Exploring Edinburgh: Behind the bar at Blackbird

When we talk about creativity, we’re guilty of associating it solely with music, culture, literature or art. But what about bartending? I’d never really given much thought to this but — one nippy November night in Scotland’s capital — we opened the door to Blackbird, a cosy pub in Bruntsfield, and discovered this alcoholic artistry for ourselves.

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Our host for the evening was Joshua Ramsay and, to be quite honest, we couldn’t have been luckier… Because Josh is one of just eleven bartenders in Scotland who’s been shortlisted for Tennessee Calling, a competition which aims to inspire the next generation of bartenders. As we were to discover, though, Josh needed no inspiration: he positively oozed passion and creativity for his trade and the drink he had created for the contest.

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Surely it’s not just me who suffers from the curse of curiosity? I’d be hard pushed to find something I enjoy more than getting to know people, their backstories, what makes them tick… So discovering the story behind Josh’s journey to bartender — and the insanely creative concept behind his Jack nniel’s inspired drink — was completely intriguing.

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When Josh was eighteen, he began working part-time in a bar. Falling in love with the creativity of bartending, he’s been coming back to it ever since and — between travel trips to Australia and New Zealand — he’s now a familiar face at Blackbird. This bar — whose sisters are Treacle and Hamilton‘s — is part of the Edinburgh bartending scene, which Josh describes as having a ‘sense of community and shared knowledge.’ Which, funnily enough, he’s about to invite us to be part of.

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The cocktail he’s designed for the Tennessee Calling competition is simultaneously influenced by both the southern states of America and by Bruntsfield, this suburban-student area of Edinburgh. There’s a fine line to tread, Josh says, between out-and-out creativity and catering for his diverse customers… Yet for him, Tennessee Calling still requires storytelling with a product that ‘people know and love’.

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So how has Josh taken Jack Daniel’s and turned it into a tale? As he explains, there’s already a fierce history behind the whiskey itself. ‘Jack was laughed at when he presented his drink at St. Louis World’s Fair, but he let his product speak for itself’, Josh explains. By reflecting on the Jack Daniel’s brand and its southern past, Josh’s thoughts moved towards Westerns — but how could he take this cliché and turn it on its head?

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With a good dose of Jane Fonda, Jack’s drink The Ballad of Cat Ballou was born. It’s a long, peach drink — rather like an iced tea — and even with the fruity details that play with your senses, the bold Jack Daniel’s flavour still hits your palette. But there’s more to this drink than the highly creative story behind it and the incredible fresh taste; Josh has also incorporated some of legendary bartender Iain Griffiths’ #Trashtiki ethics, meaning that sustainability is a big factor in this glass. Here are the ingredients for The Ballad of Cat Ballou:

  • Jack Daniel’s old No. 7 brand (obviously. Otherwise you’re missing the point…)
  • Peach & clove liqueur (Josh makes his own, taking the leftover stones from summer peaches and roasting them to flavour this alcoholic syrup, which matures over 36 hours. This is then blended with peach iced tea)
  • Vermouth di Torino (deepens the flavours of the light peach liqueur and rich, woody whiskey)
  • Freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • Egg white (a binding agent, which traps air in the drink, helping retain flavour and smooth the texture)
  • Edible perfume (this immediately gets your nostrils tingling with scents of peach and rose water)
  • Peach dust (Josh made this himself, grinding dehydrated peaches and mixing them with powdered sugar. Heavenly stuff, what sherbet dreams are made of).

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All these components club together to create an aesthetic and sensory drink which Josh sums up as ‘a long alcoholic lemonade with peach.’ Yet when you know the story behind the glass — the level of creativity that’s gone into this long lemonade — you really are stoned by the whole concept.

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As we grab some of Blackbird’s burgers before we head home, I ask Josh about what inspires him. ‘As a bartender, you want to stay true to the history of your profession,’ he answers. This is a guy who feverishly collects vintage cocktail books — ‘I’ve gifted Alcoholica Esoterica to so many bartenders’ — and places massive importance on listening to his customers.

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Yet — along with this classic, gentlemanly approach to bartending — Josh also manages to incorporate the right shot of modern originality and infectious creativity to his work. He smiles. ‘It’s about celebrating things differently.’ I nod, pick up The Ballad of Cat Ballou and I drink.

A huge thanks to Josh for his hospitality & best of luck in #TNCalling! Have YOU paid a visit to Blackbird?

7 thoughts on “Exploring Edinburgh: Behind the bar at Blackbird

  1. What an enjoyable read!

    I was in Blackbird recently (for work 🙄) and thought it looked like a great place.

    Definitely going to properly check it out soon!

    1. Hey Allan! 🙂 Thanks so much, so glad you liked it! I hope I managed to impart even just an ounce of the passion Josh has for bartending, it’s so intriguing seeing behind the scenes. Definitely give the place a second look, those burgers are ace too! 😀

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