People who work in the whisky industry are generally very proud of what they do. From the master distillers to master blenders, brand ambassadors and sales teams, everyone employed in this business tends to be in it because they love the spirit.
But one of the proudest people I have met of late has to be Cesar Da Silva, who heads up the bar at The Capital hotel in Knightsbridge, which offers a mixture of between 60-70 rare old bottlings and standard whiskies to its guests. For the past 17 years, Cesar has been living and breathing whisky and – during a recent interview – he showed no signs of changing that trajectory.
Cesar is well known within the whisky industry for being the youngest ever person to be initiated as a Keeper of the Quaich – the society that recognises those individuals who are dedicated to promoting the heritage and quality of Scotch. When we met at the bar, the badge he received in honour of it was clearly displayed on his jacket lapel.
“For whisky and the trade, it is my proudest achievement. When I got the notice, I did not have words to say. I was really proud but I was also very respectful of the industry inviting me,” he said, saying this honour even beat winning the Campari Bartender of the Year award in 2004.
I visited The Capital to speak to Cesar because it was one of those places I’d not come across very frequently during my whisky journey. I was, therefore, keen to learn about the man behind the bar.
Cesar’s story begins nearly 20 years ago, when he first came to London as a 17-year old in 1996, after leaving his home country of Portugal behind in favour of trying to make it in “the capital”. As fate would have it, he ended up at The Capital working in the room service department. During his early years here, he completed a degree in hospitality and eventually started work in the hotel’s bar. He became its manager at the very young age of 24 and his main priority, even then, was in promoting whisky for he had been inspired by the spirit while still a teenager.
“My favourite distillery, without a doubt because I remember going at the age of 18, was Ardbeg. It was the smell. Everything about it was amazing,” he recalled fondly.
His love of Ardbeg continues to this day.
“I’ve been very lucky to be near to many whiskies but when it comes to Ardbeg, it’s very different and distinct. It’s so warm and welcoming; it’s not aggressive. It just says, ‘Drink me!'”
The only thing he laments is the fact older bottles are becoming harder to obtain since the distillery’s popularity has gone through the roof.
“I bought a 1975 Ardbeg sherry cask for the bar recently and my guests finished it in two days,” he said.
One of Cesar’s goals at the bar is to provide guests with rare whiskies they cannot get elsewhere. He does this by purchasing whisky at online auctions and then selling the whisky at a dram cost that isn’t too inflated from the purchase price (though, at £96/dram of 18 year old Macallan Gran Reserva, it will still be out of the reach of many people).
“We’re all about passing on the passion to the customers,” he explained.
To further forward that goal, the team at The Capital are also looking to push the hotel bar’s existence to a wider clientele. While it is known within a specific crowd, Cesar said they are working to increase that through various events such as whisky and cheese matching evenings, whisky tastings and cocktail masterclasses. He will also be working with the hotel restaurant’s new head chef – Michelin starred Nathan Outlaw – to include whisky matching options that will appear on the menu at Outlaw’s Seafood & Grill.
And while many people might be looking to move on after 17 years in the same place of employment, Cesar seemed to be focused on improving the bar and spreading the word of whisky to the consumer, something he said is becoming easier as more people are educating themselves on the spirit.
“The word ‘whisky’ is expanding. I think people now know more but they also want to keep learning more,” he said.
The only downside to this expansion?
“I think it will, sadly, pump the price up. Twenty years ago people didn’t expect this increase in whisky sales,” he added.
For Cesar – and for the rest of those people proud to be in the whisky world – that may be a downside but at least it shows pride is well-placed. As more people come to drink whisky, I can only hope we’ll find more ‘ambassadors’ for this great spirit as in love with it as Cesar. I’m sure, though, that won’t be hard.
For more information on The Capital’s whisky bar and its whisky and food pairing events, visit: http://www.capitalhotel.co.uk/masterclasses_whisky.html