Traditionally Scottish, The Thistle Street Bar, located on the historic Thistle Street in Edinburgh, has become a tourist destination for travellers seeking a drink in an authentic Scottish bar. Licensee Robert Shepherd FBII reveals how every decision he makes fits with the bar’s ethos and contributes to the genuine, premium experience that has made it so popular, Peter Basket reports
Dating back to the late 1700s, when it was a cow shed of all things, the Thistle Street Bar site is steeped in history. So, when first taking the bar on, licensee Robert Shepherd FBII decided to focus on this amazing heritage and make it a celebration of the very best that Scotland has to offer.
“I decided to create a pub that reflected that historic element and delivered the best of Scotland without it being parochial or gimmicky. That was the idea,” he explains. Robert got into the bar trade in the 1980s, when he worked at different venues in a variety of roles, from bar manager of the Edinburgh Sheraton to the area secretary for the UK Bartenders Guild. As he started a family, he decided to leave the trade, only to return some years later when he was approached with the opportunity to take on the Thistle Street Bar.
Re-entering the trade, he noticed a shift in the way that many pubs were being run. “For me, there seemed to be more emphasis on getting drinks out there and less emphasis on the hospitality aspect itself, the kind of traditions that I grew up with, which was all about engaging with customers, trying to hold customers in the bar and to deliver an experience that was more than just to serve a drink.” For Robert, it was important to deliver on the expectations of the people visiting the area. Recognising that the bar was located on an upmarket street in one of Scotland’s most popular tourist destinations, he ensured that was reflected in the bar’s offer. “We have a wide range of whiskies, as you would imagine, and we try to have as many good quality Scottish local products on the bar, as we can.” The concept of maintaining the traditional Scottish look and feel runs deep through the Thistle Street Bar, with every element from the décor to the music being carefully curated to fit the bill.
Robert gave an insight into the process behind choosing the products he stocks: “What we tend to do is we look at it and see if we can have a product that is Scottish or has a Scottish connection. That’s the first thing. Next thing we ask, is it good enough? Is that a good enough product for us to actually sell?” Giving some examples of this in practice, he mentions their house gins, which are a locally made Edinburgh Gin and an Isle of Harris gin, which is distilled from scratch and contains locally sourced kelp that is gathered by divers daily. Even their house Champagne, Lagarde Écossaise, is named after the 6,000 Scots Guards who fought alongside the French in the 14th century.
Having a local connection is a high priority, but quality remains the crucial factor when deciding what to sell over the bar. Vodka is one such example of this. “There are Scottish vodkas out there, but we would rather not sell one, as we feel that it is not as good as some of the classics. So we’ve chosen Absolut.”
He adds that they don’t sell shots, as it wouldn’t fit with the style of the place, and instead he offers guests a measure of whisky, as the idea is to be able to sit and enjoy a quality drink in good company, rather than get drunk as quickly as possible.
Having a tenancy with Greene King and weekly rent to pay, Robert looks at products other than beer to deliver the best profit. “To increase our margins and make it profitable for us, we major on our whiskies and our gins,” he explains. “For example, our mid-range malt whiskies from Speyside carry a higher margin. We’ll go for around about an 80% margin, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re expensive to the customer.”
How does Robert find the unique products to fill his shelves? Apart from attending tastings of new beers, wines and spirits (a difficult, but necessary part of the job, he laughs), he says regular communication with his suppliers is key.
“We keep a dialogue going with them, as we like to find out what’s new. We can usually tell immediately if it’s for us or not, and our suppliers know that they can’t sell us something that doesn’t fit with the bar’s ethos,” says Robert. “I think that’s why the Thistle Street Bar has been successful – it’s because it stuck to the formula.”
Part of the experience is finding a drink that suits the customer’s personal tastes. Bartenders working under Robert will have a talk with the customers, in order to find out what kind of taste/palette they have, and will then recommend a drink to suit them. By always starting with the lower priced ones, Robert finds that customers will tend to be curious and want to try the more expensive options after. Though there’s never any pressure to spend more – it is the experience that takes priority.
In order to provide such an experience, the bar stocks a variety of spirits at all price points. This is where having a good supplier becomes key, as consistency is important – if a product sells well, Robert doesn’t want to hear that he can’t buy it again. “Morton is one of our spirit suppliers, but we’ve also hooked into Royal Mile Whiskies, which is right in the heart of the old town. These guys can source whiskies and products that we would never get elsewhere. Customers are looking for things that they don’t recognise and for whiskies that they won’t be able to buy in the States, for example.”
It’s not all about the bar, either – the street is filled with top-notch restaurants, including local seafood, and one of the best Thai restaurants in Edinburgh. As such, Robert makes an effort to recommend nearby dining locations to hungry travellers, and offers them an appropriate aperitif – which could be anything from a light lowland whisky to a glass of Prosecco. Customers will often return after their meal to thank Robert for the recommendation, and stay to enjoy another drink or two.
Again, it’s about the overall customer experience – whether that’s inside the bar or elsewhere. Robert reiterates: “if you give them an experience to remember, they’re more likely to return – or at least recommend you to others.”
Live music has also become a staple of the Thistle Street Bar experience. Most days of the week you will be greeted by mellow tunes that have been chosen to resonate with their target demographic (generally people 40 and over). Besides adding to the authentic feel of the place, the live music often attracts passers-by who may be looking to stop for refreshments on their travels.
Having a couple of talented and reliable musicians regularly scheduled in the bar means that the organisation, on Robert’s part, is minimal. Musicians will likely know other local musicians as well, and are usually more than happy to find extra talent for special events or as cover.
While the bar does have televisions, they are reserved for showcasing current promotions, or for big sporting events, such as the Six Nations. “Our bar is built on the ethos that bars are about people interacting. It’s not just about selling alcohol, it’s about creating that whole interactive atmosphere and one of the elements of that is live music.”
If there is something to take away from the success of the Thistle Street Bar, it is this: be authentic, bring the focus back to hospitality and, above all, create an experience to remember.