Gin is more than just the spirit of choice at Glasgow bar Gin71: it’s the heart and soul of the venue.
The bar, which was named SLTN Concept Venue of the Year, in association with Britvic, last November, opened in 2014 offering a list of 71 gins as well as a variety of cocktails. It has since expanded to include a second Glasgow venue in the Merchant City and a third in Edinburgh.
And yet Gin71 almost never existed.
The history of the venue is an unusual one, and has its roots in sister business Cup Tea Lounge.
Owner Paul Reynolds opened specialist tea and cake café Cup on Glasgow’s Byres Road in 2010.
Designed as a counterpoint to the coffee shops in the area, which had customers queue at the till for their drinks, Cup offered table service along with a wide range of teas from around the world.
Two years later, the business opened a unit in the city centre, on Renfield Street.
This time, in addition to premium hot drinks and afternoon teas, Paul was keen to introduce a separate evening concept that would extend the venue’s trading hours and increase revenues.
An early experiment with operating the space as an evening dessert restaurant failed to capture customers’ imaginations, and Paul returned to the drawing board.
Then a chance conversation with a family member provided a spark of inspiration.
“I was having a conversation with my brother who was visiting from down south,” said Paul.
“He said there was a bar in Newcastle called Pleased To Meet You, a gin bar.
“I’ve never been there, never seen it, but I just thought ‘gin bar’.
From 9am till 5pm the venue operates as Cup. At 5pm it becomes Gin71.
“The heritage of this building goes back to the Bank of India, and I thought it would be a good fit.”
The venue’s address, at 71 Renfield Street, coupled with the 71 member states that competed in the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, inspired the name of the new venture.
From 9am every day (11am on Sundays) until 5pm, the venue operates as Cup Tea Lounge. At 5pm, however, it undergoes a transition; the lighting changes, candles are introduced to the tables, the teas and cakes visible during the day are hidden from sight and the daytime staff are replaced by a fresh team for the evening.
Cup Tea Lounge becomes Gin71.
The 71-strong range of gins on the bar’s drinks list, which is currently in its eighth incarnation, spans Scottish brands such as Hendrick’s, Shetland Reel and Makar to those from across the UK and overseas. The menu is split by flavour profile, and customers can also choose from three gin flights.
Trying to guide a customer to a gin is a bit like selling somebody a wine.
Each time the list is changed around 40 of the gins will be replaced by different products, with Paul and his team working with two main suppliers – Matthew Clark and Hotsauce – as well as online retailer Master of Malt.
Before being considered for inclusion gins are tested across four criteria. Three of these relate to taste – neat, in a Martini and in a perfect serve – with the fourth covering the spirit’s presence on the gantry.
In order to qualify for the Gin71 drinks list the spirit has to perform well across at least two of these criteria.
Customers, meanwhile, have their own criteria for choosing their gin, said Paul. And provenance is becoming an increasingly important factor in their decisions.
“A lot of it is about provenance, and if you’ve got a provenance story you’ve got a much better opportunity to sell,” he said.
On the cocktail side, the menu includes a mixture of classic gin cocktails, those inspired by the Prohibition era, Martinis and contemporary serves (see box right).
The drinks, while important, are only part of the offer at Gin71 though.
Paul, whose hospitality career prior to Cup had included stints at Glasgow institution Rogano as well as hotel giants InterContinental and Marriott, puts a strong emphasis on service across the three Gin71/Cup units, and staff are trained on each new gin that is introduced to the bar and encouraged to try at least one new gin every day.
Personal service is stressed.
“It shouldn’t be ‘this is the textbook to a gin’,” he said.
“It should be that person’s personal interpretation of the gin. ‘I like this gin because X, Y, or Z’.
“Trying to guide a customer to a gin is a bit like selling somebody a wine.
The first question will be ‘what do you drink? What’s your preference?’”
When a customer enters the bar they are shown to a seat and talked through the drinks list, with the staff member providing recommendations on gins and serves.
With three venues now open (the original Cup on Byres Road was shut last year) it seems to be an approach that’s working.
And despite the explosion of gins in recent years, Paul is optimistic that the category still has plenty potential.
“People said when we opened a cupcake café in 2010 that we would get a year out of it,” he said.
“We sell as many cupcakes today
as we did seven years ago. As long
as you stay fresh, as long as the suppliers are being dynamic in what they bring you, then there’s always a story to tell.
“Gin is not finished yet. I think we’re going to see a lot more of a move to cold distillation, which is a very different product, and I think you’ll see a lot more international gins coming in as well.”