Places

Drinking in the Big Smoke

We look at some excellent whisky bars in the English capital, but also at what is happening elsewhere in the country, a distilling revolution is beginning to bear fruit
By Rob Allanson
London has to be one of the top 10 destinations for any whisky lover; with its plethora of whisky shops and watering holes, the capital is a superb place to explore specialist retailers that offer whisky gems unlike any other outlets, and at some of the whisky bars you can taste the past.However before we dive into some of London’s more notable whisky haunts it is worth giving the English situation consideration as something of a revolution is occurring. In the past England has always proved somewhat less enthusiastic when it comes to the production of the amber liquid; and that can only be expected with stocks and supply of some of the world’s finest malts sitting on the doorstep.Despite this Alfred Barnard reports at least four of the 10 distilleries operating during his Victorian travels were making some form of whisky: “most of them confined to the manufacture of plain spirit for rectifying, but four have been selected as coming within the scope of the present work”.But now the renaissance Whisky Magazine reported on a few years ago is starting to take hold more firmly with a host of pioneering distillers springing up.Heading this revival is of course St George’s distillery in Norfolk. It became England’s first malt whisky distillery in more than 100 years, boldly flying the flag for its highly regarded single malts.The distillery is well worth a visit, just a few hours out of London by car. With master distiller David Fitt at the helm, and some interesting expressions maturing in its warehouse, we can expect more from this distillery over the coming years. Let’s not forget the magic 10 years is not that far away.If you travel further east, to the beautiful seaside town of Southwold, you find the brewing brains of Adnams have indulged themselves in a small-scale distillery at their Sole Bay facility, becoming the first brewery in the UK to make beer and distil spirits on the same premises. With whisky laid down, we wait with anticipation to see what the three year olds will be like.We have already seen the oldest English whisky released, courtesy of a partnership between St Austell Brewery and Healey’s Cyder Farm in Cornwall. The Cornish single malt was bottled at seven years old.Add to this the news of a new distillery in the offing in the Lake District, and the possibility that the Capital’s micro gin distillers Sipsmith might consider creating whisky; the next few years look set to be very exciting times indeed, with the prospect of more pioneering distillers no doubt rising to the challenge of putting English whisky firmly back on the map.However drinkers heading to London in search of rare malt experiences will not be disappointed. There are some superb whisky joints to drink in, and here’s our choice in no particular order: SMWS
19 Greville Street London EC1N 8SQ
Tel +44 (0) 20 7831 4447 Whisky clubs have a tendency to err on the side of geekery, but not the SMWS.The well-known whisky society has been in business since the late 70s and the London site is one of the most popular whisky hangouts in London for a quiet after hours drams. Whether you profess to know anything at all about whisky, it is well worth leaving any prior knowledge at the door and allow oneself to be led on a journey of discovery by the highly experienced bartenders. From big hitting sherried Ardbegs, to bizarre port influenced Penderyns and ludicrously complex grain whiskies, it’s unlikely you’ll ever leave without finding something that gives you that special grin that only a great whisky can.ALBANNACH
66 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DS
Tel +44 (0) 20 7930 0066 www.albannach.co.uk One of London’s first dedicated whisky bars and Scottish-themed restaurants, The Albannach’s menu reflects the changing times in whisky connoisseurship, which a huge emphasis on rare Islay and Island malts as well as an unrivalled selection of Japanese and international treasures.Particular delights include the seldom seen Lagavulin 25 Years Old, a rare mizunara oak Yamazaki from 1986 and the bar’s undisputed top price dram, a 50 Years Old Balvenie from single cask 191, which will set you back a cool £761.The good news is that you get a 50ml measure for your troubles.High rollers aside, the bar caters for every type of whisky enthusiast and also pocket depth, with an number of well designed flights, including the Sommelier’s Choice; five whiskies designed to subtly expand the imbibers palate, from an aged blend, through to a port wood finished masterpiece from Balvenie.THE LONSDALE
48 Lonsdale Road, London W11 2DE
Tel +44 (0) 20 7727 4080 www.thelonsdale.co.uk Whereas from the outside the Lonsdale appears to be another swanky West London cocktail bar and restaurant, the sheer effort which has gone into creating one of London’s best whisky lists is truly commendable.Staff at The Lonsdale pride themselves on the huge list of classic whisky cocktails but with top shelf gems such as Pappy Van Winkle 23 Years Old and Hibiki 17 Years Old, you may find yourself captivated by an array of Glencairn glasses, before you get round to ask for a richly flavoured Maker’s Mark Loretto Lemonade.SALT BAR & DINING ROOM
82 Seymour Street, London W2 2JB
Tel +44 (0) 20 7402 1155 www.saltbar.com The Salt Bar have been instrumental to bringing a new-found level of whisky appreciation to the capital since they opened and landed Whisky Magazine’s ‘best whisky bar in the world’ award back in 2006. The burgeoning list stands at around 220 whiskies from across the globe, with the highlights including an extensive array of Highland and Speyside offerings, such as Glenmorangie 1977 and The Glenlivet 1967 independent bottlings. The bar also has three ‘house single malts’ hand picked by the staff and bottled especially, which neatly sit alongside some intriguingly aged grain whiskies. Plan your trip to Salt with plenty of time to spare and you’ll be rewarded.BOISDALE
15 Eccleston Street, London SW1W 9LX
Tel +44 (0) 20 7730 6922 www.boisdale.co.uk The daddy of all London whisky bars, the much vaunted Boisdale at Eccleston Street, had a son and like most siblings, it grew up to eclipse its father. Boisdale Canary Wharf is a cavernous building situated in the upmarket docklands to the east of the city. Part Jazz venue, part Aladdin’s Cave, Boisdale boasts more than 500 whiskies with some ridiculously rare, vintage and hard to find drams. If you fancy an off-menu whisky cocktail, manager Hannah Lanfear and her team will swiftly ascertain your palate and whip up something truly bespoke.THE WHISTLING SHOP
63 Worship Street, London EC2A 2DU
Tel +44 (0) 20 7247 0015 www.whistlingshop.com Where science meets tradition, all housed in the confines of a Dickensian gin palace.The term molecular mixology has been widely bandied about for several years now and owners of the Whistling Shop, drinks pioneers Fluid Movement, have taken the concept a stage further to develop drinks which defy science. The whisky list is small but perfectly selected, based on flavour profile as opposed to region, age or style.The bar’s manager Ryan Chetiawardana has also developed a number of aged whisky cocktails, which sit on the back bar in miniature, bespoke casks. An inspired relationship with Compass Box has also seen the bar introduce their very own house blend, which sits perfectly in the signature cocktail The Panacea. Lab coats at the ready, fellow imbibers...THE COBURG BAR
The Connaught Hotel, Carlos Place, London W1K 2AL
Tel +44 (0) 20 7499 7070 www.the-connaught.co.uk The bar that time forgot, or to be more precise, the bar that transports you back in time to the glamour, chic and high jinks of the 1920s. The Coburg Bar, based in the five star Mayfair hotel, The Connaught, is perhaps the perfect destination bar to dispense with the rigours of life. Subtle mood lighting, oversized leather chairs and a soundtrack that changes dynamic throughout the day help to transport you back to a pre-prohibition vibe. The whisky list is exquisite; rare Port Ellens sit next to bottles of 1937 Canadian Club and dusty antique bourbons, with names that ceased to exist long ago. For those feeling especially guilty, order a perfect ‘perfect’ Manhattan using an ancient 18 Years Old Waterfill & Frazier bourbon.THE ATHENAEUM HOTEL
116 Piccadilly, Mayfair, London W1J 7BJ
Tel +44 (0) 20 7499 3464 The London hotel bar scene has developed dramatically in the past decade, with the top flight realising the huge potential of developing their whisky lists. The Athenaeum has followed the success of the likes of The Coburg Bar and has a dedicated list of gems from around the globe. Sister restaurant, The Rib Room also deserves a special mention for their house ‘Blazer’ cocktail, which features Glenmorangie Astar and vintage sweet vermouth, which is dramatically set alight and mixed close to the customers, for a thoroughly arresting visual experience.THE LEXINGTON BOURBON BAR
96-98 Pentonville Road, London N1 9JB
Tel +44 (0) 20 7837 5371 www.the lexington.co.uk London’s first and best dedicated bourbon bar. Travel up Pentonville Road and before you reach Angel, you’ll be confronted by a huge corner pub-cum-music venue. The upstairs floor at the Lexington has hosted a number of low-key performances from highly successful acts, but downstairs, the real stars are the bourbons, ryes and American whiskies themselves. Small batch, single barrel and imported experimental expressions are the Lexington’s speciality. It is also probably the only place in London where a generous measure of George T. Stagg will cost you a shade over £15.THE BRITANNIA
44 Kipling Street, London SE1 3RU
Tel +44 (0) 20 7403 1030A real gem of a find. The secrets within the Britannia hide behind the doors of an ordinary looking South London boozer.Once inside, you’ll find the surprising sight of a back bar with more than 150 Scotch single malts, bourbons, Irish and world whiskies. There is no pretence or snobbery and the friendly and well-versed staff will be happy to guide anyone from beginner to expert level through their range. A humbling and highly rewarding experience indeed. ALL STAR LANES
95 Brick Lane, London E1 6QL
Tel +44 (0) 20 7426 9200 www.allstarlanes.co.uk Rather like The Lexington, All Star Lanes are the purveyors of a fine selection of hard-to-find bourbons, rye and other noted American whiskies. However, their main USP is perhaps the experience of feeling like a 1950s 10 pin bowling superstar on one of the authentically styled lanes they have next to the bar. Grab a jam jar of Evan Williams’ Honeypot cocktail and pretend you’re an extra from Mad Men.SOHO REPUTATION It’s sandwiched between the shops of Oxford Street and the theatres of Shaftsbury Avenue and for the last 200 years it has been the home of iniquity in London. The fine selection of watering holes and drinking clubs that have played host to legendry thirsts such as Peter O’Toole, Jeffrey Bernard and Oliver Reed. It can be no s urprise that Peter Cooke had to try and walk past the Nellie Dean to get to the offices of Private Eye.Yet in all this time Soho has never had anywhere that catered for the serious Whisky lover. The shopper has been catered for by the likes of the Brothers Milroy and Malcolm Mullin at The Vintage House.But nowhere we can enjoy a really good dram, in a convivial atmosphere.This glaring omission irked Malcolm at The Vintage House. So an idea for turning the first floor offices above the shop into a club has been gradually forming for many years, driven by requests from customers for somewhere they could try a wide range of Whisky at affordable prices.The challenge was that the economics didn’t stack up. However the offices had held a trump card in the form of a sheltered roof terrace. This meant that when the smoking ban was introduced in 2007 the terrace provided a second group of potential clients.The planning for the bar has taken more than three years. The first hurdle was to convince the local council to grant a new licence. Soho is designated a stress area, and the council policy is that no new licence will be permitted. If you have ever been in Soho late at night it is irony will not be lost. Despite this the various planning and licensing officers agreed that the club was a logical extension to a business that had been based in Soho since the Second World War.Getting the design right was a tricky balance between what Malcolm imagined the club should be, and the requirements of the various council departments. Even after their approval of the design, the license application still had to be ratified by Westminster’s licensing committee. In the end it was granted, but only just.Now with licence in place The Soho Whisky Club is open for business. A true members club; where for an annual fee of £200, members can relax and enjoy a wonderful range of whiskies including official and independent bottlings alike, with lots of interesting rarities.It’s been a long journey, but now Malcolm’s dream has finally been realised he is quick to acknowledge the help he has had: “We have received considerable support from both whisky and cigar companies, and we are looking forward to an interesting series of tasting events, including several matching sessions of cigars with whisky and also with rum, cognac and champagnes.”