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Tuesday, 12 January 2010


Brass Monkey, 1004 Argyle Street

They’ve been saying it for two decades; “Finnieston is on the up”. For that read: “…soon to be gentrified”. It isn’t, yet.
The area’s changing, but then so is the climate. It remains set apart from the rest of the west end. For drinkers it also offers something different. The Finnieston/Sandyford/Kelvingrove axis has an independent spirit only possessed by areas just off the radar.
It was the same when I lived in the vicinity for 5 years from the mid-90s. Pubs have come and gone along with the tenement refurbishments and the new flat developments, but now as then,there are a double figure of joints well worth visiting.
I had the inestimable Grove opposite my flat, with 54 Below and Air Organic also within stumbling distance but I never visited the Two Ways just along the road. No excuses apart from my youth.
Always primed nowadays for news on my old neighbourhood I heard late summer about the pub’s refurb.
Since then, during the renovation an old sign was uncovered bearing the name “Finnieston Station Bar and Lounge”. This referred to a station on the old Glasgow City and District Railway line that sat near the junction of Argyle Street and Finnieston Street.
The premises became the Two Ways in the early 1960s having traded as Finnieston Station Bar and Lounge under the ownership of Buchanan Scott & Company – a multiple operator of the time – for at least 80 years.
With half an hour to kill before a recent office do, I stopped my taxi as it passed what I recognised as the former Two Ways, now Brass Monkey.
I entered on the Argyle Street side of the building and exited via the Kent Road door, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. From this you can gather that the bar sits on the triangular corner of the two streets, reminding travellers and moviegoers of the Flatiron building in Manhattan – in miniature.
Its shape and location make you feel right at the hub of things, whether that means the elements – that evening it was the beginning of an icy blizzard – or the flow of people and traffic on both sides. The massive top-to-toe windows add to this feeling. They are also an echo, perhaps intentional, of previous days. The 1888 edition of the Scottish Wine, Spirit and Beer Trades Review (an evocative title surely) comments on the interior of the Finnieston Station Bar as being lighted by a large window. Today’s windows draw you in to the interior, but without the drinkers being gawped at like goldfish. At nighttime the building and its interior are at their best, daylight seems to dilute this effect.
The interior walls are exposed sandstone, with the wall behind the bar rendered white by clever lighting. The seating is minimal and situated round the outside of the room, plum-coloured upholstery an unusual but effective choice. The prime seating area is the low booth at the apex of the triangle, definitely the spot to see and be seen.
A large standing space has been left in the remainder of the bar. This gives a good, uncluttered appearance and the suggestion that the management are optimistic about the joint’s potential for sociability.
Draught beers include Japan’s favourite, Kirin Ichiban, and a first for this country, Budvar Half and Half. This dispenser allows the barperson to combine Budvar Original and Budvar Dark in the one glass. Unfortunately on this visit this unique offering was not displayed prominently and I missed out on the experience. A pity.
The drinks menu displays beer specials in the same way as food specials in a restaurant. On this occasion Modelo Especial and Pacifico Clara, both from Mexico. These complement the regular choice of bottled beers, Chang from Thailand (minus the polystyrene holder) being a notable inclusion.
As far as spirits go, the emphasis is upon premium vodkas, rums and gins. Looking at the list I was drawn to the Caorunn Gin, its name revealing its homegrown origin even to my un-tutored eye. I’ve since learned it is distilled by Inver House at Balmenach in the Spey Valley, and was the recipient of the Gold Award in the Super Premium category of the Gin Masters 2009 competition. It has been described as tasting dry and crisp. Its crispness within a G&T wasn’t in doubt that evening. I wished I’d picked something warmer, though, maybe from the pleasing list of whiskies.
One of those whiskies, Monkey Shoulder, is the main ingredient in the pub’s signature cocktail, Monkey Orchard, along with Xanta pear brandy and apple juice. My companion on my second visit enjoyed that one immensely. On that occasion I took the Vir-Gin Mary cocktail, a variation on the classic, using the Caorunn Gin instead of vodka. This was less of a success, the pub’s secret blend of spices not proving strong enough to balance the piquant spirit.
Back to my first visit, I was standing alongside a group of blokes whose differing ages, and slightly awkward joking marked them out as colleagues enjoying their Xmas bash. Some were young and trendy, others older and frayed. I wondered if any of the older guys had been regulars at the Two Ways or the Exhibition Bar or other similar traditional boozer round here. And would the new, smoother bars welcome them as gladly as the old. I hoped so.
The toilets have an interesting design feature being panelled as if another wall. Discrete D, F and M are the only sign you are pushing open the correct door. The trough sink reminded me of the Tunnel circa 1990. I don’t know why, maybe the sentimental time of year. Certainly, I do remember talking rather a lot about bygone days at our office party that night.
Brass Monkey has been privately leased to the husband and wife team of Russell Buchanan and Caroline Smith, Buchanan having extensive experience in the wine trade.
Any connection with the Brass Monkey on Drummond Street, Edinburgh is unknown, but perhaps they are following the trend set by the nearby Lebowski’s, of sister establishments in Scotland’s two largest cities.
Talking of Lebowski’s, Brass Monkey will be keen to garner the acclaim given to that bar, along with The Ivy, Ben Nevis, Gazelle and other relative newcomers to the district.
My subsequent visit confirmed the Brass Monkey is on the right track. A pleasing heterogeneous mix of customers, punters being welcomed as friends, DJs at the weekend, open mic competitions on a Monday. All good. Might even achieve that elusive goal of being both a pre-club joint and a genuine community pub.
To do so, it and its young-gun neighbours will need to push on in parallel with Finnieston itself, mixing the best of the old and the new, the rough and the smooth.

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