Creating a Premium Whisky Bar

Creating a premium whisky bar

 

Interest in premium single malt whisky is on the rise. There are between 118 and 120 live distilleries in Scotland actually in operation in Scotland today. Quite a few are mothballed and ironically the week we went to press three mothballed distilleries were being brought back into operation, with Diageo reopening Port Ellen and Brora, and a private equity firm is reviving Rosebank in Falkirk.

This shows that investment in single malt is also on the up and up, with a lot of investors highly interested in getting into the category. It’s not a cheap category because the capital investment and the cost of casks are prohibitive to quite a few people, so the barriers to entry to the category are tricky. 

If today the number of distilleries is 120 then that number is expected to rise. So if you are a luxury bed & breakfast or boutique hotel bar owner looking to develop a portfolio of premium malt whisky, where do you start, and how?

Highland Park single Malt Scotch whisky brand director Jason Craig says tells Luxury Bed & Breakfast magazine most people in such a situation try and develop a selection with regions. “You’ve got the islands region, Highlands, Lowlands and Speyside, and the next unofficial region is Campbeltown, which alone used to have 60 or 70 distilleries on the peninsular on the extreme west coast of Scotland where it had good shipping opportunities out to the west. A lot would go to America.” 

With the invention of air travel and larger, deeper ports the number has dwindled to just two or three active today in Campbeltown, he says. 

For a boutique hotel bar owner the first filter for choice of premium whisky would be whether you want to cover the main Scottish whisky regions, says Craig. 

“The next level brings you to a conundrum for most bars: they want something cool and interesting with a good back story, but they also want something that consumers have heard of. The mainstream pressure of have they heard of it versus the quirky interest aspect of brands they have not heard of.

“What you want to avoid is an expensive inventory in your back bar that people admire but never buy instead only buying the major mainstream brands. You have to be comfortable talking about flavour, which is the next filter where you go to peated or non-peated.”

 

On the diagram (below/opposite), Bourbon casks are on the left, sherry cask on the right, the top quadrants are peated and the bottom quadrants are non-peated. 

Explaining the chart, Craig says: “That is the Scotch business in one image: the whisky is either peated or not peated and you either us bourbon casks or sherry casks. The bottom left is their core product – they also do specials that are different and use different types of cask. But the major mainstream things these guys produce. If you use an ex-bourbon cask which cost about 75 pence each and no peat in your distillery, you get the bottom left. If you use bourbon casks and a lot of peat, which is most of Isla, you have such brands as Laphroaig, Talisker.”

Highland Park uses sherry casks, and in any one year its owner Edrington, which also owns premium malt The Macallan, which also uses sherry casks, buys 90% of sherry casks that are available on the market.

“We therefore own a lot of the supply chain for sherry. It sounds bizarre but it is true: we pay people to plant acorns, to look after forests and harvest and replant trees, make casks, and we pay sherry companies to put their sherry into casks to season them for two years and then we give them their sherry back. A sherry cask is about 10 times the price of a bourbon cask and it delivers a lot more colour and flavour. If you look at the bottom right you will see The Macallan, Balvenie Dufftown – an oddity because it is from Isla and therefore should be peated like most whiskies from Isla, but it doesn’t use a lot of peat.”

Highland Park 10, 12 and 18yo bottles sit in the top right hand corner. “There are few if any whiskies that actively consistently use peat and sherry casks, which is where we sit,” he says. “On the flavour map, a boutique bar owner would probably have to have some whisky from the bottom left and from the selection of six or seven there you would probably have Glenfiddich and Glen Livet because they are staples and very safe, and you would then also pick one of the others. You might take cardu and with it Jura, for example.

“If you then went to the bottom right you’d probably have to have Macallan, Balvenie, and I’d argue that you’d probably also have to have Glen Livet.

“If you look at the top right quadrant again you will see our brand, one of the few that has both peat and sherry, which is why we are often called a great all-rounder and we win a lot of awards because we have a lot going on in flavour terms in the glass.

“The last level of filtering is price point. The price point of these whiskies is of course higher than non-premium brands, with a Macallan for example retailing around £45 to £50 a bottle.”

Glen Livet, Glenfiddich and Glen Morangie are quite mainstream. “Most people who go out to buy a glass of whisky will have heard of all of them, but normally when you go into a boutique hotel or other small an interesting place to stay, you want something a little bit different. Therefore people navigate by a brand they have heard of, by price point or by age. Your sweet spot is if you are a known brand with an age statement and with a price point,” he says.

A number of brands these days are going for non-age statement entry-level whiskies, unlike Highland Park. “Macallan did so for a couple of years, but they are going back to age. It is very much directed by supply and demand and availability of suitably aged stock that you can put into certain products.

“A luxury B&B might only need 10 or so single malts on the back bar but they can probably go from mainstream to esoteric; they can go from palatable and easy to drink but relatively bland to quite extreme; and they can go from moderate to very highly priced depending on the age.”

Presenting a selection of premium whisky is more complicated than simply saying, here’s an interesting whisky with some interesting stories, says Craig. “Most luxury bed and breakfast and boutique hotels have a very experience F&B manager, which is fine, but often their expertise is restricted to wine or food or brandy and they don’t know about every category of whisky but with increasing prominence and sales as a category, and with new openings of distilleries, it is hard to keep track.

“If I ran a bar in a luxury B&B I would filter my selection by region, flavour, age and price point. It’s much easier to ask a consumer what kind of flavours you like. The answer might be “I only drink Glenfiddich – I don’t really like that smoky stuff” you can start navigating quite easily whereas if somebody walks in as a novice you are not going to serve them with a Laphroaig 18yo. Instead you are going to have to start them on a Glen Livet or something light and floral that they can drown in water or ice and it won’t bite them.”

 

Keep premium inventory 

Flavour does start to deteriorate to a certain extent once the bottle has been opened. Unlike wine, which does not like oxygen, as long as the whisky bottle cork is reasonably moist. An invaluable tip is to turn the bottle on its side for 10 minutes once a month to make sure the cork keeps it moisture, thus keeping it sealed. “If you do that, or even once every six months, then an opened bottle of whisky can last for years. If the cork deteriorates and air gets in then the whisky will cease to have as much depth to it as when it was first opened. It will still be drinkable for many years. People collect and store whisky for decades. Once it is made and in the bottle as long as the cork keeps its moisture it is a fairly bomb-proof product,” says Craig.

 

Serving with water?

The best way to serve whisky depends on the individual’s pallet. Some people will add a drop to the whisky then gradually add more to investigate what happens to it until it is to the taste and strength they desire. But he says: “Absolutely everybody will agree that even one drop of water will cause a chemical reaction that opens up long chain molecules giving them the power to escape, and that is just chemistry thing – a good thing to do, whereas many people want their prestige of drinking single malt without the pain of sharp flavour. 

“For them, four or five big cubes of ice basically kills all that flavour. The alcohol needs to react in your mouth and evaporate but if the alcohol is really cold when it enters your mouth then it doesn’t have a chance to evaporate – it just goes down your throat. With your tongue numbed by the ice if someone wants you to drink something and you think it will taste horrible the best way to o do so is with lots of ice so you almost do not taste it.

“Some people want as cold drink and will add ice to the scotch to achieve this but if you want the benefit of maximum flavour, don’t add ice, just add a tiny splash of water.

“But at the end of the day it is down to personal preference. People like the kudos of drinking scotch but not really into the flavours, and for others it is all about the flavour and they will gradually drip water in to see what happens to the whisky.”

Some whiskies have huge flavours and some are bland and almost identical to other whiskies. “I would always serve it with a small water jug and the option of ice, in a nice clean glass with curves like a wine glass so it can concentrate the flavours. The way it is served depends on the mood of the individual guest.”

 

Rich flavours 

The production process of all whiskies is very similar. All whisky is made with water, barley, yeast and a giant chemistry set. Water in Scotland is predominantly soft but even where it is hard it is not a flavour component. Most Scottish distilleries use one or two different types of barley, again this is not critical and is more about yield from the barley from which you are mainly extracting sugar to convert to alcohol. 

Jason Craig explains: “There are different types of yeast, but as I was told when I first joined the whisky business, when you create as sugary barley solution with hot water and barley what you really want to get out of that is a conversion of sugar to alcohol, which is what yeast does. It is a very unglamorous way of saying it but as a young lad I was told I was told yeast comes along as a beastie and it eats sugar, it farts CO2 and it pisses alcohol. In a nutshell that is what yeast does. It effectively consumes all the sugar in a solution, gets rid of CO2 and then it has to get rid of the liquid.”

The only other two components of the whole process that can differ are height of stills. The shorter the still, the heavier the spirit, and it is either peated or in casks. “All you are doing with peat is drying your barley,” he says. “If I am barley then I have starch and sugar inside me and when I grow I get wet and convert starch to sugar to grow and when it starts to grow all wet then all we want to do is stop it from growing. The way to do that is to take moisture out of it after it has started converting starch to sugar. Some of the distillers use peat for this process and literally light fires beneath big barley floors and slowly dry it. Because the peat smoke then gets absorbed into the barley it is effectively like wearing a wet jumper in a smoky bar: it just picks up all the smoke because your jumper is wet.”

The last area of difference is cask, explains Craig. “There are very few distilleries that use peat to dry their barley. That’s where this big smoky note comes from, a very popular note at the moment in terms of flavour. We are seeing peated whiskies are growing at about double the rate of non-peated whisky globally.”

It’s an interesting aspect but some people just can’t handle smoke and prefer light, bland easy-drinking whisky like Glenlivet, Glenmorangie or Glenfiddich which, compared to whiskies like Laophroaig or Highland Park, are not big on flavour, he says.

“Highland |Park gives you that sweetness from sherry casks and the light smokiness from the peat. It gives you everything in a glass without being too pronounced in any one direction. It gives you a little bit of subtlety, it gives you some nice soft peat and some sweetness, whereas most whiskies give you one big flavour – it’s either soft and subtle, big and smoky or big rich and cherry sweetness.”

Premium whisky drinkers enjoy the sophistication and identifying themselves with it much as premium wine drinkers do. If you’re going to drink it in front of Netflix with a bag of salt & vinegar it doesn’t matter what the wine tastes like as long as it is drinkable but once you start getting into wine and flavours and types of grapes people are really fascinated by it. Whisky is very similar.

 

Water and ice

 

  • A few drops of water: they open aromas. Scientifically, surface tension in the whisky breaks which allows other aromas to come to the fore. Whether that is preferably to whisky lovers is completely subjective. In my experience some whiskies benefit from it, others have no notable difference. I suggest experimenting.
  • A splash of water: allows the (un)trained notes to pick up underlying layers of aromas. This is done by people who have an extensive interest in the flavour build-up of a whisky, e.g. whisky makers. Cutting the alcoholic strength to about 20/30% ABV allows the nose to pick up far more aromas than nosing the whisky at bottle strength. Obviously, the palate of the whisky changes due to the difference in texture. Whether this is preferable, again, is subjective. There are whiskies I only drink with water and some that I keep far away of any other liquid.
  • Ice: chills the whisky, clunking up flavour molecules. Ice also chills the palate. You change the perception of the flavour because the tongue picks up a transformed texture and taste. In some cases, the texture is thicker and then taste gradually evolves. In other cases the texture is altered only slightly and taste is mostly lost. You can probably guess that this too is down to personal preference. Every year, when Spring comes, I look forward to sitting on a sunny terrace enjoying a fresh Macallan with big cubes of ice or a large ice ball. The ice melts very slowly, allowing me to enjoy the fresh chill on a warm day with the flavours folding open with every sip I take. During winter months, listening to cold winds howling over the streets, my friends and me prefer a whisky free of ice – a welcome, warm gulf of happiness.

Source: The Macallan head of education Sietse Offringa

 

So how does a bar manager go about selecting a portfolio of premium whiskies for a boutique hotel or B&B bar, often subject to severe space constraints?

As a bar manager you need to consider several issues. There are a variety of flavours and diversity to choose from. Secondly you need to include bottles that are hard to find in the market and a variety to cover all different price points so you have something for the casual drinker but also something for anyone who wishes to treat himself or his guests to something really special and then navigating through that. 

The most important thing is how to get your guest to understand different flavours and for them to feel comfortable with them wither navigating the menu or the bar staff recommending a drink. 

There is little point in a B&B bar tender recommending a pricy, sophisticated and complex super-premium whisky to a guest who is simply after a casual sip.

A few boutique hotels stock fine and rare single vintage bottles retailing for between up to £36,000 a bottle. “They offer this really one single moment in time to enjoy when that liquid hits you,” says head of education at the Macallan Sietse Offringa.

He says a luxury bar in a hospitality environments benefits from their drinks selection based on three points:

  • A variety of whiskies for different occasions, from the everyday sipper and cocktail base to the extremely exclusive
  • A clearly navigable menu for their guests to choose their drink from featuring established luxury whisky brands
  • Well-trained staff who feel confident to advise guests with their expert knowledge on those drinks.

 “The Macallan provides all three,” says Offringa. “We are regarded as the ultimate luxury whisky around the world. Through our obsessive quest for obtaining exceptional oak casks to mature our whisky in, we achieve a wide range of flavours and a myriad of natural colours. Because up to 80% of the flavour of our whisky comes from maturation, we see it as self-evident that we thoroughly source our casks from the best sherry bodegas in Jerez de la Frontera, southern Spain.”

The Macallan’s distributor offers expert advice on whisky as a category and has in-house training experts to plan sessions with bar staff in the luxury end of the hospitality sector. “To discuss their whisky range and ensure availability of desired bottle, I would advise luxury B&B and hotel owners to contact Maxxium UK,” he concludes.

Two examples of everyday premium whiskies

The Macallan Double Cask 12 Years Old is a very versatile single malt whisky suited for every occasion either on its own or mixed with e.g. dry oloroso sherry and ginger ale as an aperitif. Matured exclusively in sherry casks from southern Spain. The Macallan Rare Cask is ideal to celebrate rare occasions of meeting friends and business partners or indulge in the moment. Rich and multifaceted, due to maturation in a variety of sherry casks that have showed exemplary variation in flavour.

 Three examples of exclusives

The Macallan No.6 is a whisky matured in sherry casks from a single cooperage, showing the most powerful heart of European oak sherry casks. Presented in a Lalique decanter, it retails at £2.500.

The Macallan M is subject to availability, hand-numbered small batches with the ultimate Macallan flavours: rich, dried fruits, chocolate and spices. It retails at £4.000, and the whisky is held in a Lalique decanter designed by Fabien Baron.

Fine and Rare is a range of single vintage whiskies as examples of the finest casks in their respective years. Also subject to availability, these start at £10.000 per bottle.

 

Welsh whisky

Besides Scotch whisky and the rapidly emerging Japanese whisky brands such as Yamazaki single malt cherry cask there is now whisky that is once again distilled in Wales.

The last distillery in Wales closed in 1903. Nearly a century later the lost art was brought back after a pub conversation in the Welsh valleys town of Hirwaun. A unique still designed by Dr David Faraday and not yet commissioned had become available, and the local pub landlord, a great character called Alun Evans, had a warehouse a few miles away in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons National Park, which had its own spring water supply. 

The still was, the site developed and it is where premium Welsh whisky Penderyn is distilled once again. 

Managing director Stephen Davies tells Luxury Bed & Breakfast magazine: “The first whisky to come of age was tasted in 2004 in the presence of Prince Charles, and since then the distillery has gone from strength to strength with visibility in all UK multiples. Penderyn now exports to more than 25 countries including Russia, Australia and China. Sadly Alun Evans died in 2015, but the distillery owners plan on naming the original still after him. Incidentally we commissioned a second Faraday still, as well as two lantern stills in 2013, which will allow us to massively increase our output, as well as experiment with new innovative whiskies.”

Davies says the whisky’s still is unique as a single copper pot version that produces new-make spirit at an industry high of 92%. “This is far above the abv of spirit distilled in any conventional two pot system. This spirit is light and fruity, and is then married with our fresh spring water and casked in the finest US bourbon casks,” he says.

Nearly all Penderyn’s whisky starts its life in ex-Bourbons casks. Davies says: “Under US law Bourbon barrels can only be used once, so single malt whisky producers have a plentiful supply of excellent quality casks. All the colour in our whiskies comes from the wood: there is no added colour. After maturing for a number of years we use a variety of casks for finishing. These add to the richness and the flavour. Currently we use ex- Madeira, Sherry, Red Wine, Port and Peated casks.”

Scotland has a surfeit of Peat, and famously peat-smoke their barley before it is mashed. Wales has no peat. Penderyn uses ex-Peated casks from Scotland so its peated finish whiskies have a trace of smoke, whilst still being a fruity whisky. “Some find this combination very alluring, especially the French,” Davies observes. 

Premium whisky in a cosy bar frequented by high net worth guests will sell better if a conversation about the story behind the whiskies occurs. A good story and a fine single malt go hand in hand, but Penderyn actually sponsors a literature prize – the Penderyn Music Book Prize for rock literature (www.penderynprize.com). “It’s in its third year now; judges have included Annie Nightingale, Shane McGowan from The Pogues and comedian Stuart Lee… and winning subjects to date include The Beatles, 1966, and the rise of the Rock Against Racism movement in the 70s and 80s,” he says.

Penderyn enjoys stories”. We’re very keen to promote Wales wherever we go. Wales is the secret Celtic nation. We don’t shout about our achievements. The Scots and the Irish are known the world over, but not so much the rather secretive Welsh. And yet 16 of the signatories on the US Declaration of Independence had Welsh ancestry, and no fewer than 8 US Presidents had Welsh roots. We had the biggest steel works in the world, one of the oldest literary traditions in Europe, and the most castles per square mile of any country on the planet.

“Yes, we like stories, as mentioned we even began with a chat in a pub. Another interesting story is that we currently employ three distillers, all of them women. We’re looking to expand soon and are eyeing up an old copperworks in Swansea and a former school in Llandudno, and we launched a new bottle in Paris in September that features wings and hallmarks. This is a major step forward for Penderyn,” he concludes.

Putting together a selection of premium whisky is by no means straight forward but doing so certainly yields an enjoyable and educational journey.