We kick off a series of interviews with community members who work in parts of the country that don’t always get enough media coverage by speaking to Welly Jones of Cardiff’s Lab 22.
During a moment of hungover introspection during the Christmas break, I realised that BarLifeUK has failed somewhat in its coverage of parts of the UK that aren’t London, Manchester, or Edinburgh in recent years. It’s frankly too expensive to jump on a train and visit a (for us) far-flung destination every week, but we can go some way to remedy the situation by using the good old telephone. This then, is the first of a series of interviews in which we speak to a member of the bar community who works in a part of the UK that doesn’t always get enough coverage, and find out what’s happening in their hood. Welly Jones of Lab 22 speaks to us about what’s happening in Cardiff…
BLUK: So before we talk about Cardiff, tell us a bit about yourself Welly. How long have you been bartending?
WJ: So I guess it all started when I left university, about 2012 with no real direction. I ended up in a bar, Peppermint, round the corner from Lab 22 where a lot of us came up back in the day, it’s a pretty strong industry bar. You got all the industry coming in on a Sunday asking for really weird cocktails, and you cut your teeth really quickly. I started as a bar back there, did about three years. And then I graduated to working the bar, I did about 5 years in Peppermint I think. The I went to Canada for a bit, not work-based, and when I came back I ended up in Dead Canary, which was great. The learning curve there was humongous… Spent three years there and then ended up in Lab 22. I’ve been there three years, nearly four.
BLUK: How would you describe Cardiff as a city and cocktail scene to someone who has never been there?
WJ: I have came compared it to ‘small Edinburgh’ in the past. Some people go ‘I don’t know about that’ and some people go ‘I know exactly what you mean’. It’s really easy to cut about, everyone knows everyone, and everyone has got a recommendation of where to go next. Unless you are doing something niche and specific, or you are heading for food over the river, it’s really all city center, condensed… So we are blessed. There’s so much in a tiny city center, which makes the scene quite competitive… I’m going to discount chains, and say there are four or five ‘big hitter’ bars within five minutes away from each other, with Dead Canary being a little bit further, ten minutes.
BLUK: What’s the Cardiff clientele like, who are your customers?
BLUK: I’d say pre-Covid we had a very specific clientele, and we never hit the younger generation. But after, 2022, I think we’ve seen a lot of younger drinkers. Pre-Covid it was date nights, 20s. 30s, 40s couples, staff parties, large groups of friends out for dinner. After Covid I would explain it as younger people who have ‘X’ amount of money for one night out that week or one night out that month, and they are going to spend it in a nicer place.
BLUK: Do you have an opinion about how Covid and lockdown changed people’s behaviours?
WJ: I think people began to learn and know more. I think a handful of people got into drinks during lockdown and when they had to start to drink at home, they started to realise ‘ah, it’s not that easy’. I had this drink at a bar, why can’t I figure it out at home? I had a guy speak to me for an hour the other night about Espresso Martinis. He couldn’t figure out how to get a proper head, and I said without seeing your setup and what you are doing, I have no idea where you are going wrong, but this is how we do it. And when he left he was like ‘thank you! I’m going to send you a photo and see how I get on’. I think the attached value to the knowledge has made people seek out good bars after Covid because they realise we really do know what we are doing.
BLUK: Given the clientele has changed pre and post-Covid, have you seen a change in the drinks people are ordering too?
WJ: Kind of, the lines are blurred. The older generation, pre-Covid, are after wow factor, the younger generation less so. But very blurred lines. The younger generation are more about trends, I turned my nose up at Spicy Margaritas hitting trend, and then suddenly we are shifting a couple of hundred a week. I don’t know who is seeing Spicy Margaritas on their feed, but we make a lot of them now. And that’s the younger generation.
BLUK: That follows nicely to my next question, are there and definite drink trends happening in Cardiff?
WJ: It is the Spicy Margarita, so much so that we have added a version of it to our menu with a kind of Welsh chilli syrup.
BLUK: The PR agencies would have us believe that low and no alcohol drinks are the next big thing, has that been your experience?
WJ: I work quite closely with Lyre’s, I like what they do. I would say there is a niche for it, we did a little bit of research into juice bars in Bristol where people go to have a good time without alcohol, and I do think it’s still quite niche. We did a special menu for that reason in January and saw it really lift off for the first two weeks, they were flying out. It’s died down now, needless to say I think people have given up on their Dry January commitments now.
BLUK: We saw quite a few Cardiff bartenders place highly in comps last year, and it’s obvious something good is happening with training. Who is driving that?
WJ: That close-quarters competitiveness that we touched on earlier does drive everyone. You see your mate across the road entering comp after comp, and it does make you say ‘I could do that’. I can only speak for us (Lab 22) but we’ve got coaching and things going on, we’ve got three of the team who have done Bacardi Legacy and World Class before. People in the team see us do well and go away on trips, and say ‘I want a bit of that, I want a little reward’, so they say ‘Welly, I want to enter Suntory Dojo, can you give me some pointers?’ and I say ‘absolutely’… Little bits of coaching where you can.
BLUK: Do you feel Cardiff gets enough support from the brands?
WJ: Again, just from our side, I would say we do. It’s not always someone popping down every day, we are a ways out. Cardiff, or Wales, is lumped with South West. Maybe if you are unlucky as far up as Birmingham. But you are right, there are no major comp heats here, it’s normally logical to have them in Bristol so you can get a range of people.
BLUK: We first met at the Whistle Pig heat in Bristol last year, if a comp like that came to Cardiff, do you think it would get a lot of entries?
WJ: I think that’s absolutely fair. You get anxiety about a comp, travelling to ‘X’ location only adds to that. If it’s your backyard is going to take away a certain amount of worry…
BLUK: If a bartender comes into town, what should they see and do?
WJ: Locality is a big thing for us. We’ve had some sort of diagram in the last three iterations of our menu, and this one is like a flow chart or decision tree, of the things we would do on our day off. It’s subjective of course, depends what sort of night out that person wants but I do think we could cater to everyone. You want sit down, chilled cocktails – Penny Royal, Dead Canary. Grab a cheese toastie and a glass of wine in Nighthawks. Or do you want to get a bit lairy and end up in Live Lounge and drinking a jug of red wine for a fiver, you know. It just depends what kind of night you are aiming for. And we’ve got beautiful Michelin star and Master Chef winner restaurants over the river, if you want dinner and cocktails vibe.
BLUK: Looking outside of Cardiff, are there any bars you have visited that knocked your socks off?
WJ: Quite guiltily, I didn’t get out much in 2022, there was a lot of work focus, and I got married and moved house as well. But I had some very good times in London with the Dojo Programme. I really enjoyed the Aubry. I was spoiled a little bit, we were in a little back room being looked after by Hidetsugu Ueno–San, so you know, really not shit. I also had an evening at Couch Stirchley, which was one of my top events of all time. And top drinks and hospitality at Homeboy, very fond of both of those. I really want to visit Silverleaf and Seed Library this year, I have some good friends in those bars and I owe them a visit.
BLUK: To wrap this interview up, is there anything you would like to say about Cardiff that I haven’t asked a question about?
WJ: We are all very friendly and all very welcoming. Everyone knows everyone and you can just cut about the city and you’ll make friends, and whatever someone recommends you do next is going to be a hit. We look after other bartenders, so we are a friendly city, I would say…
If you work in a town, city, or neighborhood that doesn’t get enough coverage would like to do a ‘What’s Happening In…?’ interview, send us an email: email@example.com