What makes a good whisky bar?
It’s a tougher question than it might seem.
As the home of Scotch whisky, Scotland could probably be expected to have some of the best whisky venues in the world, but as with any hospitality offer, getting a whisky range just right can be a tricky proposition.
As we move into the latter part of 2023, whisky brand spokespeople gave SLTN their thoughts on some of the best whisky venues in the country – as well as some advice on what other pubs, bars and restaurants might be able to do to up their whisky game.
Glasgow whisky institution The Pot Still and Edinburgh’s luxury whisky bar, Scotch at The Balmoral, were both cited by multiple people as examples of top-tier whisky venues, but they weren’t the only names lauded for their whisky ranges.
Kirsten Blackburn, head of marketing at The Borders Distillery, praised the Tipsy Midgie in Edinburgh for its ‘huge selection of whiskies’ as well as the venue’s ‘interesting takes on traditional serves’.
But The Pot Still and Scotch were the venues Blackburn reserved the most praise for.
She said: “The Pot Still is the doyen of whisky bars in Glasgow, with an impeccable reputation and many awards under its belt as a testament to its standing.
“For a little nook of grandeur head to Edinburgh’s Balmoral Hotel, where you’ll find their in-house whisky bar, Scotch. Here you’ll be able to choose from over 500 Scottish whiskies, with monthly spotlights of the bar manager’s must-have dram.
“One of the city’s best-kept secrets.”
At William Grant & Sons, Sean Fennelly, UK brand ambassador for The Balvenie, said The Pot Still, Scotch at The Balmoral and The Highlander Inn in Craigellachie were the three venues ‘that really stick out’.
“For me, the thing that really unites them, and that other venues should pay attention to, is the warmth and lack of pretension of their teams,” said Fennelly.
“You can have (as these venues’ teams do) an encyclopaedic whisky knowledge and an enormous back-bar, but without friendly, patient, emotionally intelligent bartenders to greet your guests, it’s all for nought.
“It’s such a pleasure sitting in any of the venues I’ve mentioned and watching whisky newcomers be lavished with exactly the same care and attention as old hands, geeks or big spenders – generosity of spirit in every sense.”
And in addition to The Pot Still, a spokesperson for Balvenie sister brand Monkey Shoulder opted for some venues that are doing unusual things with whisky.
“Controversially, I believe that some of the best whisky venues in Scotland aren’t traditional ‘whisky bars’,” they said.
“It may speak to how I like to enjoy whisky but there’s a time and a place for every tipple.
“For whisky in cocktails The Voodoo Rooms and Uno Mas are a must-visit.
“Bridging between mixed drinks and drams by a fire; The Last Word – all are found in Edinburgh.
“For an immersive whisky pub, you can’t pass The Pot Still in Glasgow.
“I don’t know anyone in the whisky industry who wouldn’t visit if they’re in Glasgow.
“In Aberdeen, The Old Workshop and The Tippling House are at the top of my list.
“If you’re venturing up to Inverness, The Malt Rooms and Scotch & Rye are must-hit stops.”
So what can other venues do to be a little more like these masters of malt?
The Monkey Shoulder spokesperson advised licensees to “take a good hard look at your back-bar and think ‘is this what my customers want or is it what I like?’.
“I’d suggest a bold and core range like Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Kilchoman, Springbank (and of course Monkey Shoulder),” they said.
“After that, continue to keep things interesting. Try some independent bottlings, Taiwanese whiskies or interesting blends.
“A lot of people still cling to the ‘regions’ of whiskies, but you’re better off looking at a flavour wheel as it’s more accurate for your guests.
“Pick a solid bottle of fruity, spicy, smokey, floral, coastal then after that, have fun with the space you have and what your customers would find interesting.”
Providing ways to offer customers a ‘journey’ through different whiskies was suggested by Fennelly at The Balvenie.
He said: “Think about the journeys your whisky range allows you to take your guests on. It can be as simple as allowing them to taste their way up the age statements of a handful of your favourite distilleries, but getting creative pays dividends; can you lead a guest through a selection of rum cask matured malts, or hone-in on the singular flavour of mainland (not Islay!) peat?
“Dozens of fantastic ‘new-school’ distilleries have opened in Scotland in the last decade or so. Are you telling their story? Or at the other end, could you specialise in the ‘silent stills’, drams from distilleries we’ve lost? Thinking about it in these terms, you’re not only thinking about your guest’s first trip to your bar, but their fifth or sixth. After that, you’ve got yourself a regular!”