Fiddler’s five times a star whisky bar

Drumnadrochit business takes fifth SLTN title – seven years after last win

Champions: the Fiddlers team take the SLTN Award from Glenfiddich’s Mark Thomson (second left) and Kevin Bridges at the 2019 SLTN Awards

By Danny McCahon

WHEN Jon Beach, owner of Fiddler’s in Drumnadrochit, gathered his staff and whisky club members at the venue to celebrate a fifth SLTN Whisky Bar of the Year crown, he regarded it as a celebration of his staff’s enthusiasm for the national drink and a reflection of how they have reinvigorated his own interest in it.

Fiddler’s had last won the title back in 2012, with Jon then taking a break from entering the SLTN Awards, before returning in 2019 to win the SLTN Whisky Bar of the Year award, in association with Glenfiddich.

“Of course, we have continued to expand and promote our whisky collection, but for one reason or another we hadn’t entered the awards for a while,” he said.

“In the past couple of years, though, I felt a growing enthusiasm for whisky among the staff and working closely with our bartender, Sam Sellick, and seeing the energy he put into promoting whisky, I felt the time was right to enter again.

“I am delighted for all of the staff that we won.”

Jon has a long association with the SLTN Awards, having first attended the event back in 2007; and he reckons the biggest change for whisky bars in that time is price. As an example he said that around that time he could pick up a bottle of 1970 Bruichladdich for around £80 to £90, which these days would go to auction for £1000 plus.

“People are collecting rare and older stuff as an investment,” said Jon.

“There was a Brora 40 year old released in travel retail four years ago and I saw it in Gatwick Airport for £4500 at the time. A bottle was recently sold for £56,000.”

Talking of auctions, Jon highlighted a recent development caused by minimum unit pricing.

“I like old blends from the seventies – I think it must be down to the quality of the whiskies going into them,” he said.

“Until recently you could find big 4.5-litre bottles of the likes of Bell’s and Ballantine’s from that era at auction for about £40 to £50. Now, because of minimum unit pricing, they are starting at £85.”

Fiddler’s bottles its own blend using a 10-litre cask on the bar which Jon half fills with a selected blend then adds chosen single malts, promoting the blend on its menu as a ‘haggis dram’.

Being able to offer whisky to customers at a sensible price plays a big part in Jon’s selection of bottles; and, with that in mind, GlenfarcFiddler’s has joined forces with four other bars to form the Independent Whisky Bars of Scotland buying group, which sets up agreements with distilleries to buy casks and have its own single malts bottled at the distillery. Expressions of Highland Park, Arran and Glenfarclas have been among the special bottlings so far, and the latest deal has been completed with Daftmill.

“The partnership allows us to offer something unique in the bars and it is working very well so far,” said Jon.

Promoting Fiddler’s to a wider audience also seems to be working well.

Its location on the banks of Loch Ness means Fiddler’s draws a healthy overseas tourist trade during the summer months; but rather than be satisfied waiting for the world to come to the bar, Jon also takes the bar out to the world. This year that has included operating a mini version of Fiddler’s at two branches of the Hankyu department store in Japan.

“My job was to operate the bar and pass on some whisky knowledge; I’d serve drams and if the customer liked it, they had the chance to buy a bottle,” Jon explained.

“It was a great opportunity to promote whisky and Scotland as a tourist destination.”

It was a trip to Europe, though, that inspired the latest addition to Fiddler’s.

“We have a connection with the Monte Carlo Whisky Society stretching back to 2013,” said Jon.

“The society, including Prince Albert of Monaco, have visited us and over the years we have accepted invitations to visit them.

“On one visit, I was asked if I knew anyone with a mobile catering van who could take it to Monte Carlo and serve that most traditional of Scottish dishes: fish and chips. I was able to organise someone to take on the job and, to add yet more Scottish flavour, we also took a selection of beers from Loch Ness Brewery. It was sitting on that quay beside all the yachts, drinking Scottish beer and eating Scottish fish and chips with Price Albert that the penny dropped for me: if it could work there, it could work in Drumnadrochit.”

As a result, Jon bought a trailer and opened a food van at the front of Fiddler’s in 2015, initially operating it for ten weeks over the summer; but it was so popular that it is now open 20 weeks of the year between April and September.

“The food truck has transformed beer sales at our bar, with customers having a pint with their fish supper,” said Jon. “That, and the fact that we have been so much busier with foreign tourists than in 2018, has easily doubled our beer sales and means that we will be able to make it through the winter shutdown without using an overdraft.”