The benefits of visiting a whisky bar
Finally. God pats me on the head and says “Good boy Scotty”. After weeks at sea and a virtual disappearance from the world of whisky, I finally land on my feet. Due to the mis-match of COVID quarantine rules for seafarers between Scotland and England, I find myself in London for 10 days while I wait out the time limit before I can return to the land of my birth.
Seeing as it has been some time since I’ve drunk any whisky, I was straight down to the hotel bar to observe the spirit offerings. Pretty poor for a whisky enthusiast, but as a bit of a peathead, it could have been a lot worse. Talisker, Ardbeg, Laphroaig 10, Lagavuilin 16, Dewars 12, Glenfiddich 12, Blue Label Johnny Walker, Chivas Regal 12 and a dribble of Macallan 18. Pretty uninspiring, so I knew I’d have to look further afield.
A whisky SOS was put out on Twitter and while I got a couple of replies and DM’s, the only meeting that came to pass was with Claire Vokins, a fellow member of the whisky twitterati and occasional blogger (www.woodforwhisky.com). It was agreed to meet at Milroys of Soho, a whisky shop / bar in Greek Street, just in time before I nipped back up the road to Scotland.
It was good to meet Claire, and we soon got into the whisky based topics that I knew we would. But it was hard to keep my eyes off the shelves behind the bar, wondering what whisky to start with after a warm-up beer. I’m cursing the fact that I didn’t take photos now, so you’ll have to make do with some I pinched from the web. Being in a whisky bar isn’t a new experience for me and I hadn’t planned to blog about it.
The set up of the bar is quite simple. World whiskies at the far end, moving to Islay at the opposite end. The cheaper drams are at the front with the more expensive ones to the rear. Much more expensive are the top shelf whiskies.
My last article touched on the concept of buying whisky that you may not drink. I’ve been collecting whisky since 2006 and I have to be honest there are some bottles in my collection I’ll never open. Partly as I did buy them with investment in mind, some because their value has risen beyond a point I’d feel comfortable opening, and some because I’ve discovered that I just like the look of the bottle but have no real desire to taste the dram over others that I want to drink more. This leads to the issue that I have bottles I will never know what they taste like.
If you are a newcomer to whisky, it is tempting to try as much as you can. While this is a laudable ideal, it can get very expensive when buying multiple bottles. It gets even more damning when you discover you don’t like the liquid within. This is why a whisky bar is an ideal solution for the enthusiast, collector and novice alike.
- You get a bigger range to try from.
- You aren’t committed to buying a whole bottle that you may not ever like.
- Staff can give advice based on your taste preferences – this is a crucial difference between a whisky bar and a normal bar.
- For the collector it can give the opportunity to try a dram in their collection without the need to open it.
These are the four positives, although there are caveats which some of my drinking companions last night found themselves falling foul of. Let me introduce you to Matt, Oliver and Harry. Oliver was a wine drinker and didn’t like whisky, so his two mates were trying to persuade him otherwise. Harry was an inquisitive newcomer to whisky and Matt – I’m not really sure where he was on a whisky journey and seemed a little squiffy, but all three were a good laugh in the end.
Matt had heard me and Claire talking about our drams, and started asking questions, so we started giving guidance. After Claire had left I continued to talk with them. Harry became more inquisitive and asked very pertinent questions over barrel types and how to taste whisky. By this point I was on a Linkwood 19 Darkness, a whisky that has been finished for three months in a PX Octave. This was a heavenly whisky, which gave me strong chocolate and coffee notes and was easily my whisky of the night, despite some pretty good contenders to choose from. However, Matt ignored my suggestion not to buy a round of Darkness for his mates and soon found out it was £21 a dram. Didn’t seem too happy about it but that was a rookie error. However he did enjoy it so all was good in the end.
This is where you have to be careful in a whisky bar. Without wanting to seem snobbish, there is no point going instantly for the expensive drams as a novice. You’ll maybe know that the whisky is good and you like it, but you’ll have few points of reference to know why it is good and how it ranks compared to other whiskies. For instance, I knew the Linkwood Darkness was good once I tasted it, but I can get almost as good an experience from drams that were a lot cheaper. We all know you can get decent drams under £40 a bottle, but knowledge takes time to acquire and requires you have many experiences to build up that mental data bank.
Once you are a more experienced hand and you know what you like, it becomes easier to discern what styles you like tasting and knowing what you would like to taste next. This is why a well stocked whisky bar is a cornucopia of delights for whisky geeks like me – the proverbial kid in a candy shop.
One thing to point out that in a bar like Milroys where you run a tab and pay before you leave, you have to keep an eye on the spending if you have little experience. For me, I never once asked the price of any drams I bought; I picked the drams I wanted to taste based on what I knew about the distilleries and being allowed to smell the bottle contents before I came to a decision. Specialist whisky bars often give tiny samples to allow you to try before you buy, which is another bonus. I had no idea of what I spent, and apart from the Linkwood I had no idea of what each dram cost until I got my bill. 5 drams and a beer came to £76. Bargain, especially considering the quality whisky I felt I had consumed as well as the company and ambience I had over the course of the evening.
Another good point for the inexperienced whisky bar novice is to plan your drams. Try and stick to lower abv drinks to start with. Also, if you are planning to drink a heavily peated whisky, then try to have that towards the end of your night, or have a suitable palate cleanser to hand. The higher abv’s will possibly desensitise your taste buds and impair your enjoyment of something more delicate afterwards. Plus you are at a danger of getting intoxicated quicker. Consider a high abv whisky as a finisher whisky before you head home.
My final tip for whisky bar newbies is to be cautious in picking a dram that only has one or two drams left in it. Whisky bars will not gas their bottles to arrest oxidation and evaporation. The plus side is that stock in a specialist whisky bar will not be sitting long, so the effect should be minimal. However if buying a more expensive dram and it has a small amount in it, consider asking how long since that bottle has been opened. Under 6 months and everything should be good. After that, it’s anybody’s guess. Some whisky shelves have lighting facing the bottles that generate heat and will have an effect on the rate of oxidation and evaporation. Having said that, I’ve had bottles open 5 years and they tasted fine, but I’d bet they aren’t at the stated abv on the bottle. Being cautious can ensure you are actually getting what you paid for.
The bottle of Macallan 18 in the hotel that I mentioned earlier got finished during my stay in London. I bet the consumer didn’t get as good an experience as they would have had from the first pour. Let the lesson sink in as that would not have been a cheap dram.
For the record, the whiskies I tried were (in order):
- Fable Whisky Benrinnes 12 y.o / Chapter 4 (57.5% abv)
- Gordon & Macphails Single Malt Whisky – Speyside 21 y.o (40% abv). Turns out it was a Cragganmore.
- Whisky Barron Glentauchers 6 y.o (62.5% abv)
- Darkness Linkwood 19 (48.5% abv)
- Bruichladdich Port Charlotte OLC 1 (55.1% abv)
If you are wondering if I took notes on any of the whisky, then the answer is no. Whisky is meant to be enjoyed, not constantly analysed. I get much from more tasting in good company. Indeed, once Claire, Harry, Matt and Oliver had all left, I fell into conversation with Jason, one of the bar tenders at Milroys who was enjoying a day off drink. If you think that all we spoke about was whisky you’d be mistaken. It turns out we have a shared enjoyment of photography. Another geek moment.
There’s more to whisky than a simple alcoholic drink… if you haven’t experienced a specialist whisky bar, then you need to.
Thanks to everybody mentioned in this article. I had a great night and look forward to be able to return. Also thanks to the two on duty bar tenders who I didn’t catch the names of – one was on her first day I believe. Your service was exemplary.
Matt, thank you for your generosity of offering to buy me a drink. I only refused because I could have really taken the piss accidentally as I wasn’t asking the price of drams and didn’t want to take advantage. Maybe next time buddy.
Yours In Spirits
All Photos – Authors Own unless otherwise credited.