If you were in London during last week’s Cocktail Week, chances are pretty high that you’ve been drinking in one of Edmund Weil and Rosie Stimpson’s bars. The husband and wife team owns three of the city’s top cocktail bars - Nightjar, Oriole and Swift.
This was not written in the stars. As Edmund told us, they didn’t open Nightjar in 2010 as the culmination of extensive business experience: « It was pursuing the dream of owning a bar ». After university, where he and Rosie met, Edmund worked in corporate communication first and then as a teacher. But the typical student idea of making a living running a bar didn’t go away. Deciding that it was « now or never », Edmund went to bartending school and started working behind the bar while looking for a suitable location. « It was right when people were picking up old school cocktail books, looking for lost recipes », he explains. And Rosie, a singer, was passionate about jazz — so it made sense to think about opening a small speakeasy with live music.
In late 2009, they stumbled upon the space that would become Nightjar. It had lost its licence, which meant a lot of efforts were needed before they could open, but significantly reduced the rent. It was also right in the middle of the recession: « Ironically, that kind of scenario actually offers the very best opportunity for independent entrepreneurs ».
Up to then, the dream they had tried to make come true had been quite sensible. Enter Marian Beke. Already a renowned bartender after stints at Montgomery Place and the Artesian, he found himself between job when he ran into Edmund and Rosie. « We knew immediately it was the final piece of jigsaw. Of course we didn’t know at the time how much work it would take to make it a commercial reality. There’s something poetic in that we didn’t know much about running bars and were able to say “hey, let’s do this”. »
Although Edmund now admits they wouldn’t go at it the same way today, their « naivety » and faith in Beke’s unfettered creativity is what allowed Nightjar to become one of the most talked about bars on the planet. Even now that Beke is gone, the ethos he imparted (each drink is a work of art, with stunning looks and rare ingredients) can still be felt — they need to stock 231 different items to make the drinks on the current menu.
In 2015, the duo opened their second bar, Oriole (recently named 17th best bar in the world), in Smithfield Market. « It was wish fulfilment. All the space limitations of Nightjar were gone. It was a blank canvas ». One of the issues at Nightjar was that drinks sometimes took way too long to be served to clients. Not so at Oriole: « It’s designed to the last cm to be the perfect workplace for the bartender. You have everything you need to deliver the perfect drink very quickly, so go ahead and do it. » With Luca Cinalli at the helm, Beke’s ex partner behind Nightjar’s bar, you can expect similarly ‘loud’ drinks, although Edmund says they’re « probably a little bit simpler. We’re trying to do more with less ».
So are Edmund and Rosie all about the baroque? « You could think we’re the Liberaces of the cocktail world », he quips. « But we really love simplicity. And we wanted to do a bar where you could go in, grab a Martini, drink it at the bar and move on. » Last year, they opened such a place, with partners Bobby Hiddleston and Mia Johansson. Located in the centre of Soho, Swift has received rave reviews. « With Mia and Bobby, you know you’re going to get simple, beautiful and delicious cocktail. Here, we try and think about every single aspect of the guest experience. » — not that they don’t at Oriole and Nightjar, mind you.
Ours is an industry that favours the « genius bartender » narrative. But for a bar — let alone three — to be a sustained success, you need great operators. So what are Edmund and Rosie’s secret? Edmund accepted to share a few guiding principles. « First, don’t focus on profit. If your idea is to make as much money as possible, you won’t be able to innovate. Second, pick people with vision, do everything to support it and retain staff to create a culture. Third, never stop paying attention to details and imbue this obsession to your senior management. Finally, you need an outstanding partner you can absolutely trust ». Words to the wise.