Posted 19 August 2021 by Matt / In Group Tastings
Locked inside, Zoom-powered and armed with a near endless supply of home-delivered alcohol, one could almost be forgiven for forgetting the vital role that bars play. As one of the world’s oldest and most popular social institutions, they offer far more than an escape from the monotony of homelife. They’re a focal point for communities. They contribute significantly to local and national economies. And they act as both litmus tests and magnets for the wider drinks industry – assessing, enticing and inspiring customers in equal measure.
The considerable detrimental impact of the shutters going down on 40,000+ venues (in the UK alone) overnight cannot be understated – earlier this year the rate of decline in UK pubs and bars increased to a staggering 30 venues per day. Dram shares, online brand-led tastings and getting pissed in the comfort of your living rooms might have seemed like the only viable route to a relatively ‘normal’ life over the past 15 months – but with bars now open once more, if we continue concentrating our attentions solely on our computer screens, we’ll be losing far more than just the Thursday pint and a curry night. The bar industry requires time to recover – and it also requires our support.
Travel back to 2017 and you’ll find countless pieces of media coverage highlighting an explosion in the number of whisky bars. This was arguably driven by a changing demographic from “I’d like a whisky” to “I’d like that whisky” – I.E. a more discerning, knowledgeable and eager to explore drinker base. But, at the same time, the transformation from the staid and cliched was spearheaded by the industry itself - casting off the shackles of whisky’s sometimes daunting and othertimes stuffy image to present the drink as modern, relaxed, approachable – and versatile. And in doing so, positioning whisky bars as destinations unto themselves – both for the old hands and also for the unconverted.
Bars are one of the pulses of the whisky industry. Through their customer bases, they know which bottles, distilleries and styles of liquid are in demand and in vogue – and they provide an ideal testbed for producers and brands to trial new product launches, test revised branding and refine education and messaging. And they’re only able to do this because of their staff…
Take a look at the (thankfully still) numerous specialist cocktail and spirits venues, these invariably offer a tremendous source of knowledge and passion – via their curated selections – which are notably available by the glass and not by the bottle (a far more accessible means of exploration – another tick in the positives list) – but also more significantly via their employees. The liquid selections contained on the shelves of venues are not happenstance – they’re systematically acquired and organised to offer diversity of choice, style, flavour, price and story. And that takes considerable reading, studying and conversations with other industry folks. Couple that with the skills required to then being able to accurately describe the aromas, flavours and histories of particular bottles for those seeking guidance – and we’re talking far more than knowing how to pour a Guinness correctly.
Historically, venues were *the* source of drinks information – not everything was available on the Internet for quick regurgitation (which nowadays is sadly all too often uncoupled from genuine understanding). Perhaps it’s a sign of a misspent youth – but I owe much of my initial whisky and drinks knowledge and love of the spirit to those working within the trade – many of whom are still far more knowledgeable than I. These guys continue to inspire and inform.
Whilst a fair number of you no doubt possess formidable stockpiles of bottles, in most cases these will not automatically lend themselves to filling the shelves of a commerical bar. As enthusiasts we all have our slants, niches within niches and personal proclivities. Bar selections, for the most part, ignore these individual traits and offer customers a broader experience – aligned with tastes, budgets and the styles of the venues themselves. And that’s the core of the significance of bars – they exist to reveal the broadness of whisky – demystifying its complexities and offering non-judgement spaces for enjoyment and experience.
Over the past 15 months, Zoom has certainly been a substitute – and does comes with its own set of benefits in terms of accessibility (geographic, physical and mental) – but these benefits do not outweigh the experience and the knowledge that it's possible to glean face-to-face. Even the most interpersonal of online presentations simply cannot replicate sitting down, sharing a dram and learning from an expert in the field. A virtual tour might provide you with a whistle-stop overview of a distillery’s sights – but it can never capture the moments which define a whisky journey.
Similarly, in moving bars and venues from physical to online spaces, there is often an associated loss of ‘special occasion’. I’ve seen a few of you quite literally dram your way through your evenings, day after day, for months on end – and endless sea of virtual drinking and presentations. But no matter the connection with enthusiasts worldwide and the distraction away from the weird world outside – in doing so, whisky can very quickly become remarkably transactional. Purchase tasting pack, drink tasting pack, listen to stuff, go to bed. Rinse and repeat. A whisky journey certainly, but honestly, a very strange whisky journey at that.
Despite bars being open in the UK, they are not yet open in all other countries – or have opened and then promptly closed again (know that feeling). At the same time, on my travels, whilst some venues have looked quite busy, others have still not nearly recovered to pre-pandemic levels of trade. A normalisation of working from home has undoubtedly had an impact on urban venues – particularly when combined with the associated loss of tourism. But equally, a few of you I’ve spoken to have suggested that home dramming is the way forward – no time or expense wasted on travelling, and no pants required either.
It's your life and you need to live it the way you see fit – but nevertheless, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that, longer-term, this approach is a mistake. In eschewing real-world drinking and its associated venues not only are you only getting a fraction of the social experience that whisky imparts – you’re also invariably giving your hard-earned cash to the companies who, in the grand scheme of things, need it the least. Don’t kid yourself that your Amazon Prime deal in any way supports the wider whisky industry.
Of course, it will take considerable time for pubs and bars to recover – but they will only be able to do so with your assistance – through your patronage. The alternative is the continued decline of the drinks-based hospitality industry – its history, venues, knowledge and passion. And that would be nothing short of a travesty. So, when you’re sitting there, a mouse-click away from ordering yet more drinks to your doorstep – just remember – your bars really do need you.
Edinburgh’s Bramble Bar is surprisingly unpretentious – despite the international accolades, awards and plaudits. Founded in 2006 by Mike Aikman and Jason Scott the venue at one time featured one of the largest cocktail menus I’ve ever seen – but a revamp in early 2020 has seen Bramble move towards a focus on “clear and concise” flavour profiles in an attempt to lure drinkers out of their comfort zones as opposed to bamboozle them through sheer choice. And it's this evolution not only in ingredients, but also in approach that has seen Bramble establish itself as a must-visit location (and indeed I must visit again when I’m next in the city).
Alongside Bramble, the team also owns and operates The Last Word Saloon, Lucky Liquor Co alongside Mothership – their outlet for ready to drink (RTD) cocktails, bespoke liqueurs, handmade syrups and the focus of today’s review section – The Bramble Whisky Company.
Bramble Whisky was in effect born back in 2007 when Mike and Jason were offered the purchase of a cask from Bruichladdich – a cask which they duly sat on for 13 years. Despite the notion of cask ownership and bottling being “quite alien” to them at the time, over the years the team has acquired a small selection of barrels – which are bottled and sold via Mothership, the aforementioned bars and a limited selection of UK wholesalers. Today we’ve got their 2nd and 3rd releases under the microscope – both of which are far from ordinary in terms of their on-paper specs.
Bottle Name: North British 2015
Distillery: North British
Bottler: Bramble Whisky Company
Bramble Whisky Company’s second release is the youngest North British I’ve seen bottled – the closest alternative being a 6 year old Duncan Taylor Octave from a few years back. But, whilst barely out of nappies, this grain whisky has been fully matured in a virgin American oak cask – the result of which, the bottler describes as “…about as close as you can get to a Scotch-bourbon hybrid…”. 375 bottles have been produced at 46% ABV. They’re available via Mothership (Bramble’s parent company) for £50.
Nose: Crunchy toffee and creamy caramel provide a base whilst oak seethes throughout. Hot chocolate powder, toffee-dipped pecans and freshly planed oak join isoamyl acetate (pear drop) and lemon gel whilst moist earthiness lurks in the background. Reduction presents additional creamy cask influences with vanilla crème patisserie and a slice of buttered toast.
Taste: Vanilla imbued caramel and soft toffee sit with dulce de leche, foam bananas and lemon jelly. Spice develops offering cinnamon, ginger and pepper – together with cinema popcorn. Reduction brings the cask very forward – liquid oak, sunflower oil and desiccated coconut.
Finish: Quite long, with fresh and sappy oak, citrus gel and underlying chocolate.
Bramble Whisky Company’s North British 2015 is old beyond its years – blind, I’d easily be pegging this >10. It has achieved this perception of maturity via some highly active wood - which the young grain spirit has eagerly soaked up like a sponge. And this assimilation has left very little of the original spirit’s character to discern. The cask is fully in control here. Now whether or not that’s a positive or a negative will completely depend on your predictions for distillate vs. wood – but, either way, you have to have some admiration for quite how drinkable the virgin oak has made a grain whisky that’s barely of legally bottling age.
Review sample provided by Bramble Whisky Company
Bottle Name: Lochindaal 2007
Bottler: Bramble Whisky Company
Recently released by Edinburgh’s Bramble Whisky Company – this 13 year old Lochindaal has spent its life maturing in a Chateau Climens Sauternes Cask. The Bordeaux-based Chateau is a leading producer of sweet wines (Sauternes 1er cru classe) and can trace is history back to the 16th Century. And Lochindaal is something of the finite resource (I read somewhere “no more than 200 casks”) so the combination of the two certainly sounds intriguing.
292 bottles have been produced at an ABV of 56.9%. They are available via Mothership for £128 – which is pricey, but in the grand scheme of Lochindaal releases is considerably lower than most – including releases that are notably younger.
Nose: Tarmac and felt roofing joins pigsties, damp attics and waterlogged fallen trees. Gooseberry, melon and lychee provide a bright fruitiness whilst well-steeped black tea sits with seaweed, saline and camphor. Dilution offers effervescent orange notes alongside nougat creaminess, additional farmy asides from wet hay and a selection of loams and sands.
Taste: Tarry/herbal/medicinal peat covers a variety of bases – burning haybales, smoky ancho chilli, coal ash, road surfacing, burnt paper and sticking plasters. Salted toffee and singed pastry cases join smoked apple and grapefruit slices, whilst in the back palate, cliff-face minerality adds chiselled sharpness. Water takes things into another dimension with tangy orange and white fruits alongside sweetness from white chocolate and a selection of alluvial clays and minerals.
Finish: Medium to long in length with surface cleaner, ash and white fruit sweetness lingering.
A wonderfully singular Lochindaal from Bramble Whisky that offers considerable broadness both straight out of the bottle and once diluted. The wine cask is in-check augmenting the fruitiness without ever becoming either cloying or overly tannin – indeed, the balance throughout is notable. Fruity, filthy, feisty and thoroughly recommendable.
Review sample provided by Bramble Whisky Company