The Fife Arms: The luxurious bar at this Highland hotel is a whisky wonderland

The Fife Arms: The luxurious bar at this Highland hotel is a whisky wonderland

A visit to Bertie’s Bar at The Fife Arms in Braemar brings a whole new perspective on the whisky-drinking experience

Travel | 27 May 2022 | Issue 183 | By Phoebe Calver

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Bertie’s is not a place – it’s a feeling. Well, obviously, it is a place, but please allow me a moment to be a little transcendental here, because how often do you get a chance for that? The overriding emotion that comes back to me when recalling an evening spent in Bertie’s Whisky Bar is something reminiscent of being a child in a sweet shop: completely awe inducing, with a feeling of not knowing where to begin.

Before you start to wonder what was in my morning coffee, let me give you the facts. In order to gain access into the gap in the universe that is Bertie’s, you must first take a stroll through the living art known as The Fife Arms hotel in Braemar, Aberdeenshire. Looking upon the hotel from the outside, you’d be correct in thinking you were about to enter a hotel that is as traditional as can be. However, leave all assumptions at the door. The Fife Arms has been situated at the heart of Braemar since the 19th century, the town made famous for its yearly highland games, known as the Braemar Gathering, which attracts visitors from across the globe – including HM The Queen and a Royal entourage.

The Victorian coaching inn was completely transformed when bought by its current owners, presidents of Hauser & Wirth in Zurich, which is known as one of the most influential galleries for modern and contemporary art. Following extensive renovations to the building, The Fife Arms re-opened to the public in December 2018, unveiling interiors inspired by the stories, culture and landscape of Braemar that show real respect for the local history and community. Within the walls of the hotel, the juxtaposition between Highland tradition and artistic expression is quite something to behold.

Be it the Picasso casually hanging in the sitting room, or the Red Deer Chandelier by Richard Jackson in the hotel lobby, the pair behind the reinvented hotel were not afraid to showcase the variety of life and art. Even before you find yourself in Bertie’s, the hotel itself provides a sensory overload. Each of the 46 bedrooms and suites are infused with stories, the restaurant overlooks the River Clunie, and a beloved village bar named The Stag Pub features portraits of members of the local community.

If you’re interested in exploring some or all of the 14,000 pieces of art that The Fife Arms has to offer, the team are on hand with tours and in-depth explanations about each and every piece. However, I was in search of a different kind of art – bottled masterpieces, if you will – that can only be found in Bertie’s, which is tucked away in one of the far corners of the hotel. Its location and moody, luxurious interiors make it the perfect space to allow the senses to truly roam free, uninterrupted by the external noise of the word.

Bertie’s. The bar was opened in May 2021, providing the hotel’s guests with yet another unexpected delight for the senses. Its interior is elegance personified and was named to honour Queen Victoria’s eldest son, King Edward VII – known as ‘Bertie’. When you consider whisky not just as a liquid, but an entirely sensory experience, Bertie’s is a space that is perfectly crafted to heighten that fact. The room is filled with dark colours, dimmed lighting and, of course, an incredible number of bottles. There are 365, to be exact – one for every day of the year.

A look through the bar

Upon your first look at the room, it may feel overwhelming to see the library of whiskies awaiting on the shelves. However, this feeling quickly dissipates thanks to the welcoming team, on hand at all times. During my evening there, the bar’s lights turned to rich red, encouraging an even more relaxed atmosphere as I perused the plethora of options available. As part of our group’s stay at The Fife Arms, our experience in Bertie’s was to be led by its manager, Mark Shedden, who brings with him a vast array of experience in the food and beverage industry. Whisky has always been a passion for him and has played a pivotal role in his storied career to date.

On the subject of first impressions at Bertie’s, he explained, “We’re fully aware that this room can be a bit daunting for someone walking in, particularly if you don’t have the experience and that’s what myself and the team are here for, to guide people through this selection. “When someone comes in, within three or four questions we can narrow them down to an area, with five or six questions we can narrow them down to three bottles.”

“You could lose yourself for many hours... the actual collection is 365 whiskies that are ever-changing, many that are limited editions and many that are last of their kinds... so there’s always something new for you to try.”
Without passing any judgement on the whisky knowledge of guests in the room, Shedden curated a selection of four whiskies for our tasting with the hope that there would be at least one we hadn’t tried before – and he nailed it.

The tasting itself took us across the globe, from Speyside to the Isle of Skye and on to California – Bertie’s is all about the journey. When it came to organising these whiskies, tradition was thrown out of the window. “We worked in collaboration with Dave Broom in order to put this together, and, according to his book The Whisky Manual, he coined the theory that the idea of splitting whiskies into regions was a thing of the past – so essentially what he started talking about in that book was the distinction of four flavour categories: fragrant, fruity, rich, smoky.”

The Bertie’s team have taken this theory and made it practical for the space, as Shedden explains, “The whole room divided. We have our fragrant whiskies in which you can have your citric flavours, estery fruits, your flowers, your malts, your spices. This opens the door into the fruity section, starting with the stone fruits, honey fruits, red berries, tropical fruits and finishing up with coconuts. Rounding the corner to rich section, we have our sweet fruits like apricots, your dark forest fruits, big spices, chocolates, your sherry bombs and stewed meats. Opening the door nicely into your smoked section, light smokes, wood smokes, your maritime, then into your massive peat smokes. So, it is a journey around the room.”

And that, quite frankly, is the most apt way of explaining your experience at Bertie’s: it’s a ‘spiritual’ journey.
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