Tomes of Zurich

Switzerland might not seem an obvious place to find a good whisky bar, but the Widder Bar is just that. Jefferson Chase reports
By Jefferson Chase
Zurich is one of those places you go when you want to pretend to be James Bond for a while. Set against a fantastic backdrop of shimmering lake waters and snow covered Alpine peaks, the city still exudes the same coolly understated, hedonistic style it did in the late ‘60s, when 007 cruised around Switzerland in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. And where there’s style, there’s got to be whisky.Located at Rennweg 7 on the simultaneously quaint and ultra-posh right bank of the River Limmat, the Widder Bar isn’t ostentatious. A simple ram’s head above the door (widder being German for Sagittarius) marks the entrance, and the building used to play home to the local butchers’ guild. But once you’re inside, and your eyes have adjusted sufficiently to the extremely discrete lighting to see the rows of treats lining one long wall, you’ll realise that this is definitely not an everyday working-man’s joint.“I’m sorry I can’t let you sample this because it cost me 2000 francs,” says manager Markus Blattner, who has just retrieved a bottle of Black Bowmore from the bar safe. “But have you ever tried a 17 year old Highland Park from 1958?”“Not recently,” I’m tempted to say, but fortunately brain and curious taste buds intervene. The Widder Bar’s stocks include a host of rarities, everything from a 40 year old Macallan from Gordon & MacPhail to a Skylab-era Cardhu to the controversial Black Bruichladdich. Pre-1980 bottlings are one of Blattner’s specialities, and I’m amazed at the difference between the Highland Park he puts in front of me and today’s incarnation.The Widder Bar itself is a mix of old and new. Some of the wooden struts holding up the ceiling, as well as the building courtyard, date back to the early 13th century. But the bar and the Widder Hotel – a deluxe five-star establishment featuring artworks by Warhol and Rauschenberg and the Giacomettis – have only been open since 1995. The result is intriguingly incongruous, elegant and refreshingly non-nouveau riche.The vast majority of patrons come in off the street, so there’s no need to worry about yawning your way though a typical sterile hotel bar. The crowd is international, affluent but not particularly uptight. Every other Tuesday, the Widder sports jazz concerts featuring surviving masters from
the be-bop and cool eras and an A-list of contemporary performers.Twice a year, it also hosts tastings devoted to themes such as ‘kings of Islay’ or ‘pre-1977 independent vintages’. During my visit, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the place is already half full.Much of the verve is down to Blattner, an amateur whisky collector in his mid 30s who’s as bald as Ernst Blofeld and as relaxed as George Lazenby. As we sit down to talk, he apologises for wearing a suit, confesses to a fondness for AC/DC and says his favourite drink at home is 10 year old Laphroaig.That the Swiss love whisky is well known. But how did he develop such an interest in historic bottlings?“Youthful experiments with Glenfiddich,” Blattner says and laughs. In fact, he honed his barman’s skills during a three year stint aboard cruise ships to the North and South Poles.“The most amazing spectacle I’ve ever seen,” says Blattner with a touch of melancholy in his voice, “was rows and rows of penguins leaping into the water in the Antarctic, where half of them got eaten by seals.”I glance up at the wooden statue of an unusually well-endowed ewe that guards one end of the bar room, try to imagine the place full of butchers and fail.The Widder owes its interesting selection in part to Switzlerand’s proximity to Italian importers and in part to Blattner’s friendly relations with the bar manager at St. Moritz’s Waldhaus am See, which according to the Guinness World Book of Records has the largest number of single malts on the planet.But Blattner’s passion for spirits doesn’t begin and end in Scotland. He’s recently been trying to interest his clientele in small batch bourbons and other New World tastes. It’s a hard sell in arch-European Zurich, but you get the feeling Blattner, who describes his job as his hobby, will win his customers over in the end.Visitors with an independent source of wealth or a negligent company expense accounts comptroller owe it to themselves to splash out 350 Swiss francs for a taste of Black Bowmore. (Blattner’s only got two bottles left.)Everyone else should hunker down at one ram’s horn-shaped end of Blattner’s immense bar, order a more affordable shot of 18 year old Sazerac rye and keep their eyes peeled for a Diana Rigg look-alike. Whatever you’re having at the Widder Bar, you’ll feel a bit more classy while you’re drinking it.A bit like James Bond – the whole point of drinking in a classy establishment in a classy town like Zurich. Just don’t ask for a vodka martini shaken, not stirred.