People

Heather, honey and whisky's future

Jamie Forbes is Albannach's young, gifted and enthusiastic bar manager, and he's bringing malt whisky to a younger audience. Rob Allanson spoke to him
By Rob Allanson
As he settles into one of Albannach’s comfortable sofas, and talks to you about his passion for whisky, you realise that the future of whisky is safe in this 22-year-old Scotman’s hands.Jamie Forbes is fast becoming whisky’s crusader with his innovative cocktails and enthusiasm for the spirit.Customers at London’s Albannach restaurant, overlooking the historic Trafalgar Square, can be certain that this gifted bar manager will be able to guide them through the web of more than 130 whiskies on offer to find something to suit their palate.Jamie, who hails originally from Edinburgh, takes on an ambassadorial role as part of his position at the restaurant.He says: “The idea is to make whisky more central in the market. I really want to dispel this image that whisky is an old man’s drink and the myths that it has to be drunk a certain way with certain things.“Really you can drink it any way you want, and with the rise of cocktails you can do what you like with it too.“It is great to work with whisky here. It is easy to talk to people enthusiastically about some thing that you enjoy, and hopefully this is what comes across from behind the bar.” Despite pushing the boundaries of whisky cocktails, Jamie’s firm favourite tipple still remains a good dram of Lagavulin 16-year-old.Jamie’s passion for the water of life started at university where he took a part time job with his brother at Rick’s Bar in Edinburgh.Sharing with his brother, as he puts it ‘you always try to out do your brother’, Jamie entered a J&B cocktail competition and scooped the top prize, which included an evening with J&B supremo Ian Williamson.He recalls this as his ‘light bulb moment,’ when his path became clear.He says: “Sitting with Ian Williamson for three hours by a fire listening to him talk about whisky was the moment I was hooked. After this I just wanted to learn as much as possible.“I have still so much to learn. Ian Wisniewski has also helped me a lot, and there is no better way to learn.” One of Jamie’s favourite whisky moments was getting the chance to sample a cask strength 1978 Knockando.“I had never really tried cask strength before and always thought that anything more than 50 per cent would take my head off,” he adds. “It did but it was really good.” After deciding to head to London, and several fruitless job applications later, Albannach owner Niall Barnes rang him and offered him a job –and since then Jamie has not looked back.“I had landed on my feet,” explains Jamie.“It is like a home from home so I am very happy, and now I have the chance to spread the word about whisky.“Niall has big plans to expand the Albannach idea to other cities across the world, and I believe in this vision with a strong passion. He is thinking New York, Sydney, Tokyo and Moscow. I hope to head up the bar side of this with a trained team of staff working in other countries with the same passion as we have here in London.“At the moment I have seven staff, mainly because after the bombings trade dipped a little, but now things are picking up and I am looking to recruit.“I like to work with people that have a good reputation in the trade. Sometimes it can be difficult to find strong team members in London.” To make sure his team are up to speed with the whisky world, Jamie has started to run an eight-month training programme.As Albannach already offers a vast 132 different whiskies, and with Jamie constantly expanding the collection, his bar staff are going to need to be on their toes.He explains: “People are starting to get more enthusiastic, and it is great to see them experiencing more whisky.“Independent bottling is something that I am starting to concentrate on, to give people the chance to try something other than their normal drink, so if they like a Macallan 12- years-old, and then they could try a 53-year-old.” Jamie agreed to share one of his prize cocktail recipes with Whisky Magazine readers.He created the Smoked Heather dram to celebrate the release of the Laphroaig quarter cask, and to use one of Scotland’s other most celebrated ingredients – heather, which he has posted from Edinburgh.The ingredients include a dram of whisky, a quarter ounce of Grand Marnier, a half ounce of sweet vermouth, three orange zests, a splash of orange bitters and a sprig of heather.You then burn all these together for 30 seconds with the heather to release the flavours.He adds: “Particularly when the heather is in bloom is gives the drink a lot of smoke, which works well with the whisky. Then this is strained over apple juice to give it some sweetness.” To continue pushing the whisky agenda to the discerning customer, Albannach has launched Aqua Vitae.Billed as London’s premier whisky club, Aqua Vitae members meet at the restaurant once a month to explore new and old ways to enjoy Scotland’s very own water of life, or ‘liquid gold.’ Each month a different malt whisky is the subject of a masterclass, hosted by the distillery’s master distiller. Each is tailored to the intricacies of the brand, but also looks to discover innovative ways of enjoying and combining the malt.Heading up the panel of whisky buffs at each event is, of course, Jamie.He adds: “I have not done anything like this before, so the first one was a trial run and we learnt a lot from it.“There is always a really good atmosphere in the place, but the masterclasses are fantastic. We did not have a big push on publicising the nights, but we will from now on.” The club now has its first overseas members, from South Africa, Singapore and the US, and Jamie says he has started to see the results of the educational nights behind the bar too.He adds: “The idea behind starting the club was so that people could learn more about whisky, straight from some of the people in the industry. After the first night we did see different expressions of whisky being sold which was great as people were trying new things out.” To find out more contact Jamie Forbes at jamie@albannach.co.uk or Xavier Padovani at xavier@albannach.co.uk.