, Donaldson leased the rest of the former department store and there are plans in the works for each of the building’s six floors.

Bubu, a street-level café, was opened last year and this will be followed by the imminent launch of The Blue Room, a first-floor aperitivo bar where customers can enjoy a relaxed, post-work, pre-dinner drink.

This will be followed later in the year by a sister venue to The King of Islington, located in a former club space under the bar.  McMenemy and his team will be heavily involved in each of these new ventures, and he said it’s a challenge they are relishing.

“Phil’s definitely not the kind of guy to rest on his laurels,” he said.  “Which is great, because it means we’re constantly progressing and always thinking.”