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Dram-packed: The rise of the contemporary whisky bar

With consumers reinvigorated by whisky in all its forms, the on-trade is responding by making bars exciting places to experience the best that’s on offer – Greg Dillon pulls up a bar stool.

Hair of the log: Black Rock

*This article was first published in the March 2017 edition of The Spirits Business

In the past 12 months or so, the market for whisky bars has exploded. Consumers are looking to be inspired by mixologists and whisky menus in equal measure, and to explore whisky without the burden of buying a bottle.

With 2016 Scotch whisky exports at their strongest for three years, reversing declines and climbing 3.3% by value to £3.98 billion and 4.1% by volume to 337.3 million litres, according to HMRC figures released by Whisky Invest Direct, the category is back in business. Whisky bars are shaking off Scotch’s stuffy reputation and are starting to cash in on consumers’ renewed desire to understand and explore this fine segment. Look at successful whisky bars such as Black Rock, Milroy’s and JW Steakhouse in London – the key here is an ability to focus on either Scotch, Bourbon or mixology, and their refusal to get into a ‘Jack of all whiskies’ scenario.

But it is not simply about bottle curation – enticing customers requires a unique offer beyond the back bar. To ensure they remain ahead of Scotch’s reputation – and consumer expectations – bars need eye-catching design features and unique liquid, perhaps even their own bottlings. This is not done for the sake of it – these are the elements of the experience that get people talking, tweeting, Instagramming and sharing, and are precisely why the whisky bar is experiencing such a phenomenal revival.

Jolyon Dunn of Milroy’s in London’s Soho reflects on the new, engaged customer. “I’ve been working in whisky bars since I was 18. There has been a clear rise and change of demographic,” he says. “Since the beginning of super-premium gins, it is clear that customers take more care in what they are drinking through flavour and provenance. The most common phrase I hear as a bartender when a customer sees our shelf is: ‘I feel like a kid in a sweet shop.’ Choice, variation and the stark differences in flavour make whisky a drink for everyone. It’s almost a challenge to convert someone to whisky by discovering their perfect dram.”

Enhance the nuances

Bar owners and investors are moving far away from the traditional, imposing whisky bars of old. “Gone are the days of Whisky Sours with so much lemon and sugar that the spirit is barely evident,” says Dunn. Instead, cocktails are crafted to enhance the nuances in the spirit itself, he believes.

For Thom Solberg, bar manager of Black Rock in east London, a holistic approach is essential. “We’re trying to provide people with a place where they feel welcome to discover and try new whiskies.” He says the feedback he repeatedly receives is that classic whisky bars are intimidating – and no-one wants to hang out in an inhospitable environment. Black Rock “catches a lot of folk off guard, in a good way” through décor and background music, he says. “It is more modern and relaxed than a lot of guests expect, which is different from a lot of places where you have your whisky accompanied by soothing jazz and blues, less so with an accompaniment by Doggs Nate and Snoop.”

Destination bar

Karina Elias, who had the enviable role of building the American whiskey collection in The Bourbon Bar at the JW Steakhouse in the Grosvenor House Hotel on London’s Park Lane, says becoming known for precisely that was critical. “I wanted to turn our Bourbon Bar into the destination American whiskey bar in the UK, increasing the selection from 30 to 100
American whiskeys,” she explains. “We realised the potential was there, and by training the staff and having meaningful bottles we knew we would go close towards achieving our mission.”

But it was no easy feat. Elias says: “Selecting 100 bottles of Bourbons three-and-a-half years ago was not an easy task. Going to a catalogue of whiskeys and increasing your stock is pretty easy, but ensuring every bottle tells a story and that every bottle was unique in its own way was a challenge. A lot of reading, studying and conversations with industry people helped, and of course, getting to know what our American guests were looking for, and trying to find what they couldn’t get hold of in the US allowed the business to grow, no marketing needed.” The Bourbon Bar now has more than 260 American whiskeys, including some of the most unique and rare bottles in the world.

That’s the crux of the matter: these bars are trying to continue to demystify whisky, making it easier and more accessible for consumers to try, explore and enjoy the drink. Curating this, while ensuring that they have something unique, is key to the great Scotch bar revival.

“There are a lot of customer concerns regarding whether they drink Scotch correctly; ‘Am I allowed to add water?’, ‘Is it okay to drink this over ice?’, ‘I can’t mix it, can I?’,” says Solberg. “We are here as a non-judgment space and, ultimately, our goal is to aid the women and men who come down our stairs to find the way that they might enjoy whisky best. There are no taboos, we exhibit no judgment; that’s not our place.”

Relaxed environments, coupled with education, facilitate interesting conversations that empower consumers. For Dunn: “Educating customers is the best part of the job. At Milroy’s we host weekly public tastings and are flexible in providing hand- tailored private tastings for all. This is the best opportunity to sit down and talk to an expert and ask questions.”

Elias explains that the battle to pique consumer interest has been won, but “they need to be educated; perhaps by a bartender or a journalist, who has turned into an American whiskey fanatic,” she says. “American whiskey has a great reputation as some of the best whisky in the world, and that will not disappear anytime soon. The Bourbon Bar has a very difficult mission in 2017; to maintain a unique range, which is becoming more and more difficult due to high demand, but there is a confidence that 2017 will be better than ever.”

One final point of note is the ‘veto factor’. No matter how compelling the offer, not everyone will want a Scotch, a Bourbon or a super-cool cocktail. Ensuring there is an under-the-counter alternative that does not dilute your proposition is a must. Milroy’s Dunn agrees: “While whisky is the best drink ever invented, occasionally someone in the group cannot or does not want to drink it, so we also make a great G&T. Sometimes it’s a necessary pacer between drams, too”.

In summary, the bars driving the whisky bar renaissance have all focused on unique selling points – and talking points – and remain tuned in to the customer. After all, it’s when you stop listening that you turn into that dusty, musty bar of old.

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