Hiding out from the High Street hell

Salt is the first of a new trend – High Street whisky bars. In the first of a new review seriesDominic Roskrow visits it
By Dominic Roskrow
Let’s face it, these days the main streets of most major cities aren’t the most welcoming places when it comes to going out for a drink.You have three basic choices; the fashion bars, full of people who make you feel old if you’re over 23, drinking concoctions that are often alcoholic fruit drinks, in an environment that is loud, brash and un-welcoming; the old-fashioned bar or pub where decent whisky is unheard of and your feet stick to the floor as you approach the bar; and the hotel bar, which is often so stuffy and formal you don’t know whether you should drink, pray or ask which section the reference books are in.London’s hottest new bar, though, is breaking the mould. What’s better, it’s a whisky bar and proud of it. And there are plenty of people who believe that its blueprint will be copied across Europe as drinkers turn to whisky and look for outlets similar to the ones in major American cities.It is, to all intents of purposes, a mix of the three types of drinking establishment outlined above. Situated on the Edgware Road close to Marble Arch tube station, it is a converted pub. It has big open windows and minimalist furnishings like a style bar; and its fine Italian restaurant upstairs and attention to its whisky range brings to mind a top hotel bar.But it has focused on all the good bits of the three, making it the sort of venue you or I could feel at home in – whoever you are. Painted brown so that it feels like an old-fashioned bar, but with all the trappings of the 21st century, it is both comforting and stylish at the same time.By late evening it is indeed loud and brash, but during the day and early evening it comes across as a glorified lounge – and none the worse for that.All of this would count for nothing of course if the drinks didn’t live up to the hype. But they do.You’ll find a list of cutting edge cocktails here, of course, and this part of the business has received a mixed hearing. But you’ll also find on the table a menu with the selection of whisky, mostly by the glass but – and this is a big step for the United Kingdom – by the bottle in some cases.There are more than 200 whiskies on offer here and it’s an impressive list. The choice covers America, Canada and Ireland as well as Scotland, and includes a selection of premium blends.The malt selection is outstanding, covering a range of whiskies priced from £4 upwards. At the top end of the range you’ll find a Glenfiddich 1937 at £12,000 a bottle or, at half the price, the £6,000 Balvenie 50 year-old.Other choice selections include a 1953 Talisker, a 1969 Springbank, some Macallans aged more than 30 years, and a 1967 Signatory Vintage Ardbeg.Elsewhere the Irish selection includes brands worth investigating among which are the lovely Jameson 18 and Bushmill’s 16, and from America there are a couple of fine bourbons including Eagle Rare 17 year old and Pappy Van Winkle’s 20 year old and a few different Wild Turkeys .So will it work? It’s really hard to say. The bar first opened at the end of 2003 to catch the Christmas trading period, and the Italian restaurant only went in to full operation last month.The strange combination of Italian food and Scotch whisky – reflecting the passions of the owners – might be enough to give the bar longevity but only time will tell and the fashion crowd move elsewhere. For the time being though, it’s a great place to go if you want to enjoy a quality drink in an environment you feel comfortable with.And if at the same time you want to rub shoulders with Salt’s fashion set so you can drop its name – and a box of its stylish matches – into conversation when you’re with friends, it’s ideal.