Toasting New York

Toasting New York

The Big Apple has some star whisky bars as tried and tasted by Dave Broom

Bars | 16 Oct 1999 | Issue 6 | By Dave Broom

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Not surprisingly, rock singer Jim Morrison’s refrain: "Show me the way to the next whisky bar" kept raging in my head as I tramped the streets of New York searching for that very thing. Actually, it's a ridiculously
easy task.Trying to find the best whisky bars in Kabul would be a test, but New York? This place is drinkers' heaven.So thumbs up to P. J. Clarke's, Sweet & Vicious and some dim place down a back street in SoHo. I asked the name, but the Knob Creek Bourbon was so large I forgot.These were great bars, but my mission was to find ones dedicated to whisky. That's how I ended up outside a scruffy door on 2nd Avenue, peering at a tiny brass plaque that read, ‘Malt Whisky Club’. I rang a bell, was let into a corridor... rang another bell... and was allowed in. By this time I was thinking I'd stumbled onto the set of a Scorcese movie; that upstairs would be a red plush room with goodfellas laughing around tables, listening to opera or The Rolling Stones.Instead there was silence and a golden glow. Behind the low bar that snaked around the far wall were 280 bottles of malt. The owner, Koichi Hiraiwa, smiled, bowed and said: "Welcome to the Hole in One."It still remains the strangest bar I've ever been to. To be accurate, it's not a bar. It is a shrine to whisky, known only to a few expatriate Japanese businessmen – and the odd Scottish distiller. As Mr Hiraiwa talks of how, in 1986, he started business, I scan the gantry. For every well-known brand, there's a semi-mythic dram. I can imagine drinkers approaching the bar with a mixture of anticipation and fear, not knowing where to start.This is a Zen whisky garden in the middle of the craziest city in the world. There again, if you don't have a generous expense account, contemplation is necessary. There's a $30 cover charge and the drams start at $15 a shot. But if you've ever wondered what a 40-year-old Bowmore tastes like and have a spare $980 you can find out here. If that doesn't tempt you, what about a Macallan 1946 at $585 a shot? Usually when a bar has hugely expensive whiskies, it's for show. When I suggest this, Mr Hiraiwa smiles and picks up the 1946. It's half empty. He'd bought it the previous week. The bar's still empty by the time I leave. The Japanese recession has hit business badly, reducing the regular clientele, but Mr Hiraiwa remains ever-cheerful. Back on the street you think it's all been a dream, that, in the middle of this madness there's the world's purest, most perfect place for the contemplation of malt.There was no chance that the North Star Pub in the recently dolled-up South Street Seaport would offer a similar experience. There again, I hardly expected to enter to the sounds of the13 Floor Elevators. It's fair to say that psychedelic music and malt whisky aren't normal bedfellows, but the North Star isn't your usual shrine to malt. For starters it's a pub, albeit with a New York twist. There are no American beers, but there are British ales, Guinness, a range of bottled Belgian beers – and 70 malts.But a pub? As general manager Deven Black explains: "There are 3,000 bars in New York. We had to do something different." The malt range only started to grow when the head of the Bank of Scotland in nearby Wall Street began using the North Star as his local. "We had six malts at that time," Black recalls."He'd ask me for one I hadn't got, so I'd get it. He'd have a couple of drams and then ask for another one I hadn't got. In the space of two weeks I had got 18 and the more I got, the more we sold."The malt novice (or lover) can enjoy self-guided 'tours' of four shots of malt – from different regions, finishes, or ages. It's a great idea and typical of this quirky, friendly drinking den that's thankfully avoided becoming an ersatz British pub. They've captured what the ethos of a pub should be – good drink, good bar staff and good company – but given it a New York buzz allowing financiers, locals and tourists to rub shoulders, drink good drink ... and listen to good music.That said, though the natives may like the touch of the exotic, I wanted something American, a place where everyone knows your name; a place with wood panelling and a well-stocked bar; a place like Keen's. Situated, depending on your preference, either handily close to Macy's or Madison Square Garden, this is the kind of place where you feel naked without a stinky cigar in one hand, glass of liquor in the other, talking about the big fight. There again, perhaps New Yorkers think this wonderful old place, with its clay pipes on the ceiling, uneven floorboards, roaring fires and mutton chops the size of pool tables is just a tourist trap. Maybe they prefer an Irish pub. Life's kinda weird.If you like malt, go. There's 120 to choose from and at more hack-friendly prices than the Hole in One ($30 for the most expensive dram). Like the North Star, Keen's offers introductory flights – four shots for around $20. It's the sort of place you settle into. If you eat one of the mutton chops you'll be unable to move for at least three hours. By that time a few digestif drams will have been sampled and the chat's becoming better by the minute, which is my excuse for not making it to those other great hostelries including The DBA... The Parlour... and The Monkey Bar... Next time.
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