At Tales on Tour Edinburgh earlier this month, visitors were able to visit a dozen great bars offering fantastic drinks and service. How the city has changed over the last ten years! Back in 2006, when Bramble opened, there was no proper, stand-alone cocktail bar to speak of. The brainchild of Mike Aikman and Jason Scott, Bramble has played a huge part in shaping the scene and is still widely considered one of the best bars in the world. Mere months after its anniversary, we sat down with Mike and he told us a bit more about this discreet Queen Street basement bar.
“None of the places that were around were places that I drank in”, he recalls. “Some bars were doing great cocktails, such as Oloroso, but it was a restaurant, not a bar. And you had to find out who was working at a certain time at a certain place and you’d go have a drink then, not on the following day”. Mike, who had “fallen into the bar trade” after being laid off (“a boring day job”), was yearning for a bar that was less formal, where you could actually hangout and “get a good drink in a relaxed vibe”.
When opportunity to set up their own venue came knocking, him and Scott didn’t have much cash, which certainly contributed to the look and feel of the place – don’t expect crazy design and plush furniture (it wouldn’t go with the exclusively hip-hop soundtrack anyway). But money was not the sole reason for this: “At the time, you had places with big chandeliers and we didn’t want that, we were thinking it didn’t matter what the place looked like because everything else would be spot on. People were telling us we wouldn’t survive. And it was hard. For 18 months, Jason and I pretty much worked every day. I don’t like saying that but we almost had to re-educate the clientele. We had to show them it wasn’t about the surroundings; it was about the quality of the cocktail and the service”.
With homemade ingredients (a rarity in those days) and a willingness to think outside the box (Bramble was one of the first bars to experiment with bottled cocktails, for instance), the industry and the press quickly took note, with awards following. They’re still up there today: save for one year, they’ve been ever-present in the World’s 50 Best Bars list (47th in 2016). And, of course, most importantly, the bar’s still a mandatory stop for all local cocktail lovers. How do you maintain that level of quality over the years? “Longevity is very difficult in this industry. Everyone’s looking for the new bar. Staying relevant has been a constant battle for us: you have to push yourself…”
This is achieved through the drinks, of course, but Mike doesn’t seem to think it’s the most important part: “A lot of the bars are so far into the drinks, with fancy garnishes and all that, and they forget none of that matters if your guests are not having a good time”. Which is why, with two more bars to their name (Lucky Liquor Co. and The Last Word Saloon) and a liquor brand, it’s paramount to count on great staff – both Aikman and Scott remain hands on but can’t be behind the bar on a regular basis anymore. Talents come and go, so how do you deal with this? “It’s picking the right people – and not people with loads of experience. We hire you if you have a good personality, if you work hard, if you’re nice, you’re friendly. You can’t teach that, but all the other aspects of the job can be taught. With the right mind-set, everything follows”. It’s a strategy that works and has allowed Bramble to at least indirectly shape the global cocktail culture, with some big names getting part of their education here – from David Cordoba to Ryan Chetiyawardana and our own Meimi Sanchez, to name but a few.
What has become of them, however, will be of little importance to the regulars. It’s today and tomorrow’s staff they rely on every time they are at Bramble to get their great drinks and good tunes fix. As Mike told us, “Bramble’s got a special feel to, it’s very difficult to put your finger on it. When you walk in, it just feels right”. We concur, and hope him and his staff will be able to sustain it for another decade.
Bramble, 16A Queen St, Edinburgh. http://bramblebar.co.uk