North of the border, some of Edinburgh’s best bars are bottling their own lines of scotch. Class' Scotland correspondent Bylthe Robertson reports.
Once you have established your bar as a leading hospitality brand, what’s the next area of expansion? For some signature Edinburgh bars, it’s their own scotch whisky brands.
Bramble celebrates its 17th birthday this autumn, with sister bars the Last Word Saloon and Lucky Liquor Co also established favourites in the city.
Over the years, owners Mike Aikman and Jason Scott have expanded the operation to encompass events management through their Mothership overarching company, drinks production of their Lucky Liqueurs, and the promotion of a suite of products from their wider network under the Base Spirits Collective portfolio.
A key strand has been the development of the Bramble Whisky Co. From humble beginnings when Aikman and Scott capitalised on an opportunity presented by a broker in the early days of Bramble, this has developed through the well-trodden collaborative bottling road to something more nuanced.
As Aikman says: “This is a passion project above all else. We’re now an official independent bottler and we’re moving to store more of the casks at our Mothership HQ in Edinburgh, which now has the status of a bonded warehouse. This gives us much greater control over things like when to bottle at the moment that best suits the style we’re after, or being able to respond when we have the demand for the product.
“We are now on the sixth release with a few more in the pipeline. The reaction from customers has been eye-opening. And that’s a key part of what makes it worthwhile for us.”
The branding has been a key part of the success story, with several local and international artists involved in label design. Sometimes this has been a case of Scott scrolling through Instagram for inspiration, but it has led to some highly memorable labels. “We’ve been fortunate to draw upon our network to produce some stunning artwork for the bottles. They definitely stand out on the shelf,” Aikman adds.
Bramble bar’s GM, Sam Baxendale, spoke about the experience of serving the whisky in the bar: “People are excited when we explain we have our own whisky and keen to hear the tale behind it. It’s quickly become part of the story of the bar. It’s also just very tasty liquid.”
Innovation comes as nothing new to Iain McPherson, the freeze-dried mastermind and Class Bar Awards Innovator of the Year 2023 behind Panda & Sons, Hoot the Redeemer and Nauticus.
The latter bar, which McPherson owns in partnership with Kyle Jamieson, dipped a toe into the world of collaborative bottling – picking casks to be bottled as their selection, but still under the whisky brand’s labelling – previously, but has moved on to establishing the Nauticus Whisky Merchants brand. Its first release was launched in March 2023.
“We’ve enjoyed the process of selecting whisky in the earlier stages of its lifecycle and watching things develop over time,” McPherson tells Class. “For now, our first release is only available at the bar, so you sample our whisky as part of the overall Nauticus experience.”
Jamieson adds: “The project takes things to the next level for us. The plan is to keep the whiskies along wine cask lines. This reflects both the origins of the port of Leith as a wine trading route, but also our premises at Nauticus. The building was a wine merchant’s shop back in the 1880s.”
He continues: “Our network of friends and regulars have already been spreading the word. Bottles of our first release bought in the bar have made their way to industry friends across the globe. We’ve seen bottles in Australia, Singapore, Jordan and a bunch of other places on our social media. It’s a great calling card.”
Whisky consultant Simon Smith, of Whisky & Cynicism, says the rise in these types of bottlings shows the power of a modern bar’s brand; that they can be translated into something consumable away from the bar itself. “Though these types of products have existed for years, things like the pandemic and the increase in at-home cocktails delivered by bars has cemented the desire for consumers to have a little piece of their favourite bar at home, whether around the corner or across the globe. It is also a powerful tool to legitimise any whisky bar; putting your name on a single cask of whisky and saying ‘this is ours’ does a lot to reinforce your place as a haven of dram drinking.”
And there aren't many stronger hospitality brands than Gleneagles, which saw so much of a rush among aficionados for its own-branded 11-year old Gleneagles Glenturret release that queues snaked around the foyer. “We have also partnered with Speciality to bottle the Pursuits Series,” says Michele Mariotti, “which is named after and inspired by four popular countryside activities offered at the estate – Fishing, Horseback Riding, Falconry and Shooting.
“All four expressions are selected casks from well-loved Scottish distilleries, including Imperial Distillery, which is no longer in operation.”
It’s clear that these ventures demand a considerable amount of time and attention to detail. The financial benefits may be quite marginal, but the verve that these operators bring to their work is paid back through an enhanced narrative around their brands and an improved experience for their loyal and appreciative customers. They’re a fitting next step for these visionary bars.