The Glasgow publican talks converting newbies, Irish wood types and his beef with bottle flippers.
My Dad worked at Glasgow Cross, selling clothes. He used to say he travelled in ladies’ underwear, and at one time he did. By the time I came along, he’d given up being on the road as a representative and settled for a buying job in a department store. It suited him, being an East End boy. I never asked him what it was like leaving that very different part of the city for the leafier environs of the west.
I never went for a drink with him. He died when I was (legally) too young to indulge. If we had, it is likely we would have gone somewhere around here. A back-street boozer, a place to sit and chat with a hauf and hauf. Maybe we’d even have ventured to the Saracen’s Head (aka the Sarry Heid) one of the city’s famous – or notorious – drinking establishments. A place where you could nurse a pint while looking at the skull of Maggie Wall, the last witch executed in Scotland, and watch locals drink the house speciality, the White Tornado; a concoction of all the dregs and spirituous remnants in the bar.
Fresh look: Despite its modern exterior, a pub has stood on this premises in Glasgow since 1820
Yet the Sarry wasn’t always like that. The original, across the Gallowgate, was built in 1755 as a high-class establishment, with 36 bedrooms and stabling for 60 horses. It was where Samuel Johnson and James Boswell stayed in 1773 as they headed south after their tour of the Isles.
‘He enjoyed in imagination the comforts which we could now command, and seemed to be in high glee,’ Boswell reported. ‘I remember he put a leg up on each side of the grate, and said, which a mock solemnity, by way of soliloquy, but loud enough for one to hear it: “There am I, an Englishman, sitting by a coal fire”.’
They were joined by various professors from the university and, according to legend, Adam Smith; a meeting which, according to the story, ended in a swearing match between the father of economics and the man of letters. I daresay it was an occupational hazard in those days when drinkers would fathom the house’s mighty five-gallon punch bowl many times; the very punch bowl which is on display down the road in the People’s Palace.
A coaching inn and a poet’s pub in whose beds rested Robert Burns, William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. Then, the gentry moved west and the area became a working class district, the coaches stopped and the Sarry moved over the road to become the pub it is today – although whisky historians might like to know that, in 1892, an illicit distillery was discovered in Saracen Lane.
Famous patron: Scots poet Robert Burns frequented Glasgow’s whisky waterholes
Now though, there’s another reason to go down to the Gallowgate. One of those bunker-like pubs where you expect the seats and tables to be screwed to the floor (and in the old days the ashtrays to be screwed to the tables) has been painted bright yellow and black and renamed The Gate. It’s located directly opposite Barrowlands – the finest music venue in Britain by the way – and the Barras market, where you can buy pretty much anything you need, or didn’t know you needed.
Inside The Gate, there’s 120-odd whiskies (the number seems to grow daily), a cocktail menu and Tennent’s on draught. There’s a toastie machine and, in time, you’ll be able to play a Highball game based on Wheel of Fortune. It’s the brainchild of Andy Gemmell, bartender, former brand ambassador, bar consultant and gent.
There’s been a pub on this site for 200 years. As the crew started to peel back layers of plaster and wood, other eras revealed themselves. Some of the oldest timbers have been repurposed for the interior, though the tree which was growing out of the roof has, sadly, gone.
Choice for everyone: The Gate features more than 120 whiskies on its shelves
Is this gentrification? Certainly there’s money finally being invested in the area, but Gemmell is wanting this pub to be somewhere where you can drink a pint of Tennent’s (made just down the road), or a dram, a Highball or a cocktail. It’s a pub, and pubs are by their nature democratic. Who knows, in time maybe a lecturer in economics might get stuck into an argument on the nature of free trade with a stallholder from the Barras. It joins the Ben Nevis in Finnieston, the Lismore in Partick, the Pot Still and Bon Accord in the town centre, and the nearby Scotia as a great Glasgow whisky pub.
The Gallowgate’s pubs have been high-class joints, then dives. The Gate’s arrival shifts this paradigm. It, and the area, also mirrors whisky’s fortunes; its rise, decline and reawakening in a slightly different guise.
In the past, as a whisky drinker you were either the height of fashion, or a drunk. What The Gate does is reflect a modern, more nuanced view of a drink which no longer exists in the old dichotomy which stated you were either a whisky drinker, or not.
If you want that pint of Tennent’s then have it; if you want a cocktail, that’s okay as well. No rules, no airs or graces. It encapsulates what whisky should always be about: egalitarian, enjoyable and fun.
It was only after the third drink that I realised that we were here on what would have been my Dad’s birthday. I quietly raised a glass. He’d have loved it here.
From the editors 17 October 2018
Sometimes too much choice makes it hard to see the wood for the trees, says Dave Broom.
Whisky Travel 01 August 2015
Gritty Glasgow is building a growing reputation for the city’s culture, history, food and drink.
From the editors 08 May 2019
Whisky can’t improve, says Dave Broom, if it’s focused solely on efficiency and tradition.
Latest news 21 August 2019
The peated whisky will join the distillery’s burgeoning range of Lowland single malts.