As chef Adam Handling's new bar Iron Stag readies for its official opening, Imbibe caught up with cocktail gurus Matt Whiley and Rich Woods to discuss Irn-Bru, prebatched cocktails and bringing whisky to the masses
Being tasked with opening an 'approachable' whisky bar would seem like a daunting prospect to most people, but if there's one category that needs more bar innovators, it's whisky. After all, a recent survey from William Grant & Sons revealed that 75% of consumers claim to have little knowledge of the category.
When you consider that most whisky bars boast huge, often daunting, lists of whisky and can be more than liberal with the tartan than one would perhaps like, it's always exciting to hear of a new venue aiming to move away from that image.
‘If you’re [working] in a bar, you get to set the trend for young people, rather than you being dictated what it is,’ says Whiley.
‘We’re looking to break those preconceptions about whisky,’ adds Woods.
The venture in question is Iron Stag, which soft launched last month, a subterranean cocktail bar that resides beneath Adam Handling’s recently relocated restaurant The Frog Hoxton. The acclaimed Scottish chef came to the pair with the idea of an ‘approachable venue for whisky’ with a ‘gentlemen’s club vibe’.
Visually this has been translated into a kind of punk Scotch theme. Along with an extensive back bar of whiskies, the space is filled with an abundance of plump Chesterfield sofas, booths fringed with ferns and foliage, contemporary artworks and large black antlers bedecked with chains on the walls.
Whiley and Woods have devised a cocktail menu that divides into whisky and sodas, whisky cocktails and other cocktails.
‘Everyone expects whisky drinks to be strong and boozy, and that’s not necessarily what it’s all about,’ explains Whiley. ‘Some are [like that], but we’re also doing things like lower abv, easy, spritz-style drinks.’
The highballs, which clock in at around 9-11% abv, all focus exclusively on Scotch, but stray considerably from your traditional whisky and soda water. Their concoctions include Sour Face (Black Cherry Monkey Shoulder, plum, verjus and dry ginger soda) and Asian Invasion (Glenfiddich 15yo, miso caramel, pineapple and shiso soda).
Freed from the rigours of Scout, which only uses locally sourced ingredients, Whiley confesses to be enjoying playing with tropical flavours, such as pineapple and banana.
Both Whiley and Woods separately released cocktail books within two weeks of each other last autumn, in which the chief focus is flavour. And, although this is their first project together, their flavour-forward approaches to cocktail making very much tally, they say.
‘If you look at a typical whisky flavour wheel – essentially the nuances of flavours associated with a particular whisky – and pick out those key ingredients and work them back into the cocktail,’ says Woods. ‘These are all flavour-forward drinks and the spirit is there as the bridging ingredient.’
The whisky cocktails offer playful takes on recognisable classics and incorporate other types of whisky, including bourbon and rye. Cocktails like the Supersoaker (Woodford Reserve Bourbon, vermouth and Campari sugar), a cocktail that Whiley developed in 2014, maintain the ethos of accessibility.
However, they’ve added the odd curveball to the menu, such as 6th Sencha (The Balvenie Caribbean Cask, fermented pepper, 'made nice shrub', sencha and Hendrick’s Gin), which has big red pepper kick, to ensure anyone looking for a challenging tipple isn’t left short changed.
For customers who resolutely don’t drink whisky, there’s a range of other cocktails that play to the less stuffy end of Scottish heritage. Their Scottish Porn Star cocktail combines Irn-Bru with hopped passion fruit Russian Standard, with thyme and Tennent's Super T.
‘Obviously Adam’s from Scotland and we wanted to touch on his heritage and things that he might have enjoyed as a kid,’ says Whiley.
The food menu, by Handling’s executive chef Daniel Watkins, offers a similarly irreverent take on Scottish fare with haggis bon bons, ‘fat bastard’ sandwiches, and even battered Mars Bars, served with honeycomb ice cream and salted peanut.
Kegged up and ready to go
The majority of cocktails are prebatched in either bottles or kegs, as is both Whiley and Woods’ custom, to improve consistency and be 'less about heads-down mixology and more about hospitality'. Perhaps most exciting is the fact that the booths have taps at the table, so kegged cocktails (around 25 drinks) can be ordered in advance at £200 a pop for group bookings.
The prebatched bottles will also be sold in Handling’s adjoining Bean & Wheat coffee and beer shop. Their funky labels, being more reminiscent of a soft drink than alcohol, will no doubt provide a real talking point.
‘For me, the theatre is right there,’ says Whiley, in answer to the question about the loss of theatricality with prebatched cocktails.
‘It looks like a soda, then you crack it open and it’s an explosion of flavour. To me, that’s magical – more than having loads of shit garnish over the top.’
As the pair finish up the final details at Iron Stag in time for the official launch today, it’s clearly been a fruitful collaboration. Next up, they're relaunching the cocktail menu at Eve, Handling’s basement bar in Covent Garden, and they say there's a series of other projects in the pipeline.
'It's really cool working with Matt and other guys who're equally creative, being able to bounce ideas off each other,' says Woods. 'Sometimes you need like-minded people around you just to unravel ideas in your head that could possibly turn into something.'