Ode to whisky bars and growing up – via Brisbane, Glasgow, Tokyo, etc.

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Death & Taxes bar, Brisbane

 

It was 6pm, my nephew, Will, had been 18 for 12 hours, and we’d just walked into the Naked Whisky Bar. The plan was straightforward. Rather than follow Will to rowdy clubs and pubs and watch him get fershnickered on shit beer and shots (as one suggestion went), we’d instead do a wee tour of Brisbane’s top whisky bars. Classy and grown-up, I thought, and about the best present I could think of.

I also wanted to teach Will about booze, present a calm, nuanced way of interacting with the stuff. I had no idea what he’d make of the tour, but I guess I was excited to present the industry I’ve worked in and written about for almost a decade, to give him a taste of the supposed ‘civilising effect’ that small bars can foster.

But as I think back on that night now, a month later, it’s developed an entirely new meaning, a new memory. Bars and restaurants are facing their worst crisis in living memory. Some of my closest friends are utterly overwhelmed, fighting to keep their businesses alive. I think about all the people I’ve worked with now facing precarious futures. All the work we’ve done in this country and around the world in recent times to create fun, safe, sophisticated bars – places of refuge and celebration for great booze and great company. Everything about that night seems more significant now, more fragile. I think about everything we might already have lost.

For the last twelve years, I’ve been visiting whisky bars across the globe. As someone who has no feeling for the religious or the spiritual, I find a sort of communion in them. You come together, maybe listen to a brief sermon from behind the bar, take your distilled bread, share stories, and head out into the world feeling lighter somehow, cleansed (possibly speaking in tongues, flames atop your head).

Sure, the Naked Whisky Bar is an odd name for a place of worship, but it’s basically a collection of whisky at one end of The Morrison Hotel, a beloved Brisbane pub. I thought this would be a nice spot to ease Will into things, but the pub was dead quiet when we walked in, and I instantly felt like the uncool, crazy uncle corrupting his poor nephew. But we ordered some amber ales and a Starward Two Fold anyhow (had to start with something Australian). I offered Will a small taste of the Starward, and his face contorted into that alarmed look I’d seen a thousand times as a bartender. That ‘this is poison! but don’t show it’ reaction everyone naturally has when they’re new to spirits.

 

Photo – Cobbler 

 

To keep things rolling, we hightailed it to Cobbler, Brisbane’s most established whisky den. We took two seats at the bar and I watched as a wide-eyed Will surveyed the place. ‘Fancy,’ he whispered, taking a sip from a glass of water and gazing up at the wall of whisky behind the bar. Will was perplexed, but taking it all in: the tatts covering a bartender’s arms, the ‘mate’ and ‘fuck’ that comprised at least 50% of each sentence from the gents next to us, the ritual and performance behind preparing drinks. There’s etiquette, there’s order, there’s unspoken protocols, but you forget how odd it must all seem – they don’t teach you this stuff in school.

I ordered some dark lagers and then it was time for Will’s first proper whisky. I talked it over with the bartender, who was a little daunted at first, but rose to the moment. A gentle 18 year old single malt, maybe something from Speyside or the Highlands, something elegant, fruity, I suggested. A bottle was fetched from the top of the ladder and placed in front of Will – an 18 year old Blair Athol bottled by Douglas Laing. Blair Athol’s spicy, nutty drive mightn’t have been my first pick, but Will took the suggestion like a challenge.

‘Yep, that’ll be good,’ he quickly agreed.

‘Now, just nose it first, get accustomed to its flavours, and then take a sip.’

I tried to slow him down but that first sip went down like lead. He took a big gulp and panicked as 48.4% burned down his throat. I told him to add some water, he did, and then suggested ice, even soda. But now he was determined to slug it down, and five minutes later the glass was empty.

Will took that whisky exactly the way he’d lived the last 18 years – head on. He’d never had much time for authority, school, taking things slow. With that first whisky, I remembered chasing a five year old terror, no taller than my hip, around a sweltering Brisbane backyard as he threw rocks at magpies and swatted cane toads with a plastic cricket bat.

We finished our drinks, stood up, Will’s blonde head now rising over mine, his hunched shoulders now broader than mine, and got walking. Outside, the night was thick with humidity. Swollen clouds threatened to dump more rain on a city that had already received a week-long drink. But coming after the dry, the rain had activated the place, brought it to life: crickets hummed, hot, tangy smells rose from the river as we walked across Victoria Bridge towards the CBD, blocks of glass and concrete towering above us.

Past the gaudy pink of the casino, down a laneway, and we’d reached Death & Taxes. I’d thrown away all ideas about neat whisky now – time for cocktails. Again, we sat at the bar, which mirrors Cobbler (both spots are owned by Martin Lange and partners, some of Brisbane’s most respected operators). But the feel here is darker, more theatrical: old wood, black tiles and plush leather booths.

I ordered whisky sours. I reasoned that it’s practically impossible not to like a well-made sour, and we watched as the bartender crafted the drinks with an almost choreographed precision. Will took a sip and smiled, relieved. Now he understood how people drank this stuff. Around us, the bar, the night, was getting busier, livelier. We watched as the bar crew danced around each other, pouring beers and shaking cocktails, fingers pointing to labels, counselling and tasting notes, nods and smiles.

 

Bon Accord, Glasgow; Bluegrass Tavern, Lexington; Bar Fal, Tokyo

 

‘All whisky bars like this?’ Will asked.

I told him about pubs in Scotland, knocking back single malts from Glasgow to Islay, downing Guinness and Green Spot at The Palace Bar in Dublin, having a gun pulled on me outside The Bluegrass Tavern in Lexington, Kentucky (it’s still my favourite Bourbon bar). Then Japan, a paradise for whisky lovers. Where descending into nooks like Tokyo’s Campbelltoun Loch, a basement crammed with hundreds of rare whisky bottles, becomes normal, expected. Or Bar Fal in Ginza, unearthing a 70 year old bottle of Australian whisky and cracking it with the owner who’d keep it safe for decades, waiting for the right moment. And of course, Whisky & Alement, practically my second home, and the various whisky institutions that have emerged in Australia over the last ten years. Pick any city now, the quality’s there.

We then bounced to The Gresham up the road, probably my favourite Brisbane whisky joint. By now, I was done with evangelising, time to relax and sink into The Gresham, with its high, heritage-listed sandstone walls, its airy saloon interior, its nod to Brisbane’s complex boozing and political history. It’s exactly where you want to be in a hot and sticky city.

 

 

We drank some hoppy local ales and I ordered an obscure American craft whiskey and instantly regretted it – went down like fence posts dipped in maple syrup. A Kiwi executive sitting next to us then started babbling on about his high-flying finance role, which forced him to work between L.A., Singapore and Hong Kong. Poor thing. ‘I should actually be in Hong Kong right now,’ he complained, citing a new Chinese virus. It was the first time I’d heard anyone talk about coronavirus outside a news broadcast.

Partly to dodge the rich Kiwi, partly to keep moving, we headed to the Valley, Brisbane’s raw hive of bars and clubs. Most 18 year olds would start and finish their night there, so it seemed an appropriate finale.

 

Photo – Savile Row

 

I doubted any of them would be popping in to Savile Row, our last stop. You’d walk straight past the place if not for its electric orange door. Inside, it’s an opulent warren of art and wood (another Martin Lange special). Above the mezzanine, the chandelier, the epic wall of spirits, your eye is constantly drawn to a mural that fuses E.T.’s alien finger with The Creation of Adam. I got a head rush (the sours were kicking in) gazing up at it, thinking about the smell in the Sistine Chapel and how I hated E.T. when I first watched it as a kid.

Back on the ground, I moved to Rittenhouse, Will took another whisky sour – looks like I got one thing right. From our corner at the end of the bar, we talked about the future: jobs to work, places to live, countries to travel to. The last few years had been rough. I wanted to say things would get easier but I wasn’t sure they would. I was, however, pretty sure by now that whisky bars weren’t quite Will’s thing, and I was perfectly happy with that. I was also sure that on his first (legal) night out, in that dark, daring, confident bar, I was proud to be there sitting next to him.

 

Luke McCarthy
Luke McCarthy is the editor and publisher of Oz Whisky Review. A freelance writer and author, Luke's the chief judge of the Perth Royal Distilled Spirits Awards, a judge at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards, and his book, The Australian Spirits Guide, the first to tackle the history and resurgence of the Australian spirits industry, was published in 2016 by Hardie Grant Books.