The Last Word, Edinburgh

Mark Ludmon charts the story behind Edinburgh’s top bar Bramble and its newer stablemate The Last Word Saloon (pictured)

In lists of the world’s best bars, the intimate cocktail den of Bramble in Edinburgh city centre always figures highly, praised for the bar team’s innovative and expert approach to drinks and the quirky, labyrinthine interior of nooks and crannies. It is now six years since Bramble was opened by bartenders Jason Scott and Mike Aikman who, this summer, launched another cocktail bar, The Last Word Saloon, in the bohemian neighbourhood of Stockbridge.

The site has been in their hands since 2009, when they turned the former Watershed bar and bistro into The Saint, a “neighbourhood bar and restaurant”. However, Mike said the business proved to be a challenge in that location. “It wasn’t meant to be a food-led offering and, although the food was very good, people failed to see the difference between a bar that does good food and an actual restaurant,” he explains. After a revamp, The Last Word is in line with Bramble in serving no cooked food at all.

The Last Word delivers the same standards of drinks and service as Bramble, but with a more relaxed, neighbourhood atmosphere. “The Last Word is still a bit of a draw for people from the city centre but it is a cocktail bar crossed with a local,” Mike says. While Bramble’s sales are 80 per cent cocktails, there is more of a mix of drinks in Stockbridge where the bar offers more wines and beer such as Williams Bros on draught. While Bramble’s sales are 80 per cent cocktails, there is more of a mix of drinks in Stockbridge where the bar offers wines and beers such as Williams Bros on draught.

The team at The Last Word aim to break boundaries and experiment with techniques and ingredients as much as Bramble. This can be seen in the Barrel Aged Affinity cocktail, originally created for Bramble in partnership with whisky company Glenmorangie, which is an individually bottled mix of whisky and vermouth, aged in bespoke oak barrels in the customised cellar. Another aged cocktail is the Six Cylinder Cocktail, made of gin cherry liqueur, Campari and a blend of vermouths which is left to marry in steel cylinders for up to six months.

The menu also features forgotten classics, including the bar’s namesake, The Last Word, a gin-based drink dating back to the US in the 1920s. There are also twists on the classics such as Who Dares Wins, made with Beefeater Gin, freshly squeezed lemon juice, kummel and homemade orgeat. Syrups and bitters are handmade in the bar’s lab – a room where the team can experiment with ingredients and innovative techniques using a range of equipment, including a rotary evaporator, vacuum sealer and fairy floss machine.

The use of “saloon” in the bar’s name indicates its inspiration from pre-Prohibition American bars which were noted for their relaxed, comfortable atmosphere. The interior features dark green painted walls adorned with retro mirrors, taxidermy and framed butterflies. Oversized filament bulbs hang above the bar top and paraffin lamps on each table keep the lighting level low and intimate. The main bar area houses high-level bespoke tables, including one made of a reclaimed Victorian door, alongside comfortable bar stools, while the other part of the venue has an eclectic mix of low-level tables and seating plus an open fire.

The concept behind The Last Word was originally conceived for a third site after the opening of The Saint but, after a property fell through last year, Mike and Jason decided to go ahead with it at their Stockbridge site. However, Mike says they are still keen to open a third venue: “We are actively looking but we are quite fussy.”

The pair know the Edinburgh bar scene well having worked at many of its top venues. Jason was bar manager at Rick’s Bar and Oloroso and a director of consultancy Barnomadics before joining William Grant & Son to work on brands such as Hendrick’s and Monkey Shoulder. Mike got into bartending while travelling in Australia where he worked in an Irish bar in Sydney with Stuart McCluskey, now of The Bon Vivant in Edinburgh. On his return, Mike worked at Opal Lounge, Searcys bar at the National Gallery of Scotland and Oloroso, where he took over from Jason as bar manager. Mike says: “From the start, I wanted to do my own bar which is why I worked at different places to give me the right experience and help me decide what kind of venue I wanted.” The duo properly got to know each other through a mutual friend, another leading bartender Craig Harper, who had hoped to be part of the Bramble team until moving to London instead. Jason and Mike also continue to work with brands and run events through their business Mothership Scotland.

Mike says Edinburgh’s bar scene remains strong despite the recession. “At the lower end of the scale, they are struggling but at the higher end, the cocktail bars are thriving. These kinds of bars are still opening regularly even though it’s a relatively small city. There’s a lot of money in Edinburgh still and people are still going out drinking.”

A shorter version of this feature first appeared in the October 2012 issue of Bar magazine

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