Four – minute read

Each month, we will be profiling one of our favourite independent bars, cafés, restaurants and retailers. To kick things off, we met Amanjot Johal, owner of 40 St Paul’s; a tiny gin bar with a big following…

40 St Paul’s isn’t the easiest bar to find. Located in an inconspicuous spot in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter – with no sign or discernible features – it has more than an air of mystery about it. To complicate matters, it isn’t actually on St Paul’s Square at all, but on the corner of Cox Street.

By contrast, the 40 St Paul’s ‘concept’ itself is simple: a stylish, chilled-out space, offering table service and premium gin; the brainchild of 32-year-old, Smethwick-born Amanjot (Aman) Johal.

Once inside, you feel far away from the bustle of the outside world; the windows are heavily curtained with large vases of flowers obscuring the view. To a passer-by looking in, it could easily be someone’s front room. “I wanted it to feel like a living room,” explains Aman. “Like your super-cool friend’s living room.” He also took inspiration from bars he’s visited and worked in over the years, which each had a few key ‘features’ in common. “They all had table service, a really super chilled-out atmosphere and were dark – and sexy,” he says with a grin. He chose to open a gin bar in particular because “nobody else was doing it in Birmingham the way that I thought it should be done.”

Having worked in bars for more than 10 years, opening his own place felt like a natural progression for Aman. “Anyone who’s ever worked in a bar, if they tell you they’ve never thought about what their own bar would be like, they have no passion, no heart,” he says.

Taking a Risk

The venue – an ex-newsagent’s on the corner of Cox Street and St Paul’s Square – fits Aman’s vision of a living-room-bar so well, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was carefully chosen for this reason. But it was more by accident – or necessity – than design. “Honestly, it was last resort,” he explains. “I’d had five different locations fall through on me and when I walked in, I wasn’t exactly over enamoured with the place. I thought it was a bit small; it was a bit of a risk.” Aman worried that choosing such a compact space (it currently seats 24) might be detrimental to business, but instead it has become part of the bar’s unique appeal. The building had been empty and derelict for almost two years, but even so, not everyone was over the moon when they heard about Aman’s plans to repurpose the place. He had 17 objections when he applied for a Change of Use permit.

Determined not to let a few disgruntled residents topple his plans, Aman got working on his charm offensive. “I wrote to every single one of them saying, look, 40 St Paul’s isn’t going to be the kind of place where you can get Sambucas; it’s not going to be a lairy bar. It’s a chilled out intimate bar with table service – and I managed to convince them.”

This tenacity meant Aman also wanted to manage as much of the process himself as possible, even writing his own planning application and representing himself at the planning hearing – an experience he won’t be repeating in a hurry. “I was silly, but adamant,” he reflects. “When I open a second venue, there is no way I’m going to do it by myself. It would’ve saved me a lot of hassle to get a professional to do it. “

“For a long time, the flavours weren’t there, it was boring. But now you have an incredible array of flavours that span the whole spectrum. People are experiencing new things and they are really enjoying it.”

Best of British

The popularity of 40 St Paul’s can in part be attributed to the UK’s growing thirst for gin (up 16% in 2016), which Aman puts down to three things, one of which is the “sense of place and terroir” that gin cultivates. “You’ve got gins that are tied to their geographical locations, which makes people buy into them very easily because those gins are their own,” he says. Another is the proliferation of smaller UK producers creating new and exciting small batches of spirits, giving gin an air of exclusivity – and a more interesting taste. “For a long time, the flavours weren’t there, it was boring. But now you have an incredible array of flavours that span the whole spectrum. People are experiencing new things and they are really enjoying it.” It’s also arguably a sign of the times that increasing numbers are keen to embrace such a quintessentially British tipple. “It’s an inherently British drink,” agrees Aman. “You could say ‘gin and tonic’ to pretty much anyone anywhere in the world and they would associate it with Britain and Britishness.”

The Gin List

Aman’s passion for his craft is evidenced by the gin list he has painstakingly created – and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. The textbook-like tome, which incorporates 140 premium gins, won Imbibe’s Gin List of the Year, 2017. Designed by creative agency Create Forty Eight, each section has a wheel chart that describes the primary, secondary and tertiary flavours of the gins and allows you to custom-select one by number. “So, if you want something juniper led, savoury and floral, that will be 21 [turns to gin 21]. So, the number 21 listing has got your tasting notes, a little bit about the gin and then how we serve it,” he says proudly.

This attention to detail is apparent elsewhere, too. “When we opened, the glassware took me 48 hours to find. I spent a week’s working hours, plus another day, just looking at glassware websites, trying to find the perfect gin and tonic glass. And then they stopped producing it after six months!” He’s also very fond of his carefully selected Case 675 chairs, based on the original Robin Day design from 1952.

“You could say ‘gin and tonic’ to pretty much anyone anywhere in the world and they would associate it with Britain and Britishness.”

Rumour has it

Being mysterious, “dark” and “sexy” does have its pitfalls though. The bar’s obscure location and lack of signage has spawned a few urban myths in the two years since its launch. “I’ve heard people say you have to be an exclusive member – and that no one knows how to get a membership,” laughs Aman. But one of the most potentially damaging rumours is that it’s impossible to get a table. “In reality, you should be able to show up and get a table without difficulty during the week,” he says, “but we recommend booking at weekends.”

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