Jazzin' with the dram

Jazzin' with the dram

London's first malt and cigar bar is now the capital's finest Scottish restaurant with a huge selection of whiskies. Jane Slade went to investigate

Food | 16 Feb 2000 | Issue 8 | By Jane Slade

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Coming here is like returning to the womb," muttered one Boisdale regular into my ear. He had a cigar the diameter of a squash ball jammed between his teeth, and a glass of Scotch clenched in his fist. I knew what he meant. The jazz band was in full swing. The little back bar and garden room were 'jumping' with animated chatter from City boys and girls, and waiters carrying plates of haggis, steak and wild venison were weaving between the crisp white tablecloths on their way to the right diner. It is in this delicious, aromatic wonderland that Cuba meets Scotland in a welcome exchange of food, tobacco and whisky; namely in London's premier Scottish restaurant.

The owner of Boisdale (pronounced 'boysdale') is Ranald Macdonald of Clanranald, otherwise known as the Laird of Ecclestone Street, London W1. He comes from a dynasty of whisky drinkers; his favourite dram is Springbank 21 year old and his favourite film is Whisky Galore. He named his restaurant after his homeland - a remote outpost on the south east tip of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. In 1988 he opened the smallest bar in London, then in 1996 he bought the room at the back and opened the first malt and cigar joint in the capital. Earlier this year he expanded again and opened the Macdonald bar and restaurant.

He reckons he has now put Boisdale on the map as London's number one Scottish restaurant, with the largest range of Cuban cigars in the world and the best selection of malt whiskies. It is difficult to argue with him. Ranald is a passionate man. He's a Scotsman after all, not that you could fail to notice. He has decorated his emporium in the colours of his tartan, incorporating a rich red façade on the outside and a plush bottle-green and scarlet décor on the inside. The effect is of a warm, cosy, private club. There is still the back bar, and the tiny restaurant where he started out, which seats 20, a glass-covered garden room and a private dining room upstairs.

But the main focus for activity is the Macdonald bar, which incorporates a large restaurant and a stage for a jazz band; the latter is something of a landmark achievement for Ranald. "I had to wait three years to have enough space for a jazz band," he says, obviously pleased with his Macdonald bar renovation. Musically he prefers traditional sounds. "I am not into invented melodies being played by people who are trying to be clever," he insists. "My tastes are more traditional." He orders me a thumping Brazilian slammer (comprising a Tequila-esque concoction) and departs briefly, to see to his 'dining guests'. He is dressed in white shirt, the uniform Boisdale jazz club tie and braces, but his clientele appear highly diverse. Morning coats sit next to Pringle sweaters and chiffon mini dresses brush alongside tweed skirts. Everyone is welcome.

The restaurant attracts an eclectic mix of celebrities too from politicians to actors and actresses, "We have had people like Joan Collins, George Hamilton, lots of Scottish politicians, TV comedy stars; Ffion Hague was here recently. In fact Sean Connery is the only famous Scotsman I can think of who hasn't been here," says Ranald. Sir Edward Heath was dining while I was there, celebrating a family birthday. There was also a bevy of blonde beauties in the corner of the back bar popping their third bottle of champagne. Back in the Macdonald bar some media types were talking in hushed tones while a retired jazz musician was thumping out some melodies on the piano in celebration of his 85th birthday.

The layout of the main restaurant is stupendous, with the zinc-top bar providing the focus at one end and the jazz band 'arena' at the other. Tim Landseer Brooks is the chief barman. His 'proper job' is furniture design but that's on hold at the moment, although he did design the bar. "We have about 118 different whiskies, so I designed the bar with a mirror at the back and lights above to illuminate and reflect the amber hue," he explains. "I then used the top of a gilded mirror frame to decorate the top.

The whisky selection ranges from Royal Lochnagar Select Reserve at £18.50 a shot to White Horse at £1.50. "We like to cater to everyone's tastes," he adds. "But I like to encourage people to try some of our more unusual whiskies. My favourite is the Caol Ila 15 year old. But the most popular are The Macallan 10 year old, Laphroaig, Springbank and Lagavulin. Women like our malts too, they are very knowledgeable and know what they want." The wine selection is pretty impressive too. You can pick up at bottle of Château Pétrus 1985 for £575 or a Château Latour 1962 for £452. The 110 different Cuban cigar collection ranges from a 9 ¼ inch Montecristo for £46 to a Punch number 4 for £5.10.

But it is probably the food that sets Boisdale apart from the several malt and cigar bars that now punctuate London's map of watering holes. Ranald has incorporated as much Scottishness into every dish on the menu as he can. I started with the combination of smoked salmons; one from Dunkeld, another smoked wild salmon and the Islay smoked salmon with Lagavulin. I don't think I have ever tasted such tender smoked fish nor one combined with a lacing of Lagavulin. If it is subtlety you are after, then this is it. You can dine as high or low cuisine as you wish here, with starters from £3.90 for Welsh Rarebit rising to £12.50 for the trio of salmons. A popular lunchtime snack is the baguette sandwich ranging from Rannoch Moor wild smoked venison at £7.50 to Dunkeld smoked salmon with crème fraiche for £8.90. Main courses start at £8.90 for Roast McSween's Haggis with mash and neeps, (a noggin of whisky is £1.50 extra) to £18.90 for fillet of Aberdeen Angus beef with Béarnaise sauce, grilled tomato and chips. An optional jazz charge of £2.50 is added to your bill, but is well worth it if the cabaret we enjoyed is anything to go by.

Boisdale is London's only restaurant which offers live jazz every night. The first trumpet burst sounds at about 10pm so diners are warned not to arrive too early. Five musicians play on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and three on Monday and Tuesday. "I used to play Fats Waller at tastings," adds Ranald who had just bought his umpteenth collection of 78s off an old jazz musician. "I am now looking for an old wind-up gramophone to play them on," he announced.

Ranald clearly enjoys the good life, which began in his teens and led him to establishing a dining club while a student of 'various histories' as he describes, at St Andrew's University. His turnover was £100,000 per annum before he was sent down! He is still only 36 years old, yet a penchant for the finest wines and whiskies have left their mark on the youthful looking Macdonald. "I take loads of pills," he reveals. "I start my day with lots of royal jelly, sacks full of vitamin tablets, a cup of coffee, a bit of a read of a novel, a play of the guitar, bath and then take the five minute journey to the office." Ranald, whose father is the 24th chief and hereditary captain of the Macdonald of Clanranald clan, has a house on Loch Tay. When he is in town, he lives above the restaurant with his wife and four children. The children are too young to attend his tastings, but if they are anything like their father Boisdale could well, in due course, end up being run by several Macdonalds. Now there's a prospect.
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