You’ve heard a lot about Berlin as Europe’s culture capital, the city revived by the wall coming down. Berlin also happens to be one of the most popular vacation destinations for Israelis, and I figured I’d jump on the bandwagon and come to Berlin for an extended weekend. Not being the clubbing type, my days will be dedicated to sightseeing and visiting museums. But my nights and my shopping time (when my dear wife looks for clothes, bags and shoes) will be dedicated to the exploration of Berlin as a whisky lover’s destination. I’ve divided my investigation into two parts: Tasting and shopping.
Part I will discuss Berlin as a whisky tasting destination, and part two as a whisky shopping destination.
Part I – Berlin as a Whisky Tasting Destination
A quick word on my methodology: There is none! I was in Berlin for an extended weekend, I did some research on the internet ahead of time and found tastings and bars, but I’m sure I didn’t get all there is to see (in fact, I know there’s more because I obviously can’t review places who’s events were on other weekends, and there are such places). So after this caveat, I’ll get to sharing my experience:
The Big Bar
After arriving in Berlin at 10 am on Thursday and taking an obligatory swing around the city to get its feel, we headed to the very residential Steglitz area to visit Loch Ness bar, an absolute temple of whisky, with 731 (!!) open bottles of whisky. The bar is on a quiet residential corner, away from the center of the city and a few blocks of the main street. Yet, like anywhere in Berlin, it’s really easy to get to with public transportation, and the bus lets you off just three blocks away from the bar.
The Loch Ness is an affiliate whisky bar of the Single Malt Whisky Society, and besides a lovely selection of the Society’s offerings, members get a 15% discount on SMWS bottlings.
I prepared my visit in advance, so I knew exactly what I wanted to taste, as the bar has a PDF list of its offerings. I wanted to taste five expressions, and ended up tasting four there and buying one dram to take home with me in a small bottle I brought along. At one point, the owner, Christian, had a few minutes to chat and I had the opportunity to get to know him a bit. He also has a little sherry finishing project on the side, in which he takes a simple single malt and finishes it in the sherry cask he has at home. Christian was good enough to share a dram that whiskey with me and it actually added a nice character to the Glen Grant he used. The bar is not his day job, and that’s doubly impressive, especially when you see the extensive collection of whisky he has, some of which comes from buying retail, and some had to have come off an auction. This also explains the fact that the bar is closed both on Sunday and on Monday. On the side of the bar there’s a lovely outside area, and sitting there was really pleasant, until one of the patrons began puffing on his cigar, preventing my nose from working properly.
There is also a smallish food menu, I had a hamburger and potato wedges, which were decent – but one really doesn’t go to a whisky bar for the food. Obviously, the main show there is the whisky and not the food which is one show that the Loch Ness puts on very well.
I tasted the following drams, all of which will see reviews as One Quick Dram postings over the next few weeks:
SMWS 73.45 – Aultmore19 year (56.1%)
Port Ellen 26 year, Old Malt Cask (50%)
And they took home a bottling of a Ben Nevis single cask which was bottled by local whisky shop in Berlin, named “Big Market” to celebrate their 35th anniversary. This selection too, will be reviewed as a One Quick Dram posting.
All in all my experience at the Loch Ness was extremely positive. The whisky selection is fabulous, the proprietor very knowledgeable in the atmosphere very pleasant and relaxed. Were I a Berliner, this would’ve definitely been my regular watering hole.
One thing you need to know about Berlin is that many places do not accept credit cards. At all. Additionally, the places that do, will require your PIN code.
A store, a train and an Island
On the second day went to visit the Big Market store. More about the shopping experience there in the shopping blog post to follow this one, however the store does have about 400 open bottles from which you can either taste a wee bit or purchase a dram to enjoy on the premises. After getting on the wrong train and visiting Berlin’s outer suburbs (right platform, wrong train…) I made it to the Cadenhead’s Whisky Market shop for a tasting. The tasting was for beginners, but I did want to see a tasting and maybe take some tips for the tastings I conduct in Israel, so I figured the language shouldn’t really be a barrier.
It was nice to see that the crowd was mainly youngish (late 20s and 30s), with the sadly regular over 90% male participation. Being the opening day for the Feis Ila 2014 festival, naturally the tasting concentrated around Islay whiskys. The first election was the Islay Mist blend. Scratch that, followed by the very forgettable Duthies regional selection from Islay and the first part of the tasting ended with Smokehead. After a short break three heavier hitters were brought out: the Port Askaig 12, the Finlaggen cask strength
And lastly, Celp which is an Islay single malt (rumored to be either a Laphroaig or a Lagavulin) with a branch of sea kelp inside rendering it, legally at least, not a Scotch whisky.
A semi tasting and a disappointment turned glorious
On Saturday, Finest Whisky, a store with a nice selection of rare and hard to find whiskys was holding a tasting. This tasting was of rarer whiskys than the tasting the night before but my wife did not want to come nor did she want to fend for herself that evening, so we just went to check out the store without staying for the tasting. This was a shame because the tasting offered some very interesting whiskys most of them well off the beaten path. The selection list I got by email included:
Tamdhu 10, Original bottlin (43%)
Ben Nevis 17 – World of Orchids – JWWW (50,5%)
Clynelish 16 – Douglas of Drumlanrig (56,2%)
Bowmore 17 – White Sands (43%)
Duncan Taylor “Auld Blended” 35yo – (46%)
Glen Scotia 1977 – 2011 Van Wees Rare Reserve (46%)
Bunnahabhain 40 – Sansibar Whisky (46,7%)
Laphroaig Highgrove 12 – 1999/2013 (46%)
Hannes, the proprietor, was kind enough to offer me a tasting of the 40 year old Bunnahabhain and of the Highgrove Laphroaig. The Bunnahabhain was good, but I don’t have detailed tasting notes for it or for the Laphroaig. I also bought a bottle of a van Wees Laphroaig I was looking for, a single cask expression.
That evening I visited the small but well stacked Union Jack which was an easy walking distance from my hotel. This is a small place about half the size of the Loch Ness with about 400 bottles to select from. In the lists I found on the Internet this place had the 20 year Rare Malts Brora I’ve been after for a while.
I ordered the SMWS 38.20 Caperdonich 16 year old (57.4%), the Dallas Dhu 18 year (58.5%) and the Imperial-Glenlivet 16 year old in the Cadenhead’s authentic collection series. I now came time for the Brora. Alas, the Brora was finished and the bottle was totally empty. The proprietor, Schlange, offered me the Linkwood 26 (56.1%) which was absolutely glorious. The Union Jack has a nice cozy feeling and Schlange has a really nice touch as together with your dram, she brings the bottle to your table and leaves it there for a few minutes to enable you to read the label and take down whatever information you’d like to note. I’d like to see this happening in more places.
One small note on the Union Jack though: go there for drinks before or after you’ve had dinner. Do not count on the Union Jack for your culinary needs – it’s a whisky bar and it does that very well. It isn’t a restaurant.
My last night in Berlin was a Sunday in which everything (and I mean everything) is closed, so this ends the first part of our post-series on Berlin as a whisky destination.