Cocktails & Dreams
Words: Archie McDiarmid, Photographs: Flickr - Tales of the Cocktail
Friday 16 June 2017
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For five days in April, Edinburgh became home to the greatest collection of bartending talent, distillers and drinks professionals in the world. The reason? Tales on Tour, an event that takes the biggest celebration of cocktails in the world, the New Orleans based Tales of the Cocktail, and brings the party to one of the globe’s cocktail capitals. Having previously visited Vancouver, Buenos Aires and Mexico City, this was Tales’ first trip outside the Americas so, with typical Scottish self-deprecation, my immediate response was “why?”
Surely there must be loads of other, more exciting, destinations in the world? After all, this is an event that routinely sees representatives of the best bars in the world (almost half of the world’s top 50 bars were represented at panels throughout the week) turn up to share their wisdom, enthusiasm and closely guarded recipes. Not so, according to Andy Gemmell, director of drinks consultancy The Drinks Cabinet, and a stalwart of the Scottish cocktail scene since his early 20s. For him, there are three world-class cocktail cities; London, New York and Edinburgh.
Ann Tuennerman, the founder of Tales of the Cocktail agrees: “Edinburgh’s cocktail scene obviously starts with the history and tradition of Scotch whisky, but it’s so much bigger than that. It’s a city on par with the best in the world”.
So how did a city dwarfed in population by the traditional powerhouses of the cocktail world manage to elevate itself into their company? How did London & New York manage it in the first place, what the hell is a cocktail anyway, and why should you care if Edinburgh is a backwater or a world beater?
To understand this question, it is necessary to first understand that a cocktail is more than paper umbrellas, gratuitous fruit and Tom Cruise. It represents more than two centuries of culture, class, travel, economics, scientific exploration and experimentation. Even the word ‘cocktail’ is loaded with history: back in the 17th century, it was a slang and highly derogatory term for a horse, or sometimes person, who looked high class but was in fact adulterated by inferior stock (think racehorses fathered by carthorses, or men or women of low birth who passed into high society).
By the early 19th century it was being similarly applied to mixed drinks, presumably because ‘pure’ spirits were being combined with sugar, water and bitters, thus diluting their strength. Even the first definition of the cocktail, set down in 1806 by Harry Croswell (editor of the magnificently named ‘The Balance and Columbian Repository’) is hardly complimentary: “Cock-tail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters... It is said also to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because a person, having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else.”
Leaving aside any modern day political comment about how ‘cocktail facts’ sound so much more appealing than ‘alternative’ ones, how did the cocktail rise from being the butt of political jokes to a byword for class and sophistication? From a cheap attempt to adulterate ‘purer’ spirits to the cutting edge of drinks development and service? It is a story over 200 years in the making and one in which Scotland – and Edinburgh in particular – has become essential in shaping in recent years.
Early cocktails were often marriages of convenience; think of the ration gin given to officers serving on board Royal Navy vessels being combined with their mandatory shot of lime juice, forming the forerunner of the gimlet (a drink incidentally perfected by Lauchlan Rose, whose factory in Leith sent Rose’s lime cordial around the world, courtesy of the thirsty, scurvy-free, British sailors). As more exotic ingredients flowed in to Britain from all corners of the empire, London emerged as the world’s first great cocktail city.
Jerry Thomas, the godfather of the 19th century cocktail scene, was an American, but wrote his most famous book (the first ever to contain a section dedicated to cocktail recipes), the Bar- Tender’s Guide, while working at the American Bowling Saloon in London.
Cocktails had been popular all over the US since the early 1800s, but it wasn’t until ‘American’ bars began to become fashionable in London that a genuine cocktail scene – full of innovation and new, convention-challenging recipes – can be said to have emerged in a city.
It was this scene that drew Thomas and many of his American contemporaries to London. As amazing as it sounds, so great was the competition in London that Jerry Thomas, the 19th century’s most famous bartender, was actually turned down at his first-choice bar, a restaurant called the Universal Symposium of All Nations (continuing the theme of great business names throughout the history of the cocktail).
As the USA’s economic might rose, the explosion of wealth drew many American bartenders (and more than a few British) to New York, which rapidly became the second great (New Yorkers would argue greatest) cocktail city on world. It enjoyed this status throughout the early 20th century, until prohibition suddenly put the finest collection of bartenders in the world out of work. Most immediately jumped on the same boat Jerry Thomas had 70 years before and headed for London, providing the spark, and the drinks, to the ‘Bright Young Things’ of London’s roaring twenties. It was a pattern that would continue for the next 80 years; London and New York, passing the baton as the cocktail’s greatest champion back and forth as fashions and fortunes ebbed and flowed. But as the millennium approached, a new challenger started flexing its muscles: Edinburgh.
It doesn’t sound like much, but the opening of just two bars changed everything. Blue Bar, part of the Traverse Theatre complex was a hotbed of innovation which aimed high; not content with being the best in the city, it looked to challenge the best London had to offer.
It was joined shortly afterwards by Tonic. Fiercely independent, Tonic was staffed by young bartenders like Andy Gemmell, who explains: “Thanks to places like Tonic and Blue, you found out that bartending could be a career, and then Montpelliers came along opened up all these places, invested lots of time and money in staff development and training, and the standards started going through the roof.”
Andy identifies three key factors in creating a world-class cocktail city: community, recognition and innovation. The community was becoming established with a group of passionate bartenders supporting each other both in the bars and at competitions, which is where the recognition started to arrive. By the mid 2000s, bartenders from places like the Voodoo Rooms, Dragonfly, Rick’s and Lulu would meet weekly to compete against each other, developing recipes and polishing their presentation. The best took their skills to London’s major competitions, which they began winning with – according to one legend of the London scene who asked to remain nameless – “irritating effing regularity”.
As Edinburgh’s reputation started to spread, it began to attract bartending talent from all over the world and new bars sprung up to develop the scene even further, yet it remained hard work to get banks to take notice. Founded by Mike Aikman and Jason Scott, Bramble consistently ranks among the best bars in the world. But when it opened, it didn’t have a stick of furniture and everything from fridges to garnishes was purchased on £15,000 of savings and credit cards.
Stu McCluskey admits he almost gave up on another legendary Edinburgh bar, The Bon Vivant, after a brutal first couple of years. But the sense of community and the growing recognition that what he and others were creating in the capital was truly special, encouraged him to stick it out. Today he has added The Devil’s Advocate to the Edinburgh scene and played a key role in bringing Tales on Tour to the city.
All the people I spoke to throughout Tales on Tour agreed that innovation remains essential, but it has only been possible thanks to the globally recognised reputation for great service and training. There are now two or three major openings almost every year and Edinburgh represents a conveyor belt of talent, with those who honed their skills behind Auld Reekie’s bars taking their place in the who’s who of the industry around the world. Many of them returned to Edinburgh for Tales, hosting events like Bacardi Brand Ambassador Metinee Kongsrivilai (formerly of Dragonfly & The Bon Vivant) who took over Panda & Suns for the evening, or Ryan Chetiyawardana, the founder of White Lyan in London, but once of Voodoo Rooms, who hosted a seminar on the use of Scotch in cocktails.
If all this makes it sound like you missed a hell of a party then, well… yes you did. But never fear, Tales on Tour will be back in Edinburgh for a second year of mixing fantastic cocktails and inspiring the dreams of the next generation of world beating Scottish bartenders in April 2018.
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