Capital cocktail artistes stirred by their passion

COCKTAIL hour in Edinburgh – that great alcoholic portal between work and leisure. The lit dial of the Balmoral clock points to half past five.

High heels click on the rain-slick ­cobbles, a spring in the step, a little extra bounce in each shapely ankle, indicative of the anticipated ordering of a highball, a sidecar, a daiquiri, or whatever particular blend of booze and fruit and sugar is going to be that evening’s chosen pick-me-up. In Tonic, a bar on North Castle Street, 20 year old Russell Downie, one of Edinburgh’s hot young barmen, is making a tequila blazer – pouring a stream of blue fire from one steel mug to another, so blithely you’d think this is the sort of thing he does all the time. Which it is.

Edinburgh is the cocktail capital of Scotland. In the recent Scottish heat of one of a global cocktail-making competition, 39 out of the 40 entrants were from the capital. The scene is not large, though. There are only a few dedicated bars where the mixing of drinks goes beyond the mere functional and into the realms of art.

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“It is like art,” says Jack Blackwell, head bartender of Bon Vivant on Thistle Street. Known as Wee Jack, he is just 20, doll-like, bequiffed and supremely dedicated. He has “Rye or Die” tattooed on his right arm. “It is theatre behind the bar – your style, the way you make drinks, the way you host. It feels like ­being on stage. You’ve got eyes on you all the time.”

A cocktail bar in full flow is a sight to behold; somewhere between the stock exchange, the ballet and a Michelin-starred kitchen. The bartenders move with terrific grace, seeming to avoiding collision by means of some uncanny internal radar, and sometimes speaking a hopped-up lingo, based on code numbers. Shouting “50 syrup”, for example, would mean, “Throw me a bottle of ­sugar syrup,” and it would come flying across the bar without delay. “86 Amaretto” means that the bar has run out of that particular liqueur, and a member of staff will be dispatched to cadge one from a neighbouring pub. “200” means that a customer requires service. “700” is barkeep slang for the presence of a beautiful girl. The point of all this is to make communication clear and unambiguous, cutting through the music and chatter, but the codes are also, of course, a shibboleth; using them means you can count yourself as part of the tribe.

And it is a tribe; with its own hierarchy, rivalries and rituals. Very few people popping into the pub for an after-work drink will be aware of it, but to the bartenders of Edinburgh’s cocktail-land, this is a serious business, a battle for ­supremacy played out night after night, drink after drink. We’re talking about maybe ten bars tops; maybe 20 or so people at the absolute top of their game; people like Kevin Griffin, head bartender at Tigerlily, who has been described as “the Picasso of cocktails” and who – thanks to his recent win of the Scottish heat of the Diageo World Class competition – might well be the top man in ­Edinburgh at the moment.

The rivalry between these virtuosi is largely unspoken, only becoming explicit during such competitions, but it is there all the same – a desire to be the best. Never mind theatres, these cocktail bars are amphitheatres, gladiatorial arenas in which young men – the scene is dominated by men in their twenties, ­although there are some very good ­women too – wield the shaker, strainer and mixing spoon in an effort to prove that they have the right stuff. Actually, forget strainers and spoons; cocktail-making, these days, is often much more hi-tech, a bit Heston Blumenthal, involving the use of centrifuges, acids, smoke-guns and something called a rotavap which is the very dab for making rum taste of mint. All you, the drouthy ­customer wants is a mojito; what you’re actually getting, whether you know it or not, is an ardent demonstration of skill, creativity, ambition and poise, as well as the holy trinity of bartending virtues – knowledge, personality and speed.

“It is fiercely competitive,” says Iain Griffiths, the 25-year-old head bartender at Bramble, which last year was named in the top ten bars in the world. Bramble is small, dim and cosy, with hip hop playing at all times and a kind of speakeasy vibe. You find it, if you find it at all, down a flight of stone steps, beneath an alteration tailor, on the corner of Queen Street and Hanover Street. It is known for serving certain cocktails in old-fashioned china teacups, a nod perhaps to the furtive way things were done during the prohibition era. “There is an awareness of pecking order on the scene,” ­Griffiths continues, “but it’s not something we talk about too much. And that’s what keeps it from blowing over the top and turning into outright warfare.”

Strong words are exchanged on occasion when one bartender believes ­another has copied his particular innovation. This is only partly to do with money, to do with a bar wanting to maintain a competitive edge over its rivals; mostly, I think, it’s about ego. “It’s certainly obsessive,” says Griffiths. “We live and breathe this.” Extroverts with OCD is how one Edinburgh bartender describes the personality type the job attracts.

Iain Griffiths is that tremendous cliché – an Australian barman in Edinburgh. Yet he transcends the cliché pretty neatly. With his slicked-back hair and nose-ring you might take him for a member of The Clash, albeit one who wears a bow-tie and can do magical things with gin. His kitchen at home is a clutter of pots and pans filled with sugar syrup; experiments in cocktail innovation. Not that he’s home much.

It’s typical for this group of bartenders to work between 55 and 65 hours a week, getting to bed at three or four in the morning, or even later, and becoming entirely estranged from the sunlight – even the most beach-tanned Aussie soon grows peely-wally in such conditions. They all drink together, too, these cocktail kids, knocking them back in Cabaret Voltaire or Garibaldi’s, still pumped up from the shift. “Never trust a sober bartender,” Griffiths laughs. On nights off, they drink in each other’s bars, eyeing up the competition, making mental notes, and winding each other up by ordering Ramos Gin Fizz – a cocktail involving egg white, cream, lemon and lime juice, which tradition dictates should be shaken for no less than 12 minutes.

But it’s not all bonhomie and boozing. There are schisms. “It’s divided by Princes Street. You’ve got the Old Town and the New Town and they don’t mix,” says Rory McGhee, 29, of Dragonfly, a cocktail bar in the West Port, where students are sipping gigantic goblets of some pink concoction while Bob Dylan’s Pledging My Time plays in the background. “The New Town wear waistcoats and bow-ties and the Old Town wear jeans and a T-shirt. We’re a bit grungier.” Dragonfly, which claims to have been the first cocktail bar in Edinburgh, has a reputation for the punning names it gives its cocktails, sometimes developing drinks to match the titles rather than the other way around. The Burntisland Iced Tea is said to be especially delicious.

Part of the charm of cocktails is their long and glamorous history, and so it is perhaps inevitable that it would be Edinburgh – Scotland’s most overtly historic, beautiful and sophisticated city, as well as one of its richest – which became the centre of the contemporary scene. There is something about closes and cobbles and crow-step gables which goes rather well with the whole idea of cocktails. Romance, I suppose. The word itself, “cocktail”, goes back to the United States in the early 1900s. The middle years of that century saw a great flourishing, with that Barnum of bartenders Jerry Thomas publishing, in 1862, his classic work, The Bon Vivant’s Companion, or How To Mix Drinks.

The influence of this book cannot be understated. There is a well-thumbed copy kept next to the bar in The Last Word Saloon on St Stephen Street, Edinburgh. Its contents page, simply a list of different types of cocktail, is unconscious poetry – juleps, negus, mulls, flips, fizzes, smashes, shrubs, cobblers, daisies, fixes, sours. Things have moved on a bit since Thomas’s day, of course – it is unlikely that any hostelry he owned would have kept a chainsaw behind the bar for cutting ice, as they do at The Last Word – but the point is that Edinburgh’s bartenders are mindful of tradition. Many have vast libraries of antique cocktails books and spend those brief moments when they are not serving or drinking engaged in close study.

Bon Vivant’s Companion is also the name of shop on Thistle Street which serves as a hub for Edinburgh’s cocktailscenti, sourcing equipment, obscure bitters, Japanese whiskies and the like, which the bartenders use in developing new recipes. “They spend their wages on our booze then we go and spend our wages on their booze,” says Jamie Dawson, a young man with an estimable moustache who runs the shop. “It’s a beautiful little circle.”

A beautiful little circle. Could there be a better description of the Edinburgh scene? The Balmoral clock is showing eleven. Cocktail hour was over long ago, but for the bartenders of Edinburgh that rush – of adrenalin, ambition, raw spirit and raw talent – is only just beginning. “How are you doing, ladies?” says Russell Downie of Tonic, offering a drinks menu with a smile. “Now, what can I get you?” «

Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss