SLTN Award winner has seen big changes in city, finds Jonathan Watt
THE development of the Edinburgh bar scene over the last decade has been nothing short of transformational.
The rise of ‘cocktail culture’ not just in the UK but around the world has been similarly metamorphic – with the capital seeing its collection of high-end venues rocket and the standard of mixed drinks rise considerably across the city.
And it is in this climate – of rising standards in the on-trade, both in terms of bartender skill and quality of ingredients – that Sam Baxendale forged his bartending career as he made his way from Bolton to bowling alley to Bramble before co-founding his own cocktail-focused venue, Kin, with fellow bar veteran Jody Buchan.
Fresh from picking up the Craft Spirits Enthusiast award, in association with Eden Mill, at the 2019 SLTN Awards, an honour which he shared with Jody in 2018, Sam sat down with SLTN to discuss his career behind bars in Edinburgh over the time where Negronis and Old Fashioneds started to gain prevalence over double vodka mixers.
Moving to the city at 18 to study architecture, Sam quickly found himself working at the now closed Megabowl in his first job serving drinks in 2005.
In an effort to get away from children’s birthday parties, what he describes as a “glamourous” job collecting glasses at student nightclub The Hive came next before he “fell into mixed drinks” at Market Street club Massa when it was relaunched as Electric Circus.
“This was the end of the era of two for ones and double up for £1 – people were still heavy on that sort of spirit/mixer which was efficient at doing its job,” he said.
“You could get a double vodka for £6.50 and we were doing Mojitos for £7.50/8 so it was difficult, we’d be hand crushing ice for 15 minutes just because that was the kind of drink we wanted to sell.
“Cocktails were still relatively new in a sense to Edinburgh at this time. Bramble, The Voodoo Rooms and The Bon Vivant were getting started but it wasn’t a time when you could walk into most licensed premises and get a mixed drink/cocktail list, you still had to seek out these venues.”
Part of the growth in consumers seeking out more premium drinks is down to a greater interest in both food and drink, Sam stated.
“The drinks industry follows the culinary world,” he said.
“The food world resonates with consumers, people are led by food trends. They want to know what they are ingesting and imbibing so they know what they want in terms of quality.”
A move to high-end Scottish bistro and bar, Monteiths, just off the Royal Mile followed in 2012 and saw Sam’s mind and palate opened to a new world of flavours and possibilities within drinks.
Deciding his future lay in hospitality, a move to Queen Street mixology Mecca Bramble came next.
“I had a conversation with Mr. Mike Aikman and started soon after,” he said. “It was probably the steepest learning curve with regards to the profession – the standards were unbelievable but not unachievable.”
It was a steep learning curve – the standards were unbelievable but not unachievable.
While he quickly became head of the bar team at one of the UK’s most decorated cocktail bars, the adopted Edinburgher decided a change of pace was necessary two years later and a spell doing consultancy work led to him working closely with Jody, who also had a decade of bar experience under his belt.
The duo established subterranean cocktail bar Kin on Barony Street in November 2017 and recognition for their encyclopedic knowledge and approach to spirits, which is comfortably coupled with laidback yet attentive service, soon followed.
In addition to splitting the Craft Spirits Enthusiast award at the 2018 SLTN Awards, Jody was also named Mixologist of the Year; while Kin was listed in this year’s Top 50 Cocktail Bars in the UK – placing 27th.
Now more than ever, people are looking for something which is special to them.
The move has perhaps improved Sam’s service, he suggests, as it has left him with no colleague to talk to when he is working, as the bar’s reputation continues to grow both in Edinburgh and beyond these shores.
He said: “We’re still closed on Mondays and Tuesdays but it has been busier than ever with events and things like that. People often ask me ‘Do you not get lonely?’ but I’m never alone unless I’m doing prep.
“My service has probably become better. We’re slightly off the beaten track so if someone makes the effort to come down here they aren’t working and I am so I look after them.”
Looking forward, Sam reckons the heightened demand for quality drinks that has taken hold in bars, paired with a public partly defining themselves by their libations of choice, will not diminish any time soon.
“I think people are going out less but when they do they really want to enjoy it,” he said.
“Now more than ever, people are looking for something which is special to them, whether it’s a nostalgia related to a product or flavour or almost a prestige element to drinks, where it’s a cocktail you can only get in one place or a rare product.
“Everyone has the same new iPhone so they are looking for something and saying to themselves ‘What can I have that’s truly mine?’.”