Having lived under a rock for so long, Lithuanians developed a craving for the finer things in life and polished the service sector to a relatively high standard in a short time. Catering in particular has undergone an extreme makeover, moving from Soviet era restaurants and cafés serving vodka in pitchers and pork ‘beef Stroganoffs’, to modern era bars, resto-bars, food courts and fine dining establishments meeting and often exceeding the expectations of local and travelling foodies alike. Regretfully, I cannot elaborate on the subject of food as I come from the world of fine spirits and cocktails. I will however present you with a comprehensive traveller’s guide to whisky in Lithuania.
Every tale starts with an unexpected character who embarks on a quest to explore the unknown and bring wonders to their people. Our protagonist in Lithuania’s whisky adventure is Gintautas Dinda, a humble friendly man who ventured into the world of whisky 17 years ago by boarding a plane and flying to Ireland. He had a rare opportunity to draw into his lungs in the heart-warming smell of malting barley, watch the stills turn beer into wine and then spirit, embrace the casks that cradle the new make until it is ready to be bottled. Having tasted the water of life at its source, Gintautas came back inspired to spread whisky culture and became the first whisky visionary in Lithuania.
Gintautas smiles remembering how brand managers were perplexed, unable to find single malt or in fact any kind of whisky on the shelves of supermarkets that were crammed with 50 shades of vodka, low quality wine, beer, cheap fruit liqueurs and local herbal spirits. Whisky was just a brown spirit in the minds of Lithuanians and they were hard minds to change with Grant’s, Clan Macgregor and Scottish Leader as the only options.
Gintautas reminisces how he would watch Guns and Roses concerts on an old VCR, wondering what the whisky that Axl Rose was drinking out of the bottle on stage tasted like. He had to taste it. The interest in whisky sparked among people identifying with sub-cultures and in a sense, whisky eventually became one itself.
The whole concept of alcohol and food in our post-Soviet minds had to change, and prove that sweet sparkling wine made in Alytus is not champagne, a six Euro fruit brandy is not Cognac and brown liquid in a bottle is not necessarily whisky.
Our protagonist was up for the challenge; he started working as a spirits expert in the largest alcohol distribution company and dedicated 11 years to pushing whisky culture forward. He created the first whisky website and established the Whisky Academy, educating people about whisky, holding the first whisky tastings and bringing many industry professionals to the country. Having established a vast network of contacts in the whisky industry, Gintautas finally moved to establish his own distribution company in 2012.
He proudly walks me through his whisky shop by Duoklė Angelams (Angel’s Share) that stocks more than 600 whiskies from all over the world with thousands more available to order upon request. Having introduced traditional whisky to Lithuanians, Gintautas ventured into uncharted waters once again. He began to preach the word of New World whiskey. Recently he has created the Bandwagon Bourbon intended for use in classic cocktails calling for a sharper spirit. A fine tasting room and a great bar piloted by a skilled cocktail bartender complements the shop.
While Gintautas was taking care of business in Vilnius, a charsimatic ex dj, Šarūnas Karalius started to sow the seed of whisky culture in the second largest city of Lithuania, Kaunas. Here he co-opened a whisky bar ‘W1640‘ (now closed) which was intended as a regular bar emphasising whisky cocktails mixed with cheap blends, yet ended up selling double shots of Tobermory 32 Years Old.
Šarūnas laughs, remembering the prices then and ponders what one could do with that stock now. Back in the day a bottle of Glenfiddich 12 Years Old could be acquired for as little as 17 Euros. The spiking interest in whisky allowed Šarūnas to start organising whisky tastings and eventually become the first Lithuanian bar to independently import whisky. Together with his partner, Šarūnas managed to fish for interesting and rare whiskies that were as appealing as they were affordable to the enthusiasts.
He believes that a good whisky bar should have a great story to house the fine spirits that tell a story themselves. His first bar was located in a building dating back to 1640. Hence the name: (W)hisky 1640.
Several years later Šarūnas realised it was time to preach whisky to a bigger crowd and moved to Vilnius to open a now monumental whisky bar and shop called ‘King & Mouse’. The name is inspired by typical British pub names like ‘Horse & Carriage’ combining the royal with the mundane.
The bar is located in a XVIII century Umiastovsky palace in one of the tiniest streets labelled, ‘Whisky Street’.
During its five years of operation, the bar accomplished many remarkable feats. Becoming a proud official representative of the Wemyss family and Spey distillery products is one of them. Both companies are famous for their special bottlings sought by many whisky connoisseurs.
King & Mouse currently stocks 300 bottles of whisky in the bar area. The most prized bottles include rarities like Tomatin 45 Years Old, Highland Park Batch Strength (57.2%) distilled in 1995, Bowmore 25 Years Old by Wemyss, Balvenie 1976 vintage released in 2008 and many more. My personal favorite is Springbank 11 Years Old bottled in 2008 and distilled in 1997.
Šarūnas shares a story about an elderly Scandinavian couple ordering 10 ml. of the Tomatin 45 Years Old malt (120 euros for 40 ml) and spending half an hour nosing and tasting it, sharing this moment together and experiencing a very special drink together. These magical moments and great conversations are key to the bar and the bar owner. The guests should not be threatened by the luxurious pricey whiskies however, as the bar provides a comprehensive list of whiskies in all price ranges, a good selection of beers, cocktails, great snacks and other spirits.
If you are in a hurry, you are more than welcome to buy one of the 250 bottles available in the store and consider getting that 25 Years Old Macallan for a special friend.
Šarūnas has brought the first private bottling to Lithuania (Glencadam 15 Years Old), created King & Mouse 21 Years Old single malt blend that received two major international and significant local awards for its original packaging, created by Clinic 212, collaborated with Krooked Nose roastery to create a coffee blend that was aged in a whisky barrel in the process and released a range of scented candles with different whisky notes using his wife’s expertise in perfumes.
King & Mouse has recently popped up in a worldwide bar guide ‘Straight Up‘ which is as much of an achievement for Šarūnas personally as for the whole city. A true shrine for whisky lovers.
Hidden in the winding streets of Vilnius old town lies another ambient whisky bar. It is hidden on the second floor of a British style Shakespeare Boutique Hotel.
Even though the bar and the hotel date back to 1999 the bar is fairly unknown to the local population. Since the Soviet times, locals were chased away from hotel bars as they were reserved for important hotel guests only. Or you had to know a guy who knows a guy to enter. Nowadays the policy has changed and everyone is welcome, but passing the reception without being a hotel resident still feels like crossing the border without a passport. The bar manager Tomas urges you to cross that line even if you do not have the metaphorical passport.
Tomas has been taking care of the bar since 2006 when he started to emphasise single malts and collaborate with a local independent distributor building a selection of 130 whiskies.
The bar has a royal yet cosy feeling with cushy leather armchairs, redwood furniture and tall ceilings. The summer terrace is worth a separate trip for cigar, pipe and whisky enthusiasts. Tomas regularly organises whisky tastings and food pairings, collaborating with local whisky and culinary experts.
The chef of the hotel has created several whisky inspired dishes including a Benromach Peat Smoke ice cream, salmon marinated in Sherry cask whisky and a paté mixed with Glenfarclas single malt.
The importance of whisky is obvious in bars and shops as well. The days of cheap alcohol are behind us and people are looking for higher quality spirits in any bar or a bigger convenience store.
A good example of a pub with a rich whisky selection is The Piano Man bar, located in the busiest bar area in Vilnius. The pub has been around for seven years now and is filling the air with the melody from the infamous Billy Joel’s Piano Man song. The bar boasts a great collection of whisky for a pub. There are more than 130 bottles waiting to tell you their story. Stop by for some excellent pub food, classic cocktails or a pint.
Vilnius has been maturing for 28 years now and is ready to be enjoyed at its best. Open yourself to this complex and vibrant city. If you are still looking for an excuse to visit – whisky might just be the thing.