A place of learning (Atenaeum Hotel)

A place of learning (Atenaeum Hotel)

David Stirk visits the Atenaeum Hotel and Aparments in London, an establishment looking to educate its guest on the delights of malt whisky

Bars | 16 Jun 2001 | Issue 16 | By David Stirk

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As I drive through Piccadilly, I can’t help but notice the wealth that this part of London exudes. Chauffeurs wait patiently by their cars for their employers to emerge from luxurious hotels, passing the time by polishing the front of their limousines or straightening their generic chauffeur suits. Unfortunately the Whisky Magazine driver is on extended leave (this follows an unpleasant reverse parking incident after a rigorous whisky tasting) so it’s up to me to ferry myself to the Athenæum Hotel & Apartments, well known as London’s celebrity hotel.After having my car valet parked, a first for me (it doesn’t tend to happen too often in Yorkshire where I grew up), I walk into the hotel through mighty glass doors opened for me a by a doorman (who happens to be the size of a bungalow) into the small foyer. On first impressions, the Athenæum appears a tad small with the bar, lounge and restaurant seemingly borrowing space from each other. However, the luxurious ambience of the establishment more than makes up for its compact nature – you are left with the impression that money is no object here.I’m shown through to the lounge by one of the hotel staff – a young, foreign lady who is trying so hard to sound English that she sounds like Eliza Doolittle before her dalliance with Professor Henry Higgins. I imagine that the hotel may also employ a member of staff who sounds uncannily like Dick Van Dyke’s character in Mary Poppins. She offers me a cup of tea, which I accept, and I settle into my surroundings rather easily courtesy of a extremely comfortable chair the size of a family car. I find myself so relaxed that I casually hang my arm over the side of the chair, only to almost give myself a coronary when I very nearly knock over a vase. The quality of the furnishings is such that I begin to wonder whether that vase may have been Ming dynasty – unless I wish to find myself paying off breakages for the rest of my life I will have to start watching my step.As my tea arrives so does my host, Sally Bulloch, Executive Manager of the Athenæum. Sally has been with the hotel since 1973 – the year that the Rank Organisation reopened the hotel after a major refurbishment program. There is no doubt that she has been a key figure in the hotel’s rise in status and the consistent level of quality and luxury that it provides its residents today. Originally, Sally intended to stay for a couple of months. She used to be an actress (she appeared in The Belles of St Trinians) and even the nanny to Peter Cook’s children, but the lure of the Athenæum was far too strong to ignore. Now she is so crucial to the success of the hotel they even named the restaurant after her.The strong link between whisky and the hotel was created by chance. A suggestion from one of the employees as to how to fill the empty cabinets surrounding the bar was the beginning of the hotel’s whisky odyssey that has lasted over two decades. The bar now stocks over 76 malt whiskies and displays an impressive collection in the cabinets around the bar. “A lot of our guests are Americans and are absolutely fascinated by malt whisky,” explains Sally. “They may have already heard of Glenlivet and Glenmorangie. One gentleman who was staying here for a week picked up a glass of The Macallan and after tasting it looked up and asked: ‘How many of these do you have?’ After that he never went to the theatre, I think his wife nearly divorced him because he stayed in the hotel and tried all 76 of the whiskies we have in stock (over the course of his week’s stay). He became an absolute dedicated fan of malt whisky.”It is therefore appropriate then that the word Athenæum means place of learning. The bar started stocking whiskies at the beginning of the malt whisky boom and it should come as no surprise that perhaps the most famous whisky shop in the world was instrumental in educating Sally about whisky. “Wallace Milroy, who I will be grateful to all my life, took my hand and said ‘This is what you have to do, this is what you need,’ he was invaluable as our stockist and guide,” she says with genuine sincerity. The bar is softly lit and has an olde worlde feel to it. The cabinets holding the whisky have a Victorian look that compliments the room’s decor that couples plush, luxurious chairs with low tables. It is a drinker’s bar, ideal for savouring a classic cigar and dram. Not only does whisky contribute to a wonderful atmosphere in the bar it also plays a large part in retaining customers. As Sally explains: “One of things we do with our guests is get them to fill out a form telling us of their favourite drinks, be it Scotch, gin, wine and when they come back we put a bottle of it in their room. About 30% of our customers are whisky drinkers.” Quite correctly, she believes that the relationship with their customers is paramount to the success of the hotel. This attention to detail and the prospective resident’s smallest whims mean that the clientele is often high profile. It wouldn’t be outrageous to suggest that you could find yourself sitting next to the likes of Charlton Heston or Nelson Mandela or enjoying a drink in the bar with Sandra Bullock, Patrick Stewart or Russell Crowe. “Russell has been frequenting the hotel for quite a while and we introduced him to whisky,” Sally says with a hint of pride."Whatever he returns we always have a bottle of his favourite, which just happens to be The Macallan, in his room."A nice touch and one that can only help to raise the profile and image of whisky. Educating people about whisky is the cornerstone for the development of the drink throughout the world. Unfortunatley, with such a dazzling collection of malts on offer, I feel that my lack of a chauffeur could well be a major problem. Taxi!
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