WHEN James Sutherland opened 56 North in Edinburgh nine years ago the gin boom was still in its infancy.
From a launch selection of around 40 gins, the bar restaurant has expanded its range to more than 300 products – with Scottish brands very much at the heart of the offer.
And the massive popularity of the spirit in recent years has suited James just fine. Though it also has a focus on cocktails and food, 56 North, which was last year named SLTN Independent Bar of the Year, in association with Kopparberg, was always envisaged as a gin bar.
“When you look at the best operators, a lot of them have got involved in what they’re involved in – be it whisky, cocktails or food – because that’s what their passion is,” James told SLTN. “I’d say my passion has always been spirits and cocktails, with a focus on gin.”
As the gin range at the bar has evolved, so has the venue’s approach to its drinks menu.
Initially, products were listed next to some brief information about the brand and distillery, but over time this has changed to focus more on flavour profile and suggested serve (including a garnish and tonic).
James explained: “We had terms like ‘robust gins’. What does that mean? So we divided things up by flavour, so it’s things like Asian spices, Indian spices, grapefruit, lemon, orange, all these sorts of flavours, to try and make things easy and accessible.”
The approach to the drinks menu isn’t all that’s changed in the past nine years.
As well as entirely new kitchen facilities, which has allowed the venue to keep up with growing demand on the food side of the business (food accounts for around 40% of revenues), and the transformation of the venue’s car park into pop-up venue the Secret Garden each summer, regular gin masterclasses have become a popular feature with customers.
As with the drinks menu, Scottish gins feature prominently in the masterclasses.
“The Scottish element is red hot,” said James.
“The guys in Scotland do a great job. And one of the reasons I love my Scottish gin and cheese masterclass is you can have so much fun with it, because none of them are replicating each other.
“There is no ‘Scottish gin’, there’s just good gin coming from Scotland.”
The popularity of the masterclasses reflects a broader desire for customers to learn more about what they’re drinking, said James. And this has put more pressure than ever on bar staff to know the products they’re selling.
James said: “The way I sum it up is, if you walked into a car showroom and the dealer said ‘it’s got four wheels and an engine, do you want to buy it?’ You’d be like, ‘no, does it have X, Y and Z?’ But that’s the approach the bar industry’s taken for a long time.”
And he reckons that gin, in particular, is well-suited to the trend of ‘drinking better’ as the category is comparatively affordable when compared to other spirits.
“Looking at our menu there’s only a couple of pounds a drink between the bottom end and the top end,” said James.
“If you look at rum, whisky or tequila, and the top end of those products, you’re talking about thousands of pounds. Your most expensive gins are coming in at £60/£70 a bottle, max. So you’re talking about 300 bottles on the back-bar, but you can afford all of them.”
While the current explosion in gin seems to be showing no signs of slowing, James reckons that – similar to categories such as craft beer or whisky – quality gin will become a standard fixture in good bars.
“You’ll expect to go into a bar and, just like you’d see a Scotch or craft beer range, you’ll expect to see eight to 15 interesting gins on the back-bar,” he said.
“And in the same way you’d expect the staff to know a little bit about the malts, you’re going to expect them to know what each gin goes with and what garnish to use.”