What better way to start a night out than with a glass of milk?
Hiding on a small back lane in the centre of Glasgow, Panther Milk Bar has gained an unlikely cult following by serving Leche de Pantera, a sweet, gin-based cocktail originating from Spain. Also known as Panther Milk, its main ingredient is—yup—milk.
As Christmas shoppers scuttle through the city on a busy Friday night, the secluded bar offers a kind of refuge from the fairy light-bedecked consumerism and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" replays. At least, that's how owner Paul Crawford sees it.
"The bar stands out because it's just so unusual," he explains. "It kind of feels illicit—like you shouldn't be in there. That's what makes it work. The bar itself is an old elevator so it's got all these lovely quirky features. It's the experience people like."
Opened eight months ago, Crawford transformed the 1940s goods lift into a boozy hideout, serving his Panther Milk cocktail and nothing else. A tiny bar area was specially fitted onto the elevator shaft but the rest of the space remains much the same as it was.
"When people come into the bar at first, a lot of the time they've heard about this potent liquid," he says. "They'll make a face initially when they taste it, then they light up and tell us how great the Leche de Pantera is. It's a nice, easy drink—maybe too easy. We were worried about how people would react—that it wouldn't seem authentic—but feedback was all good."
Serving only the classic mint, pink, and white version of Leche de Pantera, Panther Milk Bar is a one-of-a-kind in the UK. To mark its first Christmas, however, Crawford has introduced espresso and chocolate orange versions of the cocktail, both using warm milk.
"For the warm Panther Milk, it's a variation on the traditional white one with a bit of nutmeg and cinnamon," he explains. "We'd been kicking about ideas on what we should do for Christmas and it seems like a natural thing would be warm milk. When the nights are freezing cold as you get in Glasgow, it seems like it would work. We gave it a try and it tasted great."
Despite these Christmas touches, Crawford and his staff aren't down for Santa hats or festive sing-a-longs.
"[The bar] is almost like a wee haven. It's somewhere you can escape being in the centre of Glasgow," he says. "We're not doing Christmas decorations and we're definitely not doing Christmas music. You get overwhelmed at this time of year with all that stuff, so we're deliberately not going down that route. You can come in, sit down with your pals, and relax a bit and forget there's all this weird corporate pressure to go buy lots of presents."
Panther Milk reportedly dates back to the Spanish Foreign Legion of the 1920s, when injured troops were given medical spirit with condensed milk as a makeshift pain relief. In Spanish Morocco, gunpowder and marijuana were added as a symbol of camaraderie.
Decades later in the 1970s, the milk-and-liquor mix regained popularity among students in the back alleys of Barcelona's Carrer de la Mercè, due to its unmatched ability to get you pissed—and fast.
Crawford initially discovered the drink along with the hoards of Glaswegians who travel to Barcelona's Sonar Festival each year. He found the famed Avesta bar in the Gothic quarter of the city and eventually managed to wheedle the recipe out of a regular.
"I got talking to an old guy at the bar who at first I thought was after a bottle for himself—kind of Glasgow style—he was probably a bit of a chancer," laughs Crawford. "Turned out, he had a really interesting story and he'd been conscripted into the Spanish Foreign Legion for his socialist principles. He was an active trade unionist but he was also one hell of a cocktail barman. He was asked by the troops to make up the Leche de Pantera."
Back in Glasgow, Crawford has managed to maintain the drink's authenticity. When I visit, an hour before the bar is due to open, managers Sobhan and Queeny are standing over a large orange bucket armed with milk, bottles of gin, and rum.
Sobhan puts a funnel into a glass bottle and pours the milk mixture in.
"Panther milk has brightened up this wee lane," he says. "For a while, Glasgow's bar hub was lacking something and we're the answer."
The bar is full within ten minutes of opening. Groups of people huddle around the small candlelit tables with their glasses of warm Panther Milk.
"I never imagined myself starting a night out with a bottle of milk. I heard about this place through a friend and I like it because it stands out from other bars," one woman tells me.
"We only have one rule in the bar," Queeny adds. "We don't allow in other drinks. It's almost to encourage the atmosphere."
As if on cue, a customer curiously peers at the rows of white glass bottles behind the counter. She asks if she can bring her decidedly dairy-free drink through from the adjoining bar.
"It's strictly just milk in here," Queeny replies.