Pop-Up Whisky Bar; the New Scene?

Nate offering a quick Whisky 101 as the evening sets up.
Nate offering a quick Whisky 101 as the evening sets up.

Would an established restaurant consider extending their bar beyond the latest craze in cocktails? Now I do love-me some cocktails, but hard to find whisky pulled from the back end of a connoisseur/enthusiast’s collection. Bring it on, baby! Last night was a first for me and for a pop-up whisky bar in the Boston-Cambridge nightlife scene. The brainchild of my buddy Nate, a true whisky connoisseur; and heartily endorsed by restaurateurs Tse-Wei Lim and Diana Kudayarova. This pop-up night would take place at the Ames Street Deli, Improper Bostonian’s 2015 BEST for sandwiches. Although this was a run-through before the official launch sometime in August at Study in Kendall Square, Cambridge (MA not UK), the whiskies served were exquisite, rare, unusual and stimulating. The quietly advertised event drew in local whisky enthusiasts and bloggers – awesome meeting you @TheWhiskyBitch (Twitter handle)- , the right combination of hipsters and friends. The kinks were minor and most likely not observed by the imbibers leading me to know that the launch will be a real kick.

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Waiting for the serious pours to begin!
Waiting for the serious pours to begin!

As the early evening was getting into motion a flight of Grand Ten Distilling South Boston Irish Whiskey, Glenfiddich 12 YO, and Nikka 12 YO Pure Malt was offered. Nate spent a few minutes on Whisky 101 and the vision of his Pop-Up Whisky Bar. Then as the group gathered closely around the modern ‘n sleek bar table the real excitement began…the specialty whisky list and bottles made their appearance. American, Canadian, Indian, Japanese, blend and single malts adorned the table. Could I, should I drink them all? Restraint won out, the logic being I wanted my palate to actually know what it was tasting and enjoying. Plus, oh yeah, there was an earlier stop to see my pal Joe at Federal Wine and Spirits, and a wee dram of Gordon & MacPhail’s Benromach 2003 Cask Strength at 58.2%. This one had a sweet start followed by a mellowing of flavors and for such a high alcohol content there was no burn nor alcohol on the nose. I give it a 3- out of a top of 4.

See that
See that “12 YO” it will soon be replaced by “NAS” Troubling?

Knowing that NAS is the new mantra of Nikka, I ordered a glass of the Nikka 12 YO blend to start while I got settled in for the evening. There is some malt and cinnamon on the nose, a spicy palate and smooth finish, a 3, I think – yes there is a bit of wavering on this one.

Oops, ate the foie gras sandwich before snapping a pic.
Oops, ate the foie gras sandwich before snapping a pic.

The BEST sandwiches award led me to delve into a cheese plate followed by their signature foie gras sandwich. My senses are still dancing…that was some delectable sandwich. After touching and feeling all the bottles, taking pictures and being totally obnoxious about getting up close and personal with the selection, with bated breath I ordered my first glass: Ballantine’s 17 YO, 86 proof.

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Ian Buxton has this whisky in his 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die book. Yet I do believe he is not talking about the treasure that was before me. This Ballantine’s was bottled between 1952 and mid-1960s. Never opened and kept in a cool, dark basement. Thank you Nate’s Grandpa. While the date was missing on the worn label, the bottle itself had the markings “Federal law forbids sale or re-use of this bottle”, a moniker that was removed by 1968. Look at the rich color in the decanter – why did they hide this in a green bottle?! The nose was a rich vanilla and the palate brought me back to playing in the dirt as a child – a good memory. Grandpa gets a 3+.

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The Japanese Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu On The Way 2013 was intriguing. Ichiro Akuto, the grandson of the founder of Hanyu Distillery, is producing what may be the closest I ever get to a rare Hanyu whisky. I went all in. Hot chili peppers covered for the high, 58.5% alcohol on the mouth, somewhere there was a taste of Asian fruit, yet no burn on the finish. I went back to it several times. Do I insist on rating it a 4-?

The only whisky with a strong sense of peat.
The only whisky with a strong sense of peat.

Conversations loosened up as the pours continued, obviously. Across from me was Sam – a man of great knowledge of all that is cigars. Perfect. Whisky. Cigars. Must be a pairing to be organized. Yes, indeed. Stay tuned on this one! Wait, Sam, what are you tasting? I sensed the peat waifing across the table and perking up my Islay crush. Fautline Bowmore Palm Tree 1997, 60.1% alcohol. The Whisky Bitch said it best in full exclamation, “Peat on the mouth, then guava and passion fruit. Try this, nose it, then finish the glass.” I did, and yes, the peat was really upfront and center, but then bowed gracefully to the guava and passion fruit. A thrill to tipple. Indeed, a 3+.

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My last choice was the Canadian Schenley O.F.C., an 8 YO, a blend bottled in 1965. I was amazed to see this bottle as I had discussed it in the blog I wrote a few weeks ago titled “Are Blenders People?” Had to try it, for sure. I wasn’t expecting much but found it light with a sweet and spicy delicacy rolling around my mouth before it gave way to no finish at all. It is not a strong 3-, but does not deserve a lesser score. Call me sentimental. Nate surprised the table just before the 8PM closing down of the Pop-Up with a St. Magdalene, a Lowland 32 YO which is one of the Lost Distilleries shuttered in 1983. My palate was compromised at this point and all I could muster for was light and non-descript. Someone said a hint of peat. Where? I can only give this a 2+. Pop-Up Whisky Bar by Nate. Yes. I raise a glass – an empty one ready to try the next pourings? Thank you Nate. Your brilliance is unparalleled in our region.

There is no traffic congestion on the straight and narrow path.

There is no traffic congestion on the straight and narrow path. Tommy Dewar

Tommy Dewar

My young daughter Carrie wanted to buy me glasses for Christmas the winter she worked after school at a kitchen and gift shop. She told her co-workers that she wanted the glasses because “My mother belongs to this group that drinks.” It sounded like it was a club of debauchery and alcoholics anonymous drop-outs. The co-workers looked askance at her. A clarifying explanation was in order!

Well this Mom still drinks but the story is so much more than debauchery. As I start off Chapter 1 of my book, Whisky Tales: Tastings and Temptations: it is all Amanda’s fault. Really. She was the one who suggested that a group of us get together and have our own whisky tasting. Being the great followers, we eagerly said, “Sure.” The rest is more than history, more than a deviation from the straight and narrow path.

six classic malts

My ever expanding love of whisky and blossoming collection, has taken me on a journey that was never envisioned during that first tasting. I like to give credit to the shocking preference I had for the Lagavulin 16 Y.O.  We were sampling the then “Six Classic Malts” whiskies which were sold as a gift set of nip size bottles (so wish they were still available.) Yes, they are all mammoth-corporation Diageo owned whiskies but they give a fairly good range of flavor profiles. But during that first tasting all I knew was that they were “scotch”; something I thought old men drank. The six expressions included:

  • Glenkinchie 10 Y.O.
  • Dalwhinnie 15 Y.O.
  • Cragganmore 12 Y.O.
  • Oban 14 Y.O.
  • Talisker 10 Y.O.
  • Lagavulin 16 Y.O.

Lagavulin label

Taste after taste my face twisted and wrinkled and I thought how could this possibly be pleasurable? Was it supposed to taste like medicine, burn the throat when swallowed, and not have any bubbles? After tasting all six, Amanda told us to go back to the one we liked the best.  I found the Lagavulin wrapped snuggly in my hands. It tasted like leather, iodine, peat and smoke. Astonishing! I embraced my new found love and set out on a quest to learn more about whisky, to seek out bottles that were not the “every day” and to build a collection to share and experience with others. While I have more than 150 bottles and have traveled several times to Scotland, I am still working my way through Ian Buxton’s 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die. So much whisky in the world to taste. It is still a thrill to find a whisky expression not well known or available that awakens the nose, palate and finish! (And is not going to break the bank to buy.)

101 whiskies book

Many of us who use the word passion when discussing whisky – whether it is single malt, a blend, a bourbon, a rye, distilled in Scotland, Canada, America, Ireland, India, Japan – have stories on how the passion was ignited. For me, the fun of it all was behind my taking up the pen and writing my romp of a book, creating this blog, and tweeting out to all who will listen. Connecting through social media and from all points of the globe continues to fuel passion, expand knowledge and the pure joy of experiences with likeminded souls. We are not on the straight and narrow path. We are not trying to be labeled as experts but simply reaching out and sharing our passion and our whiskies. I still belong to “this group that drinks” – fantastically it is a worldwide group!

I thank you Amanda.  I thank you Lagavulin. Whisky drinkers tell your stories!

I raise a glass to my fellow whisky drinkers!