The Whisky Tasting Club

Stars of the bar

The barman has lined up four heavy tumblers and each contains a large ball of ice. He has a glass teapot in top which he has poured his cocktail mix and now he’s pumping apple wood smoke in to the teapot, sending clouds of smoke in  to the depths of the Savoy, leaving us fearing for the fire alarms.

It’s all very impressive – just the sort of theatre we’ve come to expect from bar men on the cutting edge of the scene in London and New York.

Only this isn’t a London or New York cutting edge barman. It’s David Sinclair, manager of the bar at The Gleneagles Hotel – and bars don’t get much more traditional than that.

We’re at a Glenfiddich  whisky barman competition and as it happens, Ryan Chetiyawadana, bar manager of the very cutting edge Whistling Shop, is watching on. He doesn’t know it, but he’s leading the pack of eight barmen, having impressed judges with his interview, where he has been business-minded, focused, confident and enthusiastic without ever being arrogant or superior. But Sinclair will top the written test category, and four or five of the cocktails – the heart of the event – are outstanding.

I’m a judge for the event and am propped up on the side of the stage tasting one superb drink after another. One bar man demonstrates his knowledge of William Grant and his family’s history, and another transfers streams of blued flamed liquid from one vessel to another. We get blackberries, apple crumble, Champagne, whole eggs. We get stunning drinks in jam jars on beds of ice.

And I can’t help thinking how far we’ve come in six years.

A few years back I organised a whisky cocktail competition with David Broom. Our competitors were due to be ready at midday, but we started well after one as each of them slopped through the door scruffy and unshaven, and tried to wake themselves up with cigarettes and strong coffee.

When they did make their drinks they seemed to be doing everything they could to hide the taste of whisky and pretend it was vodka. Only one or two used single malt.

Fast forward, and for the Savoy event half the competitors have left home in Scotland at 5am and are ready to compete at 10am. Every one of them is immaculately dressed.

And every one of them – from a mix of outlets including Selfridges, Harvey Nicks, and Elbow in Edinburgh and from across the British isles– understands single malt whisky in general and Glenfiddich in particular.

In the end David Sinclair emerges as the winner – but there are three others who are very close.

For me it was a revelation. These guys are part of a new generation who are changing the way we drink cocktails forever.

I remember a few years ago bar legends Jonathan Downey and Dale DeGroff laying down the challenge to the next generation. You should be kicking our butts, they said.

Well they’re coming gentleman. Prepare for a kicking…


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