"It’s just what bartending is, it’s a never-ending apprenticeship. You’re never going to learn it all and if you say you do, you’re a dick. It’s as simple as that." - Jamie Swift
Meet Jamie Swift, bar development manager of the most recent (and best) incarnation of the Dragonfly cocktail bar Edinburgh. This was an incredibly insightful chat with a truly passionate man filled with a huge and extremely quotable personality.
This is my career, I just want to do as well as I can.
I love hosting, having people feel welcome and happy. I love talking to people, making friends and learning as well - I never stop learning. It’s just the excitement of it all, you never know what you’re going to get. You could wake up tomorrow and learn something completely new or make a new friend from across the world. I love hearing peoples stories, I love it when people sit at the bar and tell me about their ex-girlfriend or children, their family, what they’re doing and why they’re here. That’s what drives me.
You could have the swankiest bar in the world that costs thousands and thousands of pounds but if you walk into that bar and the bartender doesn’t welcome you or makes you feel at home - then it’s dead. It’s too clinical, there’s no warmth there and some of the best bars I’ve been to are some of the shittest looking bars but still you go in and get the warmest welcome. Instantly you feel rapport with the person serving you and that to me - you can change the level of the lights and music but it’s that person you are speaking to behind the bar that to me is the most important.
For me, they’ve got to have a great personality. I can look at a CV and see where they’ve worked but until I meet them, I don’t really mind what their credentials are. They’ve got to have a unique personality - our team right now is filled up with the most random people but that works for some reason. If we’re all the same we clash, each person fits into their own spot.
I love energetic people, people who have a bit of buzz to them. Caring people as well as they’ve got to be in the right state of mind, if someone comes in and they’re not having a great day - you’ve got to be able to relate and feel what they’re talking to you. Be empathic.
Just a bit of a fucking laugh as well - don’t want to have boring people. Personality is big; the way I see it if they don’t exactly have the techniques they can be taught. There have been so many times where I’ve not known certain things and someone has had to teach me. It’s just what bartending is, it’s a never-ending apprenticeship. You’re never going to learn it all and if you say you do, you’re a dick. It’s as simple as that.
You’ve got to be hospitable at the end of the day, that’s one thing we teach the guys all the time. You treat them like family as they come in the door, no matter who they are. You want them to walk in and feel as welcome as possible. If you can get that down, then the rest can follow. I can teach you how to throw a cocktail, teach you how to double shake, whatever it is.
The adrenaline. I revel in it, I love it. When we’re 3/4 deep in the bar and you’ve got checks on and you just feel it. That rush, nothing beats it. It’s my favourite part. Especially when you’re really feeling it but everything just flows, then you can sit down at the end of the night with a pint and just be like “oh, that was fucking busy. That was good, let's do it again tomorrow.”
That and working as part of a team. It’s really important to me. When me and the team are flowing between each other and everything is going well - it just feels so good. There’s no conversation going on really apart from over the bar talking to the customers but I’ll finish a bottle of vodka and next thing I’ll know there’s a bottle of vodka open and ready for me because someone has already clocked that. It’s that synchronicity of a good team that means a lot to me.
The cocktail menu when we went in was, let's just say a little bit behind the times. You’re talking shitloads of passionfruit, there's nothing wrong with a pornstar martini but they were just all different variations of pornstar martinis and differently flavoured daiquiris. The main favourite that had been on the menu for ten years was the raspberry ripple, in which covered the glass in 100 and 1000s - top seller as you can imagine.
Part of changing the menu; because that was a top seller, the guys had said that we need to keep it on. People come back year after year looking for this drink but the drink itself is crap - it tastes awful. It had three types of absolute vodka (raspberry, vanilla and regular) with some cream, a couple of raspberries muddled and a little bit of sugar. It was bland and it was shite, but it just looked pretty with the 100 and 1000s. So I rejigged the whole recipe, made it taste delicious - maybe a little bit too delicious because it’s still our top seller. It kills me, but it is delicious.
As part of the takeover and the staff we kept on, I wanted to work with all the current bartenders to create a menu that they could add to and show their creativity. It helped me understand their level as well as giving them a little bit of pride with a drink on this new menu. It was fun - they came up with some really cool fucking drinks.
All the drinks were designed to be simple and approachable by everyone, most of the drinks I come up with are anyway. I don’t like to have crazy ingredients that when people read them they’ll be like “well I don’t know what that fucking is, I don’t want to order that now”. People don’t want to be confused by crazy ingredients.
(The owners) said they wanted a drink on the menu called “Thistle Dhu”, so I’m like alright I like pun names and did a little research. ‘Dhu’ in Gaelic actually means black so that’s where the activated charcoal comes into it. Thistles, I can work with them - so we forage our own thistles, the nettle cordial that goes into it we forage as well, all got from the base of the castle.
I’m a huge whisky lover and people are scared of whisky. So if I can make them read a whisky cocktail and have them think “fuck that sounds interesting, I want that” I feel like I’m helping the whisky industry. We’re in Scotland. It’s not even about sales, it’s about broadening peoples mind and seeing how whisky can be delicious. You don’t need to sit and sip it in a stuffy room, it’s vast - you can do anything with whisky.
It’s varied, people will notice the warm welcome and some won't. Some people are quite intimidated by that but it really depends on the person. We get all walks of life come into our bar and sometimes its just an old geezer coming in for a pint that doesn’t want to talk to anyone and just wants his pint, to sit on his own and be happy. You’ve just got to be able to gauge that.
Then you have other people coming in that are looking for that welcome. You know you can spend a little more time, making them feel at home but everyone is looking for a different product. You’re not going to make everyone happy, you can try to cover all levels but sometimes you just end up doing a little bit too much or not enough of one thing. You get lost.