Licensees look back on Scottish pubs’ changing spirits selection


By Dave Hunter

A LOT has changed in Scotland’s pubs over the past few decades, and publicans have had to change with the times or risk being left behind. 

On the spirits side, traditional pubs have gone from a largely men-only customer base drinking pints of heavy and quarter gills of whisky to a much broader demographic ordering a far wider range of products. 

It’s something Peter Ross of The Railway Tavern in Motherwell has witnessed first hand. 

Having worked his first shifts in the family-owned pub in 1985, Peter’s early experiences were serving local steelworkers who ordered whisky whether they liked it or not. 

Peter Ross of The Railway Tavern in Motherwell

“It was take it or leave it back in the day for these guys,” he recalled. “You came in and there was no choice. You drank beer and you drank whisky.”

So popular was Scotland’s national spirit that staff in the pub – which is a Star Pubs & Bars lease – would fill a dozen water jugs first thing in the morning and place them on the bar top for customers to mix with their whisky. 

“In the mornings you would have a look around and you would have twelve water bottles out on the counter,” said Peter. 

“70cl bottles. And you’d refill them at three/four in the afternoon. They’d all be nearly finished.” 

In addition to the water, it wasn’t uncommon for the family and their team to offer free dashes of soft drinks or even a half pint of beer for whisky fans to enjoy while they sipped their drams. 

Nowadays The Railway Tavern still serves whisky, but it’s not nearly as ubiquitous as it was in the 1980s, with the younger customer base, in particular, preferring vodka and gin. 

The Ross Family

“I remember coming in when I was young and you were trying whisky and brandy and you were choking on it,” he said. 

“Whereas now they’ve got a softly, softly approach. All the young kids drink a VBL – vodka, blackcurrant and lemonade. It’s just like drinking juice.”

Inverarity Morton – and Wm Morton before that – has supplied the pub with its spirits for decades. 

Robert Shepherd, lessee of the Thistle Street Bar in Edinburgh, has also had a front-row seat to the way pub punters are drinking their spirits. 

Where Peter saw the market change gradually over decades, Robert was presented with a more stark contrast. 

He started in pubs in the early 80s, managing his first venue in 1983. 

The Thistle Street Bar

However, ten years later, with a young family, he left the trade for a career in advertising, returning to pubs when he took on the lease of the Thistle Street Bar from Belhaven five years ago. 

“I saw massive changes when I came back in compared to what it was like years ago,” he told SLTN. 

“I was 18 when I started working in pubs and at that time it was pretty much beers and whiskies and vodka. Everything was standard. 

“I think people drank what their Dad drank.  

“People didn’t ask for things by name. It was a vodka and Coke or a whisky and lemonade. At that time there weren’t many calls for specific brands.”

 That’s day and night compared to what he found when he stepped behind the bar on Thistle Street. 

“What I discovered when I came back into the bars was that younger people are far more educated in terms of the product availability,” said Robert. “We’re getting a lot of craft gins cropping up, new distilleries cropping up. So if we get people coming in and asking for a gin they’ll ask for it by name. ‘Can I have a Hendrick’s and a Fever-Tree Light?’ Or a Botanist or an Edinburgh Gin or Lind & Lime or Isle of Harris or something. They’re definitely more discerning.”

Another big difference has been on the whisky side of the gantry, where Robert has seen demand shift from blends to single malt.

He said there is now much more of an expectation that bars will have a wide range of interesting spirits – and that staff will be able to talk about and recommend them. 

“People are looking for something different, especially Americans,” he explained. 

“When they come in they know Macallan, they know Glenfiddich, but they’re looking for something they can’t get back in the States. 

“So it’ll be something like Glendronach or if you go to Islay we’d look at Ardbeg, maybe the Uigeadail or the Corryvreckan. Or Laphroaig Quarter Cask. 

“People are coming in and looking at what they recognise, but they’re looking for a variation of that particular whisky. Something that’s maybe from the same stable but is a little bit different.”

Like Peter at The Railway Tavern, Robert uses Inverarity Morton for a lot of his spirits, with more unusual malts coming from Royal Mile Whiskies. Obviously, staff knowledge of everything on the gantry is essential. 

Robert said: “We’ve all walked into a pub and said ‘what’s that up there?’ and they’ve gone ‘oh I don’t know, I just work here’. Whereas now people will say to us ‘can you recommend me a malt whisky?’ and we’ll ask them what their palate is like. 

“Do they prefer sweet drinks? Drinks that are a bit smoky? A bit sherry-based? Now we can narrow it down. We can start to advise somebody what to have, whether it’s a gin, a whisky or a beer.” 

Tina McLaren, at The Old Ship Inn in Perth

That was echoed by another Belhaven lessee – Tina McLaren, at The Old Ship Inn in Perth. 

Tina said the pub has a reputation for its gin range as well as its selection of malt whiskies, and customers will expect the right mixer and garnish with their drink. It’s up to the team to ensure they can match the right accompaniments to each product. 

“You have to go out and look for it,” she said. 

“So for gin, for example, there’s the Ginventory app, which you can download and have on your phone. 

“And then we have a sticker system in here, so all the tops of the bottles of gin have a different coloured sticker and then there’s a key sheet with all the stickers. So, for example, Brockmans has grapefruit, blueberries and raspberries in it, so there’s three different-coloured stickers and then there’s the key on the other wall that the staff can look at.”

The Old Ship Inn gantry

Even in the past few years Tina – who has run The Old Ship Inn for 14 years – has noticed customers getting more knowledgeable about the drinks they’re ordering. 

“I think people tried different things during the pandemic,” she said. 

“And then they bring that into the pub with them. 

“So they might prefer Gordon’s gin and lemon Fanta because that’s what they drank during the pandemic. It’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a good thing, because people are trying different things.”