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London Bar Trawl – Pt. I

If you have been offended by the chasm of silence which has gripped the Scotch Odyssey Blog since the beginning of the year, I do apologise. However, in order to write interesting posts about whisky you have to get out there and do interesting whisky-related things. If reportage was somewhat thin on the ground, therefore, I assure you my fieldwork was pretty intense.

Part way through January I had an internship lined up with those lovely people at Compass Box Whisky Co. Regular readers cannot have failed to pick up on my fanatical thirst and approval for Compass Box creations. For more than a decade John and his growing team have crafted and marketed whiskies that appeal to my geeky side as well as being frankly delicious. When I approached founder John Glaser about the possibility of becoming the glorified office bitch for a couple of weeks, therefore, my love and respect for their products overwhelmed any negative considerations about where they operate from: London.

England’s capital city is, to one who grew up on the back-of-beyond Northumbrian coast and attends a university on the back-of-beyond Scottish coast, an alien province equally glitzy and frightening. The size, the over-crowding, the aggressive furthering of one’s own interests – it was a scary place in my mind. Then you read about the cool whisky launches and events, and most especially the bars of London, and it starts to pulse in your imagination as the intersection of creativity, choice and quality.

In my second week at Compass Box, I made the decision to delay – or at any rate elongate – my 1 hour 20 minute commute back to Enfield where I was staying and check out a few bars whose reputations preceded them. This meant going to Shoreditch. Buoyed by good module results, I had three bars in mind which I hoped would show me a good time and serve me a stupendous drink.

Hawksmoor (Spitalfields), 157A Commercial Street, E1 6BJ

Word in the office was that Hawksmoor was the place to go if I wanted an excellent cocktail and a bite of something tasty to eat. The inclusion of the basement bar on my itinerary was rendered absolutely necessary by the cocktail menu and one ‘Stolen Heart’; none other than Compass Box’s iconic Spice Tree combined with Kamm & Sons Ginseng Spirit and apricot brandy.

The fare at Hawksmoor, Spitalfields.

Ducking off the high street and into the narrow stairway, I found a thick wooden door at the bottom behind which was part Turkish baths ante-room, part Art Deco diner. Lots of richly-coloured ceramic tiles prevented this space from being too dark. A very friendly (bearded, of course) man took my order. I went for the roast ox cheek sandwich and one Stolen Heart. I would have sat at the bar but every stool was taken with Young Professionals enjoying the craic with the bartenders. From what I overheard, they were in the drinks industry, also, so this is where those who work with beverages come to consume beverages. The clientele was otherwise a mish-mash: couples out for a quick snack before the pub, single businessmen not quite ready to face the commute back home.

I enjoyed my sandwich immensely although at £12 I would have wanted more sandwich. Maybe a second one, perhaps. The Stolen Heart was silky yet palate-gripping at the same time, the Compass Box supplying a buzzing energy at the base. It was probably the weakest of the cocktails I had on the night, however. Having paid the bill (I’d discover 12.5% service charges are standard practice in such places) it was on to the next bar.

The Worship Street Whistling Shop, 63 Worship Street, EC2A 2DU

Shoreditch is apparently so restlessly trendy it is in the process of being knocked down and remodelled. Inspecting Google Maps, none of the building sites I had to navigate were shown which made finding Worship Street more difficult than it really needed to be. When I saw another basement entrance, however, I knew I’d arrived.

The Whistling Shop was recognisable for two reasons: I’ve read a lot about it, bar consultant Ryan Chetiyawardana being something of a UK bartending Buddha. Ryan has also worked on Bramble in Edinburgh, which is my ‘local’ and possibly favourite bar. The low lighting and tucked-away bar space was very similar. Also, it managed to feel like the St Mary’s Library here in St Andrews: two sides of the seating area are walled with books. The idea is to meld ‘the charm of Victorian squalor with the elegance of grand gin palaces’. Quite.

The menu fits on one side of A4, which is a good thing, in my opinion. There are only  so many mini oak casks and weird tinctures you can store on the bar at any one time, and it lends a feel of specialism to the operation. Not exactly seasonality, but what the bartenders are excited about at that moment. I went for the Pikesville Rye Whiskey, which is not telling the whole story. The guys have ‘finished’ rye whiskey with port and left it in a mini cask to fuse in flavour. This is decanted into a little thimble glass and served alongside ginger ale with an enormous slice of lemon peel. You drink one, then the other, or pour one into the other – it really depends. The first sip of the spirit/port combo with the ginger ale next was delicious. It carried on being delicious, in fact.

So inspired was I by the liquids on display – the Peat & Umami tincture which went in to the Late Pickings cocktail was extraordinary – I had another, the Onesie. For this they take Four Roses and combine it with a hop distillate and pale ale syrup. Fascinating concept, but it came across as a touch too soft and grassy for my tastes.

NOLA, 66-68 Rivington Street, EC2A 3AY

NOLA's Hurricane Sandy.

I decided that one more bar was essential, and NOLA had been recommended by a St Andrews partner in crime. This is a Creole/Cajun/Deep South/Big Easy bar concept co-founded by Dan Priseman, Four Roses ambassador and writer of the excellent Bitters & Twisted blog. When I came to a red brick underpass with a giant mural on it I thought I’d gone too far. NOLA is another bar that you have to squeeze into, as though through a cocktail cat flap. This time, I was heading upstairs rather than down.

The bar was quieter than Hawksmoor and Worship Street had been, but that allowed bartender Ian to be still more friendly. It is a real pleasure being able to chat to London bartenders and easily the best way to discover where else is doing exciting things and who you need to check out. For example, we had an in-depth discussion about where the best banana daiquiris were to be had in East London. The décor of NOLA is relaxed, fun and with great attention to detail. The bar itself is beautiful: carved wooden cabinets showcasing the wealth of spirits (with a strong Four Roses line-up, as you would expect) on offer.

I liked the look of the Hurricane Sandy, a twist on the classic Blood and Sand. Rather than the sweet vermouth, Monkey Shoulder was combined with orange and lime juice as well as cherry brandy. Masses of crushed ice made for an amazingly refreshing drink.

Every bar I went into offered a distinct atmosphere, interpersonal protocol and drinks selection. Every bar was professional but homely, too. It was leaving NOLA that I thought: ‘I want to live somewhere I can find such hospitality and creativity on my doorstep. London rules’. I still favour Bramble in Edinburgh, though, for reasons of economy (cocktails are usually £2-£3 cheaper) but also intimacy. It is a London approach to mixing great drinks with a more particular feel.

If pressed, I would go back to NOLA of the three. I feel that, later on in the evening, this would really be a place to let your hair down while enjoying excellent drinks. Next time I’ll talk about three more bars I visited – only this time, I had the Compass Box office with me.

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The St Andrews Brewing Co. Pub

The new craft brewing pub in St Andrews.

Picture it: you’re an independent brewing collective with a contemporary approach, you focus on craft, quality and novelty, and you have opened your first pub in a notoriously moneyed area of golf-mad Scotland. What whiskies do you source for the back bar?

For Bob, Tim and friends of the St Andrews Brewing Company this was their challenge ahead of opening their new BrewPub on South Street, St Andrews. Truth be told, I’ve never been able to stomach ales, stouts, porters, beers in general. Therefore, the sixteen hand-pulled brews and countless refrigerated bottles were not my main concern when the boys opened their doors last week. I was all about the whiskies.

A couple of weeks beforehand, legendary distiller Eddie MacAffer set up stall in the new BrewPub to guide us through three Morrison Bowmore single malts paired with some choice morsels (salmon smoked with Auchentoshan cask shavings paired with Auchentoshan Threewood; Bowmore Darkest with dark chocolate and Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve with Isle of Mull cheddar). Visitor Centre Development Manager for the group, Anne Kinnes, was also there to tell us a little more about the tourism facilities available at MBD’s outstanding distilleries. The BrewPub accommodated us all superbly: indulgently supple leather chairs, wholesome wood and a couple of log-burning stoves made for a homely evening and when Jordan told me that they intended to stock forty whiskies from opening – building to about a hundred - I sensed it would become my second home.

The main bar at the St Andrews Brewing Co.

So how to kit yourself out with the best spirits and ensure you aren’t playing it too safe? With the help of Graeme Broom (Straight Up Whisky), the guys have a most intriguing selection. The first thing you will notice is the heavy prevalence of Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice bottlings. I counted a Teaninich, Clynelish, Arran and Dailuaine while G&M’s own malt distillery, Benromach had a number of expressions such as the rich, pungent Organic, the smoky, soft 10yo and the bracing Peat Smoke. Another great addition is the rich, vanilla-driven Bruichladdich Scottish Barley.

The whisky cupboard.

Finally, however, I can get Compass Box whiskies at a bar in St Andrews. They carry The Peat Monster, Oak Cross and Great King Street. Checking the list, I clocked a Woodford Reserve for the Bourbon fans, Wemyss Spice King 12yo and The Hive 12yo for blended malts and even a Green Spot to keep those with a taste for Irish whiskey happy (i.e., me). The best news? I think the most expensive dram on the list weighs in at £7. As the evenings darken and the air becomes ever more frigid, the St Andrews Brewing Co. would appear to be the ideal venue to drive out the chills. Once they extend their license beyond 11PM, of course, but I’m assured that will be very soon.

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Bramble Bar, Edinburgh

A Bunker for Blissful Beverages

We’ve all been faced with this particular dilemma, right? How do you flesh out the remainder of the evening following a dinner date with some of the planet’s most important whisk(e)y people? Fortunately, if you happen to be in Edinburgh there is a contingency plan for this all-too-frequent eventuality. It’s called Bramble Bar.

Cocktails have appeared on my radar only recently and I say this to my shame. Mitigating circumstances might stretch to having grown up in a Northumbrian market town where ‘cocktails’ start and finish with the Black Russian. However, reading around the wonderful subject of whisky will inevitably alert you to those individuals for whom the spirit has a creative – rather than simply a consumptive - use value. These people interest me for many reasons, such as their understanding of flavour which is demonstrated in contexts and for purposes entirely different from mine. They can also champion whisky’s versatility and bash the whisky-drinking Bible in new ways, attracting new drinkers to the spirit. Mostly, though, they extend the stories and characters of these brilliant drinks, combining flavours and personalities to serve something not only tasty but unique and theatrical. A good cocktail, in its inception and execution, is just like a good single malt or Bourbon.

The Affinity Cocktail.

From what I had read about Bramble Bar previously (look no further than the fabulous feature written by Chris at Edinburgh Whisky Blog), I was expecting a very good cocktail indeed. Chris Hoban, Chris White and I tripped down the steps from Queen Street – a result of the low mood lighting, I assure you, and not our whisky encounters from earlier in the night. The space is snug, white-wash, with exposed stone on walls and floor. Lighting is, as I hinted, sparingly used with the dark bar tucked into the near right-hand corner. The array of drinks looked to be selective and towards the higher end: there was even a Kilchoman on the deep shelves. We deposited bags and ourselves on the yielding, plush bench running along the same wall as the bar and began our tab. To kick off? Three Affinity Cocktails.

The story behind the Affinity is a great one, combining ancient Scotch whisky know-how and techniques from the dawn of cocktails with a modern serve and a climate of inquisitiveness with respect to single malt. Bramble teamed up with Glenmorangie to re-cask their 10yo with vermouth and Byrhh (red wine and quinine) in tiny, 5 litre barrels. These have been ‘maturing’, or ‘marrying’, for a number of months now to meld the raw ingredients and allow the mixture to take on some of that oaky sweetness and structure.

Our Affinities came in a little wax-sealed bottle, with a chilled martini glass complete with cherry. Orange zest came separately. Sipping immediately, the cocktail was rich, sticky and deep, with a mulled wine flavour. Ripping the zest and placing in the drink transformed it, with the oily citrus pulling out some comparable fresh flavours from the Glenmorangie spirit underneath. A stunning, easy-drinking confection.

The Affinity Cocktail with progress made.

With those dispatched, but not before the empty bottles had caught the appreciative eye of a neighbouring drinker who was graciously enlightened by Hoban, thoughts turned to a successor and I grabbed the menu. Much like the illumination, this was a minimalistic list but I realise that – like a really top restaurant – this is no bad thing. Focusing on a few choice morsels and doing them exceedingly well is better than a melee of options. The Affinity had taken great strides to converting me on the whisky-based cocktail issue, having been unsure before, and I hazarded Bramble’s Butter-Scotch Cocktail.

When the drink arrived, accoutrements were a good deal more conventional than with the Affinity, with glassware restricted to the glass itself and the deep orange liquid inside it. The mixologist had put together butter-washed Monkey Shoulder, aperol, Oloroso sherry, vanilla sugar, ginger jam and Peychaud’s bitters. The result was one of the most delicious, soothing, invigorating, thought-provoking, try-this liquids I have ever had. Chris and Chris duly obliged and agreed it was rather special. The high-strength of the whisky had been tamed, with respect to mouthfeel, by the butter-washing process and the fruits, zests and sweetness could cascade lazily on top of one another – like cheesecake mix being poured from the bowl to the tin – on the palate. The whole package was like the FC Barcelona midfield: an operation of supreme slickness, simplicity and quality.

I will be back at Bramble when I am next in Edinburgh to range around their menu which may be the highest complement I have paid in this review so far. I trust the brains who have conceived these drinks and I am amazed by the skill with which they are put together before you. I don’t care what the base spirit it is; the flavour is all I’m bothered about.

Bramble Bar & Lounge, 16A Queen Street, Edinburgh 0131 226 6343

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