Anne and Gary Still are celebrating the opening of the Copper Still on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile … named after them… only joking. But their newest venue has been a journey. Susan Young caught up with them to find out more.
For those of you who don’t know Anne and Gary Still the couple are the powers behind the award-winning Whiski bar and Whiski Rooms and Charwood in Edinburgh and own a retail shop also dedicated to whisky. But the opening of their latest venue Copper Still has been their biggest challenge to date.
The couple who met while studying for IT degrees at Napier in Edinburgh, spent time working in the corporate IT and investment fields in Edinburgh and London before returning to Edinburgh. They then took on their first lease which became Whiski on High Street in 2006. Says Anne, “We actually wanted to buy a hotel because we loved hospitality, however, Gary came back with news of a pub on High Street! It was also a lease which I was not too happy about.”
Luckily for the couple, the financial crash of 2008 allowed them to buy the lease from Punch Taverns, so it is now freehold as are their other venues – Whiski Rooms and Charwood and now Copper Still. But it is the latter which has caused them the biggest headache. They bought the outlet in 2019 and it had a tenant who, during the first lockdown of the pandemic, went into administration and the couple were left without keys to the premises until October 2020.
Explains Anne, “It was a nightmare. We certainly had never planned on getting another bar right in the middle of a pandemic. We couldn’t even get the administrator to speak to us and we were worried that we would lose the premise licence.” But their problems didn’t end there.
Says Gary, “The build itself was an experience, with delays caused by damp, asbestos and changes to the design, as well as shortages of building materials such as steel. “We had one company, Laidlaws, managing the project, and they brought in all the trades, while KBAD, who we had worked with before on Whiski Rooms, were the architects, but both were very involved during the whole project”.
He cites the moving of the stairs in the Copper Still as an example. They have been moved from the front of the bar to the back. “The architects were not keen, but I could see that it would give us much more space. And it does. But a structural change like that meant we needed structural engineers to be brought in, and doing the stairs took so much longer than expected.”
Anne smiles, “When we started on the refurbishment it was April 2021 and we projected it would only take a few months. But we hadn’t planned on doing one throughout a pandemic and everything took longer than expected. In hindsight perhaps we should just have traded the pub as it was until now.”
However, despite the challenges of carrying out a complete refurbishment, both are delighted with the outcome.
Gary showed me photographs of the bar before the refurbishment, and tells me the whole bar has been taken back to a shell. It was rewired, re-plumbed, floors were dug out, stairs moved, the frontage was taken off, and windows were opened up at the back to bring in more light.
He continues, “The workmanship is great. A lot of effort has gone into everything. Even the curve of the bar… it was very much a bespoke job and we tried to maximise the space as much as possible within the property.”
Today the bar is a kaleidoscope of colour – vibrant orange, mustard and green leather seating, and a colourful mural complements the exposed stone walls, wood panelling and antique-like mirrors.
Says Anne, “We have used colours we like. We didn’t want it to be totally traditional, but colourful and warm. I chose the lampshades which are by Anna Hayman. I follow her on Instagram and I love her work, while the mural was done by a Scottish artist whose art we used a lot in Charwood – Diedododa. We wanted a Scottish themed mural and she created it perfectly for us.”
The bar is a real classic, but is also bespoke, with a white marble top (there are also marble tiles on the floor adjacent to the bar) while the carved edge of the bar is a credit to the carpenter. It is a real joy to see and touch. Above the bar, the glasses are cradled on stainless steel racks, while the back bar too is stainless steel with a modern open look – and many whisky bottles!
Downstair has more square footage than upstairs and the vibrant naturesque wallpaper is striking. Here a new kitchen, cellar, toilets, office and a further entertaining space has been created in an old Vault, which runs underneath High Street. To create headspace the floor here has been lowered and the vault has been fully damp proofed and the curved vault walls finished with a textured plaster and fixed seating – but this is still to be completed.
Says Anne, “We will use this space for whisky tastings and private events. We deliberately kept the finish more rustic to fit in with the vault’s historic feel.”
The kitchen now boasts its own dumbwaiter and has been totally kitted out. Before it was put in staff had to carry the food up the stairs!
The cellar is beside the kitchen and has also benefitted from the floors being lowered. They have also put in Heineken’s SmartDispense. Says Anne “We are so happy with the SmartDispense system. It is completely hassle-free, beer quality is excellent and easy to change kegs etc. service is spot on.
“They come once a month to service it and Gary says it’s one of the best decisions he has made, changing to Smart Dispense during lockdown.”
The gents and ladies toilets are on the same floor and have been wallpapered from top to toe – with statement paper – the mens follows the naturesque feel of the stairwell and corridor while the ladies feature a multi-colour extravaganza.
The Copper Still has been re-created from top to toe and the couple have spent much more than they planned to, but now they want to make the most of what they hope will be a busy year.
Gary comments, “At the end of last year, we thought things were getting back to normal. Our places were doing very well up until mid-December. Then the announcement came to avoid hospitality.”
Anne continues, “We had a barrage of cancellations. In fact, we had to cancel our Hogmanay celebrations.”
Says Gary, “People are slowly coming back to the offices although we are still missing customers that previously came from the City Council offices, which are nearby because these offices have not yet really reopened. We also get plenty of local traffic, but tourists have been scarce. We are hoping that tourism will soon get back on track.”
Today with the opening of Copper Still, a name the couple registered a number of years ago, their estate Omni Taverns is now five-strong. It has been, says Gary, “relatively slow growth.” But explains Anne, “That is because we like to buy freehold sites.”
The two also have quite different roles within the business. Anne looks after the accounts, marketing and deals with the suppliers while Gary deals with the operational aspects of the business.
I asked them whether they put their IT skills to good use. “Absolutely,” says Anne. “We probably could do more if we had more time. We are definitely the techiest in the company and if we had the time we would automate more.
He is also the whisky fan, although Anne does drink it, she has more of a preference for wine. But Gary utilises his IT skills here too. He explains, “I look at what is selling and make sure we have the most popular brands in each of our places. For instance, here we don’t have such a big gantry but we still have a selection of our most popular whiskies .”
The couple’s two children also have a keen interest in the business with their son having already joined and their daughter, who is at university, working in the bar when she is free. Anne says, “It is great that they are both interested in the business.”
It is indeed. This family-run business, which now has more than 100 employees, is definitely one to watch.