Let’s begin with something simple: I am not a reviewer. I am a storyteller. Sometimes in the process of telling you a story, I can tell you how something is and what I liked or didn’t like about it. But one meal of 1200 covers a restaurant might do in a week, is an inaccurate measure. I want to tell you stories of my experience and be a trusted voice in that regard, the same way you might trust me to introduce you to a whisky, cocktail or even a place to drink.
I take my friends to places I like to drink and hang out. And sometimes they say to me, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t be here or trying this if I wasn’t here with you.’ Well, that’s enough to make me blush and enough to make any bartender cringe – because that’s their job. And they don’t need me stealing the most enjoyable part of it.
And while I like introducing people to whisky, cocktails, great food and delicious wine, not everyone can have a personal Whisky Girl introduction or expansion of their palate, unless I kick off the Tuesday Night Whisky Club again (now there is an idea!). Nor can most bars afford to keep me on hand to entertain the clientele.
But there’s nothing stopping you satisfying your curiosity or pushing yourself to learn something new all on your own or even if you’re with friends – you just need to choose a great place and guide to get you started. So that’s the story I’m going to tell you today.
I am no stranger to the American airport bar; those miserable but hypnotic places where you drink nothing but Johnnie Walker beside road warriors and tech start-up guys. It’s perfectly natural to sit and order a drink at the bar; playing back those lines we know so well. Where you going? How many flights til home? Did you close the deal? Small talk about sports, the weather and politics, if you dare. Mostly, I travel alone and so a brief exchange of words is welcome. But these are not places you learn about new spirits, cocktails or wine.
Do you ever have those moments where you look up one day and realise what is completely normal for you, isn’t considered so by everybody else? Why wouldn’t I stop at the local after a long day of work and share some stories and laughs? Just because I’m a girl? And why wouldn’t my engagement and conversation with the bartenders be just as worthwhile and enjoyable as meeting friends? Maybe I watched a little too much Cheers growing up, but I suspect the truth is more about the kind of people I like to be around.
I have a few succinct and crucial values; kindness, strength, integrity, generosity, hospitality. And if people were word-nerds like I am, I would only have to say ‘hospitality, strength, integrity’ – because kindness and generosity are building blocks of hospitality’s definition. Geekery aside, hospitality is defined as ‘the kind and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.’
I believe hospitality is to welcome guests, friends and strangers into your spaces in such a way as they feel it is their space too.
So heading to places of hospitality alone whether to have a drink or to explore something new; feels normal and safe to me because these are my values. Hospitality is what I understand. I am hospo; despite having not been behind the bar or in the kitchen for more than 15 years, give or take. How do I know this? Because these are my people. Hospo are people who understand a plate or drink alone does not hospitality make and they are the original user experience professionals. The service, conversation and chat, atmosphere, speed and the warmth of a place must all enhance and highlight everything else to ensure the experience of the person in their space is exceptional. From owners and kitchenhands to celebrity chefs; they get it.
The strangest conundrum is that so many people might feel intimidated or out of their depth entering into spaces that have you so supremely at the centre. Here’s a little secret: most bartenders (and any hospo people) that love what they do, love sharing it with you.
So whether you want to explore some whisky, cocktails or meet some new wines from people who know what they are talking about and have something to teach you – or you just need a drink at the end of a long day – here are some tips for how to whisky and visit bars whether you’re alone or with friends.
*This theory also works just fine for eating alone, but that’s another story.
Visit Tuesday to Thursday. Friday and Saturday nights, bars fill up with people are there to scull, not to savour. Bartenders have a different job to do when the bar is full. It’s still service but it’s a different kind of service. But Monday to Thursday, it’s a pleasure for great bar staff to have customers to spend time with. Sunday and Monday are regular hospo nights off. So while a great place will always have great staff, play the odds and be in the bar when the best people are in the bar.
Choose a place that has what you want. Most great bars will tell you what they are – especially if they are a wine, cocktail or premium spirits bar. Facebook is your friend. If a place doesn’t tell you their specialty, it’s not the place to go. When you visit The Jefferson, for example – it’s very clearly a whisky bar. Nice wine selection, great cocktails including the classics and some good beer – but they’re about whisky.
The more questions you ask and the more you don’t know; the better. The less assumptions you have about what you will and won’t like, the broader and more interesting your experience is likely to be. Don’t be afraid to ask about anything you see or what to know – it’s easier for everyone to start the conversation that way. The less you know (or try to pretend to know), the more you’ll learn and no-one needs you to impress them with your whisky knowledge. Bars and restaurants are places that we want to stand out, but not at the cost of fitting in. Learning is fun, just like they told you in school.
Use your words and language, don’t worry about getting it right. Don’t worry about whether you’ve got the vernacular down. And if you can’t smell the iodine or the cut grass, or know the difference between a Whisky Sour or a Manhattan, just smile and file what you’ve learned in the database for next time. There’s nothing more satisfying than introducing someone to something new and having them appreciate it.
What to expect?
So you walk into the J and find a seat (I like the second or third seat from the left at the bar, just to the right of the beer taps). Someone is going to say hi, closely followed by a variation of the phrase ‘what would you like’. You’ll say something close to the following:
- Actually, I’d like a whisky (or whatever you’re interested in) but I don’t know much about it
- I’ve tried ‘insert name here’ before but I’d like to try something else
At this point, I’ll give you a caution – try not to say ‘what do you recommend?’ unless you’ve known the bartender so long, they have a clear idea of your tastes. That’s usually an investment of hours, months, years and several thousand dollars. Help them out by at least defining a category of drink.
Then the conversation will begin. All you have to do is answer questions, in your own words and being as honest as possible about what you know and don’t know, like and don’t like. What flavours you like, what you’ve tried before, what you’re interested to explore. There is a whisky for everyone and you have to think about you and bartender as a team, figuring out the puzzle and exploring together. The team want to ask you questions and help you find something. And if you don’t like what they pull off the shelf the first, they won’t be offended because they’ll keep trying til they get it right. Because; hospo.