It was a perfectly normal Monday night in Shoreditch. A small group of people gathered in a cosy back room and listened to monastic tunes while wisps of dry smoke wafted past our nostrils and Colin Dunn (Diageo brand ambassador) told dark tales of whisky history while dressed as a monk.
Like, I said, perfectly normal.
Or, not, if you aren’t used to strange antics of the cocktail bars that haunt this part of London.
This particular evening was arranged by the Worship Street Whistling Shop – a basement bar with gin-palace style and trendy-oddity based on a darkened, office-filled street near Old Street. It was a part of the bar’s new “Whisky Emporium” designed in partnership with Colin.
I was there as a part of a test group to see how the Emporium’s new whisky installation would work. It is the latest in a series of emporiums for the fantastic little bar – following on from a rum and cocktail one done previously. With me were whisky aficionados Karen and Matt from WhiskyForEveryone and Sunday Times drinks columnist and Imbibe editor, Alice Lascelles.
The Emporium is meant to give patrons a fully sensory experience to learn about the history of one particular spirit – in this case, whisky. The evening is divided into six parts, during which scents are pumped in to match the particular theme of the act, and drinks, food, music and video are added in to hit all of your brain’s intake buttons.
As it was a test night, there were more changes and interruptions than would normally be the case but, regardless, it was bizarre and fantastic. Besides, as Colin put it, “This evening is the acoustic version; we’ll be going electric in January.”
We started with Colin dressed spookily as a monk discussing the origins of whisky, and tried a whisky based punch that used ingredients that would have been around hundreds of years ago – such as mead and hay (that’s right, hay). The nutty, cream, apple and honey drink was paired delightfully with dried vegetable crisps.
In act two, to the background of some Miles Davis and John Lee Hooker jazz, Colin ran us through the history of blending. We were then asked to work together as a group to create our own blend. We were allowed to smell each but not know what whisky it was, instead having to rely on our senses to mix them together. Each whisky was given a name of a Scottish celebrity it reminded the team at Worship Street of. One of my favourites was, “Frankie Boyle: Well-oiled fishing net on fire.” We added some cherry-pie Lorraine Kelly and a bit of Billy Connolly spice, creating a fruity, sweet whisky with a bit of warm pie spices.
By act three, we were all really getting into things. So, when Colin came in as “Cooper Dunn” we listened with glee. My favourite cocktail of the night – a bonkers twist on a blood and sand made from Cragganmore Portwood, grapefruit and pickle brine, that was part sour, part sweet and part briney salt – was served out of individual flasks and combined with the savory prosciutto and bread, to represent a cooper’s lunch. As we nibbled and drank, Cooper Dunn gave us a rundown of the influence of wood, while a subtle woodsmoke blew through the room to further enhance the impact.
Act four covered regions, with whisky jellies placed in teeny glasses and served on a whisky map, while act five looked at the importance of age and included a succulent oyster topped with a lavender foam and a Talisker 57 North-based cocktail. The final stage saw us through to the future – with a backdrop of images of a bustling, bright city at night and uplifting dance music. Here we were served the most innovative cocktail of the night – in the bottom of a tall glass, a coca-cola flavoured Berocca sat, ready to have a Caol Ila whisky and soda poured on top.
The whole night was slightly Alice in Wonderland – but I wouldn’t expect much less from the team that also runs Purl in Marylebone. While there were some niggles to be worked out (for instance, the need for stronger scents to be pumped through to up that sensory experience) it will inevitably be a sell-out event for the whisky-curious. And a worthwhile one at that. You may never see Monday night in the same way again…!
The Whisky Emporium will run nightly for three months, for groups of at least four at a cost £90 per person. For more information, visit: www.whistlingshop.co.uk