The whisky business has quietly been going from strength to strength in recent years, and is now worth over £5 billion – not bad work for an industry which only employs 40,000 people. Whisky accounts for nearly 25% of Britain’s food and drink exports, and it has become so important to the economy that whisky lobbyists are assisting Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in negotiations surrounding Brexit. Meanwhile, on the home front, the valuation of rare and vintage whisky is a complicated, lucrative trade in and of itself.

Yet, as the Guardian recently pointed out, “most whisky bars are still stuck in the dark ages.” Behind the scenes, the industry may be a goldmine, but the effects of this golden age have yet to be felt by the average whisky drinker.

Dram in a dive bar

Whisky has long had a reputation as the drink of choice for the tortured poet, musician and author. George Bernard Shaw once called the stuff “liquid sunshine,” while it’s been the lifeblood of countless country classics. 

As such, whisky bars have always been targeted towards a certain demographic of lovable rogues. Typically, whisky bars are hardly appealing to anyone who wants to make a night of it, unless making a night of it consists of sitting on a stool, silently and sullenly, until you decide to punch a fellow patron, before returning home to document the sordid affair on an old typewriter.
Now that whisky’s popularity with the non-punching public has risen, sellers are making more money than they ever have. And just as Ernest Hemingway started wearing dapper bowties and curling the ends of his moustache with wax when he made money, whisky bars should be sprucing themselves up with their newfound cash. 

As whisky becomes more investment-worthy, bars need to up the ante with how they present themselves.

Learning from the wine trade

If whisky is liquid sunshine, then wine is more like liquid gold—at least, until scotch came up in the marketplace. The criteria for what makes wine worth so much money isn’t all that different from whisky, yet the wine trade has been a traditional money-spinner for decades. This is pretty good going for an industry which only 12% of its regular consumers spend above $30 on.

Wine bars themselves have a rich history, with the oldest one still standing allegedly dating all the way back to 1435—to say nothing of ancient wine cellars such as Spirito Di Vino in Rome. While they are now occupying all manner of unusual locations (a converted public toilet, anyone?), the notion of the modern wine bar is really only around 30 years old. According to the New York Times, the ever-cosmopolitan city only began accepting them as common high street fare in the late eighties.

Now, though, the city is prime terroir for wine bars—or should that be “educational vin studios” and “natural-wine-focused neo-bistros”? Considering its comparative market value, now is the time for whisky bars to the occasion and offer up their own painfully trendy venues. 

The whisky bars doing it right… or are they?

Thankfully, there are whisky bars that have acknowledged the need for this change of scenery. Alice Lascelles, the critic behind that scathing Guardian article with the “dark ages” quote, has found some great London whisky bars. Shoreditch’s Bull in a China Shop, which stocks a range of outrageously valuable Japanese whiskies from the now-closed Karuizawa and Hanyu distilleries, found its way onto Lascelles’ list. Whiskey-with-an-’e’ bar Pitt Cue Co did too. 

But unlike wine bars, which compensate for their occasionally sterile settings with an uncommon range of tipples, these haunts tend to emphasise their unique atmospheres and themes—“Orient-inspired” for Bull in a China Shop, barbecue-inspired for Pitt Cue Co. 

So to bring themselves that patina of respectability and class that has worked so well for the wine trade, whisky bars arguably need to ditch the gimmicks and focus on what customers are there for. Scotland, the indisputable home of whisky, has managed this just fine; when your bars play home to the finest selection of scotch in the country, why would you need to serve them in a trough carved from an old oak tree?