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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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Movember – Edinburgh Whisky Blog style

‘I expect Charles Maclean will be there,’ I thought to myself as I power-walked along a drizzly Princes Street in Edinburgh last week. Tiger from Edinburgh Whisky Blog had invited me to a whisky tasting in aid of Movember, a cause close to the blog’s heart with Hoban, Lucas, Turbo and Tiger sprouting a mo’ every November. We would be sampling the rarest and most outlandish bottles they could come by (legitimately) and the venue would be Ruffians Barbers. Whisky and expressive facial hair. Definitely Charlie Maclean territory.

The opening cocktail, courtesy of Solid Liquids.

 

I ducked into the uber-modern though somehow classic decor of Ruffians and grasped my bearings. I’ve passed the Barbers so often on the bus from St Andrews: it’s rich blue exterior promising relaxation and professionalism. What I hadn’t previosuly glimpsed from the X59 was Martin Duffy and Alan Fisher from Solid Liquids hand-carving stainless ice to deposit into giant glass tumblers, nor row upon row of stemmed blenders glasses receiving their measures of precious spirit. If I’m honest I hadn’t spotted Charles Maclean on the premises before, either, but there he was, lending a proprietorial air.

The Edinburgh Whisky boys arrived and the place gradually filled up. Martin pushed one of the tumblers into my hand: a Talisker 10yo infusion, ahed in a tiny oak barrel seasoned with Sherry to which charred pineapple syrup and bitters had been added, finished off with a candied grapefruit peel moustache. Almost simultaneously, I made the acquaintance of Ruffians owner, Ian Fallon. A charming chap, and I wish them luck with the opening of their London shop next month.

A kilted-Hoban and Tweed-bedecked Tiger opened proceedings. Chris explained why we were all there: to get behind the Movember initiative which raises awareness of the No. 1 and 2 most common male-specific cancers: prostate and testicular cancer. From humble beginnings in Australia, the charity has raised millions for research and publicity, aided by a platoon of global moustached-activists.

Tiger and Hoban spreading the word.

Back in Edinburgh, we lathered up with the whiskies, starting with a very special, historical whisky from Chris Hoban’s collection. In June last year, Chris and a select group of other bloggers (not yours truly, sadly) were invited up to Glenfiddich to ‘help’ Grant’s Master Blender, Brian Kinsman, recreate the Stand Fast blend as detailed in William Grant’s own ledger dated June 1912. As Chris pointed out, legislation has changed since Willie Grant’s time and they couldn’t use 2-year-old whisky in their blend but some sensitive nosing and lateral thinking – or maybe chucking a lot of whisky into a measuring cylinder and hoping for the best – resulted in Stand Fast. Never commercially released, Chris had donated his own bottle to delight the crowd. I found this a lovely blend: sharp barley, very rich, firm vanilla tones and a thick carpet of peat smoke.

Tiger admitted that, even with a single cask, he could not match the rarity of Chris’s Stand Fast. The sharp, malty and feisty Glenfarclas from the SMWS took they evening into a burlier direction, one only confirmed with the Sherry-soaked wonders of Karuizawa, Spirit of Asama. I had never experienced this cult Japanese single malt before but Hoban furnished us with a bit of background. Built in the 1950s, its owners wished to make a whisky as close to Scotch – and the Macallan especially – as possible. Small stills, floor maltings, everything about Karuizawa was designed to pile flavours on top of flavours. I liked it a lot.

We were well-stocked with thought-provoking whiskies.

To the final dram of the evening, officially at least, and it was one to put hairs on the chest if not the upper lip. David Sinclair of Diageo bestowed a bottle of Talisker 30yo, for which I for one was deeply grateful. A Special Release from a couple of years back, this was Talisker extruded through a Viscountess’s drawing room: time in cask had added layers of exotic dried fruit, a delicate waxiness and polished oak. The smoky side had relaxed into yesterday’s Russian caravan tea. Just exquisite.

The £10 entry fee had garnered each attendee some Raffle tickets and the prizes had been winking at us all night like quiz machines with an improbably high jackpot. These comprised the contents of EWB’s drinks cabinets: everything from duty free Balblair, Glenfarclas for the Belgian market, new Glenfiddichs and many more whiskies you just can’t find down at your local Tesco. Unfortunately I had to leave for a train, but I’m confident the money rolled in with bountiful donations and big smiles. No one does a charity whisky tasting quite like Edinburgh Whisky Blog. Many thanks to the guys for inviting me, and I wish them luck with their personal sponsorship drives – and the resulting taches.

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Auchentoshan Presents: The Taste Experiments

The contrast between the Balvenie Fete and Auchentoshan’s Taste Experiments could not have been more glaring. Where one had been relaxed, timeless and traditional, the Glasgow leg of the triple-distilled Scotch whisky brand’s Presents series upped the ante on the cutting edge front. The word ‘molecular’ may even have been used…

Billed as part cocktail masterclass, part food matching, part taste bud examination with a bit of whisky thrown in, I didn’t begrudge the two and a half hour bus ride to Glasgow required to attend the event. As far as I could make out, Auchentoshan wanted to step away from the tried-and-tested modes of introducing people to whisky and incorporate a bit more science, a bit more mystery, a bit more variety. It was a whisky tasting for those who don’t do whisky tastings.

Mr Lyan kicks off the Auchentoshan Taste Experiments.

The London event in July called upon the considerable talents of Rachel Barrie, master blender for Auchentoshan, cocktail consultant extraordinaire Ryan Chetiyawardana (AKA Mr Lyan), coffee experts DunneFrankowski and Rebel Dining Society. Read Miss Whisky’s review of the first jamboree here.

The personnel were stripped down for the Glasgow event, held at the sumptuously Classical Corinthian Club on Ingram Street. Food pairings were out, and Rachel Barrie was also sadly absent, but Mr Lyan’s cocktails – a masterclass if ever there was one in creative simplicity – still featured on the menu. In the ground floor bar, we sipped our Auchentoshan Classic julep (enlivened with chocolate bitters and grapefruit peel) and chowed down on the mighty haggis balls in preparation for kick off. Attendees numbered at least 30 – Tiger and Turbo from Edinburgh Whisky Blog amongst them – and Ryan’s crushed ice must have been on its last legs, the bar spoon worn to a stub with all the frantic stirring.

The Auchentoshan Classic julep.

With the final table cocktailed, Ryan could step out from behind the bar wearing a natty Auchentoshan apron. We were promised that he and the DunneFrankowski boys would be playing ‘a few experiments on you’ but I sensed that none in the room was deterred.

Even a hike up the stairs to a more out-of-the-way chamber did not alarm anyone. Before us were Glencairn glasses filled with what looked very much like whisky. So far so familiar. The little plastic vials had not made it to any previous tasting of mine, however, nor had the glass pots filled with cotton wool. Balloons were completely out of my comfort zone.

The DunneFrankowski 'lab'.

Victor Frankowski stepped forward to outline the evening’s itinerary which began with puncturing that balloon. The smell of Bourbon oak descended softly to focus the mind. Next, we nosed those seven different cotton wool swabs, steeped in chemical compounds supposedly found in whisky. Rob Dunne urged us to focus on first impressions and lock in to our visual memory. I’m hopeless at these exercises, and with the exception of Pot 5 was way wide of the chemically-determined mark. Throughout I found everything from honey to carpet; we were promised that these compounds did occur in single malt whisky, although in varying concentrations and were all desirable when combined intelligently. I confess – sitting a good way down one of the tables as I was, with a talkative chap on my right – I could not catch every essence by its official title. As it turned out, this wasn’t the point. Our sense of smell is highly individuated, and each of us will have a separate interpretation for the chemical stimulus: the sweet will give rise to different impressions, as will the heavier or sharper compounds. That there was broad consensus, but not outright agreement, fitted the pattern.

Rob’s personal mission was to ensure we differentiated between taste and flavour: the one objective, the latter subjective. Taste, he said, could only be one of five properties according to Western standards. There then ensued ten minutes of guests passing round little droppers, holding noses with one hand while squeezing liquids onto tongues with the other and registering the geography of their impact. So far, so silly, but it did underline the advantages to pushing whisky around the mouth.

My highlight was the PTC test: the plastic vials on our tasting mats were at last employed yet they contained no cotton wool, or liquids – not even another smaller balloon - but rather paper. The PTC strip divided the room. Some, incredibly, could not taste the rubberised, acrid bitterness of the middle vial but it would seem this is genetics in action. 20% of the population cannot detect this compound, which means that Campari shouldn’t phase them. Others were aware of the taste but could tolerate it. I thought I might be one, but the horror worsened.

With this insight into our palates, we turned to the whiskies with Mr Lyan as our compere: Auchentoshan Classic, Valinch and Threewood. I have discussed these whiskies before so shall move on to the cocktails, also courtesy of Mr L: a delicious Classic Hi-Ball made with the Auchentoshan, Creme de Poires, lemon juice, syrup and ginger ale. Three further bottles accompanied them, however: labelled Sweet, Sour and Bitter, these concentrates could be added by ourselves to adjust the cocktail according to our preferences.

'Salt and pepper' for my hi-ball.

I had to run out on the Threewood Old-Fashioned as I my parole from the Central Belt bus network had expired. The Taste Experiments proved enlightening, surprising and entertaining, however. The interdisciplinary approach worked very well as the coffee and cocktail meisters came at the topic unencumbered by tradition or marketing. That being said, Rachel Barrie’s chemical background and experience in the industry would have been greatly appreciated. The future of whisky tastings? Taking people to another sensory dimension alongside whisky definitely has merit as a technique for illuminating the rewarding complexity of the spirit. I’m just not sure where I would store all that ice, or whether Holland & Barrett stock PTC…

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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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