I love whiskey. (In case you couldn’t tell from the fact that I run a whiskey blog.) So when I visit a new city and I find a bar that styles itself as a ‘whiskey bar’, I get excited and immediately make plans to visit. Sometimes I fall in love, but other times I leave confused and disappointed. So what exactly makes the difference?
I think that there are four components that make up a good whiskey bar, and there are two bars I’ve visited just in the last month that illustrate the difference perfectly. One, Seven Grand in Austin, TX, is a perfect whiskey bar in my opinion. The other, Local Whiskey in State College, PA, has some of the components of a great whiskey bar and while it’s a good bar in general, it falls short in many categories.
#1: First Impressions
I don’t always judge a book by it’s cover. Some of my favorite bars in the world, like Old Crow in Zurich, Switzerland, are just a hole in the wall down a dark and cramped alley. But even in those cases the way the bar is decorated and set up says volumes about the bar’s values.
Walking into either Seven Grand or the Old Crow, the very first thing you notice is that the spirits are the star of the show. With Seven Grand, their whiskey is displayed in massive library shelves that are back lit in an otherwise dark room, and Old Crow is bursting at the seams with spriits stored in every nook and cranny — this intimate storage of their immense, historical collection makes you feel like the whiskey is one of your drinking buddies. It’s impossible to miss and sets the tone immediately.
For Local Whiskey, that same “wow” moment doesn’t exist. The bar is set up like any of a thousand other bars in the world with a central display of liquor bottles, but the “special” whiskey is hidden behind that display on the back shelf. It’s not front and center, almost added as an afterthought, and not a prominent component of the decor.
Design is important. It sets the tone for the space and lets the bar show off a little bit. But even so, a whiskey bar with bad decor can still salvage the experience if everything else comes together properly.
#2: Whiskey Catalog
As the name might imply, a whiskey bar should be a celebration of whiskey in all its various forms. It’s possible to have a whiskey bar with a small selection of spirits, sure, but having a deep catalog sure doesn’t hurt.
With Seven Grand, their whiskey collection is on display behind the bar as well as being presented in a leather bound “whiskey bible.” Which is great for those who can’t exactly differentiate between all the various incarnations of Glenmorangie on sight, and definitely don’t quite understand the price difference between Evan Williams and WhistlePig. It even helps to break down the varieties so that people can find things in similar categories to brands they already like.
Local Whiskey has the same concept, a three page whiskey list, but the difference here is that with Seven Grand, the whiskey in the book is actually available. I tried to pick a whiskey from Local Whiskey’s list that I hadn’t tried before, but quickly discovered that there wasn’t a drop to be had. So I chose another one with the same empty result. I finally just ordered some Jim Beam that I could clearly see on the shelf so that I could at least have some kind of a drink in hand before my companions finished their first round.
Long pieces of paper look cool, but if there isn’t actual stock to back it up then there’s no point. I could have had pretty much the exact same experience at a Chili’s bar.
#3: Knowledgeable Staff
Even if the bar is beautiful, the whiskey is plentiful, and the options are as varied as the grains of sand on a beach, that’s not a guarantee of success.
While Seven Grand does have knowledgeable staff, I think the peak example of this aspect is actually The Old Crow. Their whiskey list isn’t quite as impressive and their ambiance isn’t as grand, but their bartenders are second to none. I was able to walk into their bar, mention a couple flavors or cocktails that I liked, and the bartenders were able to point me in the direction of some spirits that I’d never heard of before (but now keep regularly stocked in my bar at home). That deep knowledge of the spirits and ability guide people to new things that they might like is critical to a good whiskey bar experience.
And then there’s Local Whiskey. They needed to come back to my table no less than four times to confirm which whiskey it was that I wanted (before telling me that it was actually out of stock), and then were unable to recommend an alternate in the same category. Which left me choosing at random and praying I got something good.
#4: Focus on Education
The final aspect I want to point out is directly related to that knowledge of whiskey. A good bar will have staff members who can recommend things to drink, but a great bar will strive to educate their customers so that they can make those decisions on their own.
There are a couple different ways to achieve this.
Seven Grand sponsors weekly whiskey tasting events, where master distillers from far and wide come to share their knowledge with patrons and lead a course on a specific style of spirit. Not only is this brilliant marketing to get customers in the door on slow days, but it also broadens understanding of whiskey and shows customers glimmers of other variations that might not have been considered prior.
Another approach is to offer whiskey flights. Like wine flights, these curated sets of spirits usually have a theme and come with some literature describing the flavors of the whiskey and comparing or contrasting the various expressions. It allows patrons to learn about spirits on their own and broaden their palate on their own time rather than forcing them into a single class period.
Either way, the focus of a great whiskey bar should be on improving the understanding of their customers and broadening their horizons, not necessarily on self adoration for the depth of their whiskey list.
But What About…?
Obviously, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This is what makes a good whiskey bar… in my opinion. And given that these are all features common to some of the more successful whiskey slinging establishments in the world, I don’t think you can (usually) go wrong. There are always going to be extraneous factors and individual details that make each bar unique and add to the appeal, but I don’t think you’ll find a generally accepted “good” bar that lacks these features.
tl:dr: you need to build a solid foundation for your bar, before you can make it stand out.