May 7, 2013 in Reviews
Twitter can be an amazing, polarising thing. Sometimes it’s filled with drivel but other times it introduces you to the most interesting of things, right around the corner.
Recently as I was trawling through the tweets going out I came across one that was retweeted from one of the people I follow and which originally came from a user called “BBQWhiskyBeer”. Intrigued, I followed them and after doing some research got in touch.
The team behind the account, it turns out, run a rather fabulous pub in Marylebone called The Wargrave Arms that I’d never happened to wander past in my nearly six years in London – it is a rather big city after all. And, the team’s latest initiative is something called “BBQWhiskyBeer” – three things that sit dear to my heart. The project started out as a pop-up at a separate pub that manager Sam ran in Shepherd’s Bush but proved so popular he made it into a permanent installation in this pub.
I met Sam at the ivy-covered pub on a rare sunny spring afternoon of late to discuss the project further with him. Inside, I was immediately awed – row upon row of whisky bottles sit in cases above the bar, while on one long wall, long lists of drams are carefully chalked on a board. A spirit safe from Glenburgie sits in one corner while on weigh scales near the panorama glass frontage are signs advertising whisky flights. With the sun filtering in and flicking off the dark brown wooden accents, it was like a little bit of heaven.
During our chat, Sam told me that his old boss actually grew up at Glenburgie as his father was its master distiller so the pub has a long history of associations with whisky. But, the whisky didn’t get its fair dues.
“The whisky was always here but it never got a work out. Not much had been done about it and it used to be more of an inconvenience because staff had to get up on a ladder to get them,” he explained.
When Sam took over a year and a half ago, he decided he wanted to change that. Having run pubs and restaurants in London and Bristol, and having whisky pub The Britannia (near London Bridge) as a sister venue, he began planning how to make it work.
“Lee (who runs The Britannia) and I both love whisky. We wanted to make it more accessible and create a place where you could get a good whisky or a bottle of beer and still get change from £10,” he explained.
For those of you living outside of the capital, this probably seems completely doable, but not so in London where sometimes even your standard whisky line-up will cost you near that much for 50ml. And while there are many whiskies that will be above that price on the list (ones from closed distilleries or more limited editions) there are a good number which are in the more reasonable price category.
Although Sam respects great whisky bars like The Albannach or Boisdale at Canary Wharf (he’s known Hannah Lanfear, who runs the latter’s whisky bar, for years) he told me he wanted to open up the whisky category to a wider audience.
“It’s about saying that this is what we do at the bar and saying it’s not a drink for special occasions only,” he explained.
“There can be a problem with whisky that people are concerned about the price. I wanted to put it out there. I think it’s really pretentious to say to a customer, ‘Oh, there’s no menu needed, I know the prices in my head’,” he said, adding he experienced that at Christmas during a nice dinner in Kensington when he ended up paying £18 for a glass of Auchentoshan Three Wood because the server kept insisting there was no menu.
Having a policy to openly show the prices and to not charge an arm and a leg for drams will be key to changing consumers’ attitudes about whisky being inaccessible.
“If bars and restaurants don’t seem intent on making an 85% profit on each bottle then it would be easier for everyone,” he said.
The pub will now host monthly whisky tastings and run something called the Whisky Flight Club, with bronze, silver and gold tasting flights.
To go along with the whisky it is also, of course, promoting BBQ and beer.
“We’re all hooked on the street food craze. My assistant was from Chicago and we talked about BBQ. I became obsessed with BBQ sauce. And we smoke all our own food. The three things also compliment each other and we wanted it to all tie in together,” he explained.
The day of my visit I tried a sumptuous pulled pork burger filled with layers of gooey, sticky meat and coleslaw that I knew I’d need to come back for again.
In conclusion, Sam said it’s all about creating a good atmosphere for the customer.
“Having a few good drams, a beer and sharing a bowl of babybacks with friends? That to me is about as good of an evening as you’re going to get,” he concluded.
Amen to that, I say. Amen to that.
For more information on BBQWhiskyBeer head to the team’s Facebook page here or visit the pub at 42 Brendon Street, Marylebone, W1H 5HE.