Since 1971, the Bon Accord in Glasgow's Charing Cross had been known as one of the city's finest alehouses; at one point being the sole establishment in the neighbourhood to go above and beyond the traditional Scots pub drinks list of lager, 'heavy' and a blend. However, by the late 90s, the pub's reputation, which once had been as golden as the ales it served, was beginning to tarnish. This is when Paul McDonagh signed on the dotted line for the Bon Accord. A new era had begun.
"First and foremost I'm a publican. Then I'm a real ale man. Then I'm a whisky buff. In that order," says Paul. I find myself slightly surprised; this is, after all, a pub that not only has over 400 whiskies behind the bar, but also hosts six whisky clubs and the annual Glasgow Whisky Festival 'after-party'. It has its own online whisky shop, and is within walking distance of at least four Scotch whisky company headquarters; you're practically tripping over brand ambassadors, distillers and drinks writers. There's even a picture of Ralfy - of Ralfy.com fame - on the wall for goodness sake. "Oh him? He's a good friend of mine. What a man! Let me tell you, he's off his heid!" Paul chuckles.
Noticing my mock indignation that whisky didn't top his list, he proclaims, "You see, you can't just be a 'whisky bar', it doesn't make sense… variety is very important. Imagine if you opened up your wardrobe and you had only one shirt, one pair of shoes, one set of trousers. That's no good." As I listen, I fleetingly wonder if I have to reassess my view of the Bon Accord as a 'whisky bar'; after all, each year around 800 different real ales pass over the polished Victorian counter. As if reading my mind, Paul reveals his latest project, a microbrewery in Cumbernauld. Partnered with Tam Gardiner (of Scotch Whisky Auctions), the Lawman Brew Co has evolved from 'the corner of a flat' to a four cask per brew operation. "Now we're the brewery tap!" he declares, clearly pleased with the project's progress. "You see, I've got the best job in the world because I created it. The environment that I'm in, the drinks, even the people that come in here."
Ok, I think, so it's a real ale pub first, then a whisky bar. Casting my eye across the room, I take in the various photographs, trophies and memorabilia visible on almost every surface. I realise that now I know what to look for, the influence of Paul's personality can be seen as clearly as a fingerprint on a glass. No, it's his pub first.
Suddenly, Paul is on his feet and shaking hands with some customers by the bar, welcoming them like old friends. Later, I ask if they're regulars. "No, but that's the great thing about this place," he explains enthusiastically, "You do have John, who sits there every day at one o'clock and does his crossword and Jim that comes in bang on five. But then we have others that come in monthly, six monthly, yearly. We've got people from Germany, France, New Mexico, Toronto; they come every couple of years… this pub is truly global!"
I have a feeling that I already know why a visit to the Bon Accord inspires such loyalty, and it's not the drinks list, or even the long list of celebrities who are known to drop by - Franz Ferdinand had been in the previous week, a Rangers FC striker the week before. What struck me the most on my first visit was Paul's generosity. Drinking there with a group of friends one Saturday afternoon two years ago we praised a particular independent bottling which, as it turned out, was unavailable in the UK. As we were leaving, Paul presented a fresh bottle to us and said farewell with a smile.
I suspect that were I to ask around the bar, a long list of similar examples would emerge, and that as much as the Bon Accord's patrons love the pub itself, many more return to see one person in particular. Paul, however, is adamant that the pub's success is down to the effort put in by the team, and in particular, the contribution of his family. With a bemused look, he mentions how visitors often end up behind the bar to have their photo taken, "But the funny thing is, they always want a cuddle! Usually a couple of the guys will ask to get the picture, then the lassies jump over and suddenly they're all cuddling me… it's really something," he trails off, shaking his head at this seemingly inexplicable behaviour. Why would a trip to a pub do that to a stranger from the other side of the world?
I think I know why.
On the Back Bar
"That's the thing about malt whisky, it's a conversation in a glass. I like a dram with a story and these four have good ones!" - Paul McDonagh
"We're partnered with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, which is great as we find that customers love the story of the society, how it was set up and what it does today. It gives them the opportunity to try something special that they'd often never get access to."
Hunter Laing 'Old & Rare' Clynelish 18 Years Old 1996
"Again, you've got a good story with their bottlings; firstly, because the boys who run it are regularly in and it's nice to be able to point across the bar and say 'that's who bottled it'. Secondly, there's lots to say about Hunter Laing just now because they're building a distillery."
Single Cask Nation Tobermory 10 Years Old
"Now I really like the stuff they produce. It's also a real conversation piece, the idea of Kosher whisky and their 'Single Cask Nation' community. The guys do tours too, which always end up in here!"
Tullibardine - 10 Years Old Single Cask 'The CAMRA Accord'
"This one here is the first cask of whisky that I ever bought and it was just bottled in December (2015), after 10 years! To be honest, I hadn't been that looking forward to it; I'd worried that after all this waiting it wouldn't be all that. But then we opened it up and I went 'Oh Jesus - that's brilliant!' It's called the 'CAMRA Accord' for CAMRA - you know the Campaign for Real Ale? - and 'Accord' for the Bon Accord. You see, a guy from CAMRA and myself went on a tour to a brewery and a distillery in one day and ended up buying the cask together!"