What makes a good whisky bar?
In Scotland we have landed in some great whisky bars, while others have been somewhat less than we were expecting based on prior publicity or reputation.
To me, the following items are main ingredients for a good whisky bar: malt selection, price and malt list, glassware, bar staff and atmosphere. Here are some notes on each.
Obviously an important factor. A good malt selection should consist of a variety of malts from each of the traditional whisky regions and contain a range of expressions of some of the more popular ones (e.g., Glenfarlclas 10, 15, 21 and 30 y.o.) including both distillery bottlings and private bottlings, particularly cask strength versions. This means that the bar selection would have to have at least 50 - 75 different whiskies. Several expressions of malt produced at near-by distilleries also adds to the selection. For example, in Fort William we came across a pub that had several types of Ben Nevis – malt that was hard to find in other pubs. Another example was The Highlander at Craigellachie, which had several Craigellachie single malts available (perhaps because it was the distillery manager’s favorite watering hole!). A range of blended whiskies, grain whiskies and malt whiskies from other countries are fine additions to the selection.
Malt List and Price:
A great feature to any whisky bar is the malt list – a menu listing all the whiskies available and the price (and size of measure) for each.
I have spent many minutes perusing a fine array of whiskies on the shelf, while the bartender waits patiently (or not) while I make a selection, only to find out that it is over 10 dollars per shot and I would have preferred something else. You feel rushed in these situations and forced into making a quick decision.
A good malt list should list all the whiskies alphabetically, preferably by region, along with the price. This way you know exactly what you are getting and there are no embarrassing surprises about the cost of a dram. Order a 1951 Balvenie at the Craigellachie hotel and you will end up paying over 200 dollars for a single measure! A malt list is like a good book - you should be able to sit back and enjoy it to soak-up the information and make a wise choice.
Regarding price, a selection of the more common blends and malts at regular bar prices should be available. For the connoisseur, a wider selection of older whiskies and subsequent higher prices should be available.
A fine line here. Staff that know nothing about Scotch whisky or malts can sometimes be better than the “know it all”. In many bars, even in Scotland, the bar staff are not familiar with malts and you need to know your way around whisky to get what you want. On the other hand, the know- it-all can be too “helpful” – and drone on and on - enough to put you off your dram. On one occasion on Islay, the bartender kept telling his customers that a malt is not malt whisky unless it is 10 years old!. I would rather have friendly bartenders that can blether on about the area, the people, and the country as opposed to about whisky anyway.
The problem of the right glass is one that many of us encounter when ordering whisky. Ask for a whisky and you will automatically be served the venue’s “standard” whisky glass. This standard glass varies from one establishment to another, but is normally a tumbler or highball glass.
The availability of a proper glass to fully appreciate your dram is very important. In my opinion, the ideal glass should rounded at the bottom with a narrow mouth to allow the free flowing fragrances a chance to rise and converge at the top. A tulip or pear-shaped glass is best.
It pays to go to the bar before ordering and ask to see the type of glasses on hand. Most bars and restaurants should have some form of copita or brandy glass. If not, choose the smallest wineglass or flute, or any small glass with a narrower top than bottom. If you are going to pay top dollar for top malt, you want to get the most out of it.
Atmosphere and company can turn a mediocre whisky pub into one of the most enjoyable experiences ever. The right atmosphere can make or break the evening no matter where you are. Even the same pub can change from one visit to the next.
Atmosphere means many things - an Old World style pub, open fires, friendly people, great crack (conversation) and a feeling of warmth and belonging – and no Televisions, loud music, big screens….
One example we had was in The McNish in Tobermory. It is not known as a malt bar but it did have several whiskies available, including some older Ledaig that was hard to find elsewhere. It had been pouring rain all day and we dropped in to dry off. We sat in a wee room with a coal fire, two leather easy chairs, with a wooden bench and table, wall lamps, historic photos and all the paraphernalia that a Scottish snug bar should have. The wee snug was called “The Chain locker and games room for the friends of Tirom Castle – Tobermory Branch.” With a wee dram at our sides, the fire glowing throwing ghostly shadows the room, casting a warmth that penetrated right through into our bones, my wife and I lay back in our chairs, with smiles of contentment on our faces. A warm glow all around. It is difficult to describe in words the feeling that one gets, tucked away in a wee snug, out of the way of the blowing wind and rain, with whisky warming your insides, caressing your shoulders as it circulates in the bloodstream, that leg numbing, tuck in for the day type feeling. An experience we will never forget.