Early September I was about to go on my first travel to Bulgaria (on work), so being a whisky lover who is always keen on finding new shops/bars/distilleries I asked in the #whiskyfabric Facebook group if anyone knew of a good whisky bar in the town of Plovdiv. Shortly after, I was answered by Chris ‘Zeke’ Hand: “Howdy! Google can be your friend, too!” to which he attached a link. As I replied Chris, I was aiming at a more first hand experience recommendation, but I owe Chris a HUGE thank you.
Thanks to the link provided by Chris, I learned that the 9th floor of the Imperial Hotel in the Bulgarian town of Plovdiv, is home to a very unique venture. Watching over the town’s skyline, and with design and decor of an English gentlemen’s club, ‘The Whisky Library’ is a true gathering place for whisky lovers and enthusiasts and has provided me with amazing four whisky evenings during my stay (I managed to get approval to book the Imperial Hotel, so going back to my room to sleep meant only finding the lift and exiting on the correct floor).
Owned by the Totev family (owns the hotel), the Library is the creation of the owner’s two sons – Georgi and Ivan (AKA, Mayor of Plovdiv) – who are keen whisky drinkers-collectors-passionates. They got the idea to open the Library during a 2014 visit to Scotland, in which they realised they, and their hometown, need a proper place with the proper atmosphere to indulge on the golden water of life. What other location would be fitting but the family’s hotel 9th panoramic view floor?
A lot of investment and thought went into the design work and details in order to contribute to a most pleasant and welcoming atmosphere, as one reveals when entering the bar for the first time. Amongst other things there are custom made leather armchairs and sofas specially imported from Scotland, walls covered with master-carpenter engraved wooden panels, pleasant lightning from classic chandeliers and a working fireplace. In addition many unique artifacts around the room give the final touches such an antique mantel clock, a bronze telescope, a large chunk of peat, a large bowl filled with barley, a 1912 original map of the Balkan countries, and true to its name, several dozens or so whisky books including an impressive collection of Jim Murray’s whisky bibles. Naturally, much distillery merchandise can be found (leaflets, coasters, bar mats, glasses and so).
The Whisky Library was finally christened on March 31 this year (2015), after six months of construction, with a special Dalmore masterclass hosted by Mr. David Robertson, previously Whyte & Mackay’s Rare Whisky Director (and one of those responsible for‘The Dalmore Trinitas, the world’s first £100,000 single malt’). Since its opening, the Library strives to host masterclasses on a regular basis, thus contributing somewhat more to whisky lovers in Bulgaria.
The bar holds two separate collections – the one is the 124 bottles (currently) of which one can buy very reasonable priced drams, some of are limited and/or single casks (for example the beautiful Edradour Tuscan great wine cask 8YO and Old Particualr (Douglas Laing) Inchgower 14YO I had). The other collection is the one I drewled over for 3.5 nights (see explanation to come) through the locked glass doors protecting it, which is Georgi and Ivan’s own private stock and includes things like Bruichladdich ‘Mayor of Islay’, Laphroaig 21YO FOL, Darkness! Tobermory 17YO and 16YO Oloroso Cask Finish, Ballantine’s 30YO and some other true gems (sided by more available bottles such as Jura 21YO, The Glenlivet 21YO or The Yamazaki 12YO).
Trusted with operating the library are two young gentlemen both very charming, knowledgeable and passionate about their whisky. Bogdan ‘Bogus’ Kehayor (21) and Ivaylo ‘Ivo’ Simeonov (27) are rather new to the world of whisky, but already with loads of knowledge and strong drive to learn more. The service provided by these two fine men (each in own shift), is nothing short of outstanding! Friendly, welcoming and helpful, the two make at least half of the good time one has in the bar. They even helped me to order whisky bottles from the Capital City of Sofia (which is the only place in Bulgaria with expert whisky stores) to the Library where they waited for me the following day.
For three evenings, after a long work day followed by an hour or two of attempted shopping, I went up to the 9th floor and spent a great evening as the only customer in the bar (well, technically on the third night as I was finishing my cigar and about to leave, yep they have those too, another Israeli came in and we had a nice chat). On the fourth evening, I invited my local work team member, Nikolay, and his better half Magdalena, to come and join me for a dram to conclude a very successful work visit. As they didn’t know much of whisky, but did fancy Irish whiskies, I wished to treat them to some drams they never heard of, nor met before. Little did I know this wish was going to get to the extreme.
I went up to the Library 30 minutes before my colleague was due to arrive, greeted Ivo and noticed the 2 gentlemen sitting on armchairs next to one of the windows. I placed my camera on the bar joking with Ivo about not being used to having company up there as I noticed that the private collection cabinet doors were open! Asking Ivo, I understood that one of the guys is the owner. Note that I didn’t know the first names of the Totev brothers at that point. All I knew is that ‘the brother of the mayor is one of the owners’, but had no idea who is who.
Introductions with Ivan and his friend Vlad were soon to follow, and whisky conversation kicked in. By the time Nikolay and Magdalena arrived, I was already treated to an amazing Douglas Laing’s Old Particular Tobermory 6YO Ivan got as a gift when buying some other Tobermory expressions (apparently one of Ivan’s top favourite distilleries). I made introductions, thanked Ivan and Vlad for the treat and went to sit with my guests, ordering them some Green Spot Irish whisky as a start.
Not much later, Vlad comes over followed by Ivan and starts talking to me in English as Ivan simultaneously explains the same thing in Bulgarian to my guests. “You know how it is when you have about four fingers of whisky left in a bottle? you either share or pour it away, but the bottle, that must be emptied.” he said. “Well, it so happens we have such a bottle with exact such conditions and we want to share it with you” and as he said that, he presented me a bottle of Lagavulin 25YO. H-o-l-y Cow and a whole lot of thank yous!
A most generous portion was given to me and also 2 glasses, were given to my guests, who I remind were not experienced with whisky. As I was joyous in this treasure (which I had before but always am happy to have again), I had to explain to Nikolay and Magdalena about peat, and to do that I had to go over the whole procedure of whisky making including using the different books laying around, diagrams, map of Scotland whisky areas, and the large chunk of peat. It took a while as you can imagine, especially as Nikolay had to translate everything to Bulgarian.
Just before Ivan and Vlad left, Ivan came over again this time with a small bottle in hand. He showed it to me, opened the seal and told me the first dram of this will be for me. Laphroaig 21YO FOL. As a Laphroaig lover and FOL who didn’t get in the raffle, I was in heaven. What an amazing whisky! We thanked both gentlemen as they were exiting, exchanging contacts. As they left I told Nikolay that Ivan was a really nice person.
“Yes, the Mayor is indeed a good man and the people’s man’ he replied.
“Mayor!?, what do you mean The Mayor!?”
“I thought you knew” (as I sat with him as Nikolay and Magdalena arrived).
I had a great time visiting The Whisky Library, getting to know and talking to its responsible barkeeps Bogdan and Ivo, buying and enjoying some top quality drams, meeting Ivan and Vlad and being pampered by them (I did promise to return the favour), and of course having a great relaxing time after every work day, in a great atmosphere with top notch service, and in a place and with people, who are just as mad as me and my friends at home and around the world about whisky!
If you ever pass through Plovdiv, a visit to the Library is a must.
Correcting the wrong:
I just had a phone call with Whisky Experience Bulgaria, and was surprised to learn that the shop staff are the ones responsible for all the whiskies being sold at The Whisky Library, for training the library’s staff, for selecting the books and for for running the monthly masterclass!
I had NO idea about this, and if I would, I would have mentioned so in the post. My sincere apologies to Atanas and his staff from the Whisky Experience Bulgaria!
Thanks Shai for your kind gesture to add this comment to the post.
Congrats to Michael for the excellent blog, which I have been following for some time now.
I know I am biased, having been involved deeply in the creation of the bar, but the place is really special and is one of a kind in Bulgaria. There are a couple whisky bars in Sofia (one has over 600 whiskies) but apart from bottles they don’t have the most important – soul. This is where the Library wins hearts and minds. We do there masterclasses once a month and I can tell you that working there is magic – it cannot be compared to any place we have worked with.
For us, Whisky Experience Bulgaria , as true whisky enthusiasts at heart, this is the most important aspect. And that is why we keep our most special events for Plovdiv and The Whisky Library.
Cheers from Bulgaria