Licensee Interview: The Whiski Stills
Anne and Gary Still own and operate two of Edinburgh’s most innovative whisky outlets. They kindly took time out of their busy schedules for a chat with DRAM’s Jason Caddy.
Anne and Gary Still are like two peas in a pod. Not only are they 20 years married and co-owners of WHISKI on Edinburgh’s High Street, Glenmorangie Whisky Bar of the Year 2011, and the WHISKI Rooms around the corner on North Street, but they met studying the same computing course at university. They are also both self-confessed workaholics.
Gary, originally from Aberdeen, moved to South Africa as a child before returning to Scotland in 1986, where he met Dumfries-born Anne while the two studied for a BSc in computing at Edinburgh University. The couple then spent the next sixteen years working in both the IT and finances sectors before their first foray into the licensed trade in the form of WHISKI in 2006, followed by the WHISKI Rooms in 2011. Gary explains, “My father was a chartered accountant and after we graduated we moved to London where we ran our own business consultancy and, as a kind of natural progression, worked for numerous financial companies in the IT sector and at the Stock Exchange.”
But even at the tender age of 21, the couple had a glimpse into what was to become their future, when Gary took Anne to see a pub that was then on the market in the capital. “To be honest we always had a hankering after running our own bar/restaurant,” says Anne. “Even as penniless 21-year-old students, Gary took me to see a bar on Rose Street that was for sale and said that he wanted to buy it. I told him straight, ‘don’t be ridiculous,’ but I suppose even way back then, we wanted to deviate from IT and into the hospitality industry.”
WHISKI opened back in 2006 with 150 whiskies and it now has over 300, but events could so easily have taken an all together different turn, as Anne explains. “We first acquired the lease for what was to become WHISKI from Punch Taverns, and we ran it as Clever Dicks (a name that the couple were less than fond of). But this kind of unit wasn’t at all what we were looking for to begin with. You have to remember that this was a time when boutique hotel market was absolutely booming, although this was a crowded market and it became obvious that we were going to have to consider something a bit different if we were going to start our own pub business.”
She continues, “Gary eventually came to me with the sales particulars for the unit that was to become WHISKI on High Street and we decided that we’d take the lease, and after two years we bought the freehold. After some hard negotiating and chipping away at Punch we eventually got the deal that we wanted and stamped our identity on it. Prior to us taking over the reins it was lucky if it sold two nips a week, but through a combination of passion, effort and new menus with lots of fresh food, we eventually turned the whole operation around. We hit the ground running by introducing 150 malts and went about delivering an accessible whisky bar in the city centre at a time when the whisky market was really beginning to take off.”
Fast forward four years, via much blood, sweat and tears, the couple then decided to take the plunge with outlet number two – which in part came about on the back of comments and suggestions from the regulars and non-regulars alike at WHISKI. Explains Gary, “WHISKI really gave rise to the WHISKI Rooms as our customers began to enquire about where they could buy the various whiskies that we stocked so we had a brainwave of a bar and whisky shop combined, and what better location than around the corner from Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, in the shadow of the castle with stunning views over the city to boot. Apart from something vaguely similar in Paris, what we created in the WHISKI Rooms is really something quite unique, certainly in Scotland.”
He continues, “We originally planned two units, until we discovered once the refit was underway that the former bank at number 7 North Bank Street was available and we negotiated a deal to add this too. It was all a bit of a risk as we didn’t have planning permission, appropriate ventilation or a licence. This was all a bit traumatic as I recall and we were really quite on edge during this whole period, but like all good plans, it came together in the end.”
Gary and Anne really do put their heart and soul into their business, and their passion and enthusiasm really shines through whenever they talk about the outlets and their continuous efforts to attract new and repeat business, like the Ardbeg Embassy, an Ardbeg branded area at the back of WHISKI. “It’s the only one of its kind in the on-trade and we are just finalising an Ardbeg menu which will go live at the end of the month and feature food made with and complimented by the whisky,” Gary explains. “We see this as a stamp of quality rather than a sponsorship arrangement, as we paid for and designed the area. We are brand neutral and have a great relationship with all the major whisky companies. Our latest coup, however, has to be a tasting by Whyte and Mackay’s Master Blender, Richard Paterson, aka The Nose, who’s coming along in April for a whisky tasting,”
The couple are under no illusion that times are tough and, according to Anne, there is a necessity for all owner/operators to be creative. She explains, “It’s tough going out there at the moment, and there is a lot of competition in the city centre with businesses like Nando’s, Wagamama, Prezzo, Jamie Oliver and the like, coupled with more consumer choice in the lunchtime trade sector which tends to be value-led, like 2-for-1 deals, and that is something that we just don’t do.”
Anne continues, “As far as our offering goes we had done our research so we got it right and since we have lived and worked in Edinburgh pretty much the whole time since we were students, we also knew the market and what consumers wanted, like home grown produce, for example. Scottish providence is a huge consideration for us and this is reflected in the majority of our products. Scotland’s larder is fantastic and should be celebrated and our customers are always telling us that this is as important to them too. Customers are also more savvy and brand aware, plus they go out a lot less during the week, and TV cookery programmes and express supermarkets don’t help much either, as people are being actively encouraged to stay at home.”
But the Stills don’t count themselves in this number. Says Anne, “We have always been a sociable couple and enjoy going out to see what’s happening out there and we want our operations to reflect out own tastes and experience and, quite simply, be the kind of place that we would frequent. It was also immensely important for us to create an environment that wasn’t too male dominated as we wanted it to be equally as inviting for females and families.”
Living and working together wouldn’t suit everybody’s temperament, but like their recipe for business success, the couple say that the knack to harmonious living and working is equally as formulaic. Anne explains, “The secret to a successful business partnership is not doing the same things as you get in each other’s way – this was our initial experience and where we went wrong. Now we both have designated areas that we concentrate on. For me it’s very much the back office, accounts, promotions, dealing with suppliers etc. Gary is more on the operations side and of course our IT experience comes in handy where systems etc are concerned. One thing that unites us is our strong work ethic and the fact that we never switch off.”
When they do occasionally take time out, Gary is a keen golfer and they also have an Australian Labradoodle called Rocky, so called because of his brownish red colouring, and the couple’s faces light up when they talk about him.
So what about future expansion plans? “We have our sites set on a location in London,” says Anne, coyly, “but it’s still early days.”