Like most of us, I didn’t grow up expecting to be a whisky drinker. As a teenager living in sleepy Worthing on the south coast of England, whisky wasn’t really in my vocabulary. The late 1990s was a time for spiced rum and coke, and Jose Cuervo shots with the gurn-inducing salt and lime combo. Whisky was just something the old blokes down the working men’s club drank out of warm tumblers in clouds of smoke.
Despite living just 30 minutes away I hadn’t visited my hometown for several years, but recently an old friend convinced me to pop over and reminisce. Have you ever revisited the place you grew up in, decades after you left? It’s bizarre, like recalling glimpses of a dream after waking, or bumping into an old flame and wondering what the hell you saw in them. It’s nostalgic, but not quite, because things have changed. Bars are closed, shops boarded up and old haunts replaced with car parks or affordable housing.
As my old friend and I wandered the streets, I felt so much sadness for the clubs that no longer existed (we had one on the end of the pier; your heels would get stuck in the wooden slats without fail). The cocktail bar I once worked in – the swankiest joint in town (though that’s not saying much) – had become a high-volume burger restaurant. Not much was left of the town I once knew.
Toward the far end of the high street my friend asked, “Are you sure you want to carry on down here?” This was apparently the “dodgy” end, the bit with the bingo hall, vape shops and broken streetlights. But just as we decided to turn back, something caught my attention. It may have been the warm inviting glow from inside, or the unmistakable scent of angel’s share, but there, at the dodgy end of Montague Street, was a home from home. Worthing had its very own whisky bar.
The Whisk(e)y Rooms has been open since spring 2019, serving an evolving selection of Scotch, Bourbon and New World whisky as well as cocktails, wine, local beers and cider. But rather than fall into the stereotype of leather, dim lighting and heavily bound menus, owners Kate Mitchell and Jason Walls have created a modern whisky bar that is oozing with personality.
The bookshelf-lined walls are stuffed to bursting with unrecognisable titles, their names barely legible in the glow of a hundred fairy lights. The furniture is so mismatched, and accompanied by such a random assortment of decorative ‘stuff’ from deep green Art Deco glass lamps to amputated dolls and dressmakers’ mannequins, that you could easily have walked into a Kafkaesque antique store by mistake. The highlight? A Prince Andrew and Fergie Bell’s decanter audaciously centred atop the well-stocked bar.
The discovery of a bar specialising in my passion in the place I grew up is wonderful (especially as it serves food from the excellent Pizzaface next door), but most exciting is that the modern whisky bar concept appears to be catching on outside of London.
In the capital, the modern whisky bar is no longer about kitsch tartan, a million dusty bottles and a drinks list so long it requires its own bookbinder. Thanks to the likes of Black Rock, Milroy’s and Merchant’s House, they’ve become trendy hotspots for whisky lovers looking for a side-helping of hip-hop or stand-up comedy with their dram, served by knowledgeable and friendly bartenders.
Up in Glasgow, which prides itself on a clutch of excellent, much-loved and long-established whisky bars, new neighbourhood venue The Gate is modernising the city’s offering in its own laid-back approach, with whisky snobbery checked at the door, an accessible colour-coded pricing system and must-try cheese toasties.
The modern whisky bar isn’t inspired by the cut ‘n’ paste iconography and stuffiness that fuelled its stereotyped image for decades. The new generation offers fun and unique concepts that are approachable, welcoming and attractive to younger drinkers and those new to the spirit.
With whisky becoming more popular, there’s room for more modern whisky bars around the UK, whether that’s in London, Glasgow or the dodgy end of Worthing town centre.