Bramble turns 10: an interview with Mike Aikman and Jason Scott

Laura Foster

Laura Foster

15 November 2016

The party hats and streamers are out in Edinburgh as Bramble, a tiny subterranean cocktail bar that has turned out some of the world’s best bartenders, turns 10 today.

To celebrate, a whole host of their alumni – including former global Bacardí brand ambassador David Cordoba, Mr Lyan's Ryan Chetiyawardana and Iain Griffiths, Olmeca Altos brand ambassador Megs deMeulenaere and Bacardí Legacy 2014 global champ Tom Walker – have congregated, with some flying in from halfway round the world, such as Walker from New York and Black Pearl in Melbourne’s Kitty Gardner.

This is a bar that's had a huge impact on the hospitality industry, and everyone is keen to recognise this. So what has led to the success of Bramble?

In the early days, it was only owners Jason Scott and Mike Aikman tending bar in the unassuming, dimly lit venue on Queen Street.

'We're delighted to make 10 years,' muses Aikman as he takes a break from the White Lyan takeover party at Bramble. 'When we started we both had our doubts as to whether we'd last that long. When we started they weren’t even called cocktail bars then, the only thing that really existed here was called a style bar. There was no such thing as a cocktail bar.

'You went to a bar for a certain bartender that you knew you'd get good drinks from. We wanted to open a bar where it didn’t matter what bartender was on, because you knew you'd get a good drink, there'd be a good atmosphere and you could safely order whatever your chosen drink was.'

But the early days were difficult, as the pair worked 17 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, yet didn't pull in the customers. 'Tumbleweeds is probably the best way to describe it,' laughs Scott. 'I had real concerns about the potential success of the business for the first year. Our set-up costs were so minimal and our overheads were non-existent.'

Finally, things started to turn around. 'I remember when we did a thousand pounds in a night,' recalls Scott. 'That was a fucking massive deal. I almost shit myself, I was so excited. Because I thought the business was going to fail. I'd looked at this property before and I was like "I'd never take this property on."

'I'd been in there drinking, it was an underage hangout and it wasn't a cool place to be, but we did it and it’s one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done in my life.'

The 'alumni'

As the business grew in popularity, Scott and Aikman were finally able to take on employees, and over the years these very people have gone on to big things in the industry, proudly calling themselves 'Bramble alumni', which they're both bemused by.

'You're just trying to survive and maintain some sense of credibility,' argues Scott. 'But you try and instil your ambition on somebody else.'

Both think that their success in training staff is down to the fact that they've only hired career bartenders.

'It's about personality checking people,' explains Scott. 'You can spot them straight away. They have a work ethic and these people know that there's something more in a career than just getting a pay packet. We had a policy of not having part-timers – either you're in or you’re not – until the point where our full-timers went "I don’t want to leave, but I’ve got a part-time opportunity with a brand," so opposed to cutting off our noses, we thought "these guys have been amazing, they've been loyal, let's hang onto them."'

But that doesn’t mean that the pair have only hired people with bags of experience.

'We've taken on people with absolutely zero experience because we genuinely liked them and they had an interest and could be trained, and then we've taken on people like Davide Cordoba, he was really experienced but he loved the idea of it, so we took him on,' says Aikman. 'We didn’t really train him up. All we did was give him a job and try and get him to see things the way that we did.'

'Our staff has always been the most important thing to us since day one,' says Aikman. 'They've always been our number one factor in our back of house operation. Front of house it's the customer.

'We expect a lot of our staff, but we worked that bar and didn't have a day off for a year. We did everything and expect that they can too. They do everything at Bramble. They don’t have bar backs or waiters. They shift about. It doesn't matter who it is, the bar manager could be doing the floor, or essentially the bar back shift, and that’s hard work. I think it gives them a certain humility, to be honest.'

Bramble's longest-serving employee is Matt Hutchinson, who's been with the team for four years. As Aikman recounts: 'Early doors when we were looking for staff, we didn’t really know where to go, and Jas knew a guy who worked at [Henry J Beans], and he said "You should see how good their training regime is."

We didn’t know anything about it, so we decided to go for a drink, and it was Matty who was working the bar. We both had a bottle of Corona, and it wasn't until about three years later that we sat down with him to look at potentially taking him on, and he remembered us. Now, he's had two or three jobs since then. And he said, "Yeah, I remember you guys coming in. You had two Coronas, and you left a £2.25 tip."

We were like, "Holy shit, that's impressive. When can you start?" There was no reason for him to remember us – we didn't introduce ourselves, we didn't pay on a company credit card, there's no reason for him to know who we were.'

Booming Bramble

Today, Bramble is more successful than ever, with the tiny bar increasing its turnover by seven to 10% every year since opening. But cash isn't everything to the business partners.

'The most important thing after 10 years is we make a little bit of money, but that we're fucking relevant,' argues Scott.

'That is tough after 10 years,' agrees Aikman. 'In this game, it's the new bars that win the awards. Which is totally understandable. All you can do as a bar of increasing age is to do the same that you do as a person, which is grow old gracefully.'

To maintain relevance, the duo say that they travel a lot, and also help their team to go away too. 'What we don’t do is look at what else is happening in Edinburgh,' adds Aikman.

The pair now own two further bars in Auld Reekie – The Last Word and Lucky Liquor Co – but for their next trick, they're turning their attention from the on-trade to the off-trade.

'We're trying to develop our own spirits and liqueurs,' reveals Scott. 'So we’re trying to diversify and not put all our eggs in one basket and have a bit of fun with new challenges.'

The first product – a coffee liqueur made with new make spirit called Cross Brew – has just come on the market, and a spirit and another liqueur are also in the pipeline.

'We kind of thought that making our own product, going from on-trade to off-trade would be fairly seamless, but it's really not proving to be whatsoever,' laughs Scott. 'But I don’t think this is any less challenging than opening Bramble.'

Despite any difficulties that they may face, we're sure that the Bramble boys' professionalism, attention to detail and sheer bloody-mindedness will ensure that this new venture is a success.

Photos courtesy of Chris Scott

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