Head two and a half hours north of Edinburgh along an extremely narrow road and you’ll come across a quaint Scottish village called Braemar, population 500-ish. Here, in the back of a tiny boutique hotel called The Fife Arms, you’ll find an intimate bar that’ll change your perception of whisky.
At Bertie’s Bar, you’ll meet Angus Upton, a town local who’s challenging the perceptions of how we talk about our favorite brown spirit. “The whole concept for me is that you come into this room, and you’ll have an experience that you can’t really replicate anywhere else,” he says. Several nights a week, Upton guides guests through a library of nearly 500 bottles from around the globe in a way that few other bars have attempted.
“I have this outlook on alcohol and drinks — it’s another branch of culture and art,” Upton says, who’s spent time in both the whisky industry and creating music (including some stuff that got picked up by Adult Swim). “It’s a thing people make to represent something.”
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When you enter Bertie’s Bar, it’s okay to ask for a favorite Scotch. But it’s better to come in with no preconceptions about regions or preferred brands. Instead, you’ll start to have a conversation with Angus about music, film, food preferences or other spirits you like. From there, you’ll try a whisky that you’ve almost certainly never tried before or heard of and that makes you reassess everything you think you know about the water of life.
When I visited in early May, Upton asked me for a preferred flavor profile, and I went with “sweet barbecue,” mainly based on some mesquite-smoked American Single Malts I’ve enjoyed. After a bit of back and forth, he asked if I wanted to try something more akin to teriyaki. I ended up tasting a Bramble Whisky Co. Single Cask Ardmore, a 2008 distilled single malt that was aged in a bourbon cask that previously contained an Islay whisky. And yes, “teriyaki” was oddly a very good description of what I ended up with (it was quite tasty, if funky). It was very similar to how I’d order a cocktail at NYC’s Milk & Honey (or, today, Attaboy) in lieu of a drink name or spirit.
Upton won’t necessarily recommend a Scotch. “Scottish whisky is great, but people think it’s a huge industry,” he says. “It’s 150 or so distilleries. There are other flavors and styles out there.”
After my visit, I asked Upton how the bar team at Bertie’s prefers to categorize whisky. Here are his thoughts.
You Can Divide Whisky by Flavor Instead of Region
When you sit down at Bertie’s Bar, they’ll ask you first if you want something fragrant, fruity, rich or smoky. “I always felt like whisky regions mean nothing,” Upton says. “That’s something the industry developed. I think it limits us on who we can speak to and what we appeal to. It doesn’t matter where the distillery is. It’s the quality of the spirit.”
As an example, Upton notes that they place Laphroaig 27 in the middle of the bar’s tropical fruity section. “It’s the only Islay that’s in the middle of all these rich, fruity Speyside bottles,” he says. “Go in and smell it. It smells like diesel-fried mango. It breaks out of the heterodoxy of what the industry is used to selling and talking about.”
It Doesn’t Matter Where Whisk(e)y Hails From
“Anything we like, we’ll take,” Upton says. “One of our favorite whiskeys in this room is Rampur from India. There are some American Single Malts that are world-beating. Australian whisky — I spoke with Margot Robbie about this recently — it’s exciting stuff. There’s a single barrel high coast Swedish whisky that’s on the bar at the moment. I’ll even allow English stuff.”
You Can Describe Whisky Like It’s Another Spirit (or Even Wine)
Upton knew a whisky collector whose wife wasn’t into the spirit at all. “I asked her what she liked, and she said mezcal,” he says. “So we gave her a Torabheig that was five or six years old. Dry fruity distillate, salty, oily. And she was like, ‘Oh, I really like this.’ He hadn’t thought about giving her a smoky whisky. People get stuck in boxes.”
The most interesting challenge? “Champagne,” he says. “People say there’s no way a whisky tastes like Champagne. But that effervescent, sharp, lemon curd thing…I find you get that on young bourbon casks with very high strength or a cask-strength, seven-year-old Speyside whisky. Smell it and there’s a commonality there”
You Can Stump the Bar, but It’s Difficult (Unless You’re Being Difficult)
“There are people who want to be the person in the room who knows more than anyone,” Upton says. “I can’t do a lot with that. But if you say something like, ‘I want something full of lavender,’ I can get you something — something delicate and perfume-y. We can meet in the middle.”
You Can Describe Whisky in Non-Whisky Terms
Talking with Upton, you’ll hear him describe a whisky like umami vegetable mushroom funk or even “like drinking in a shed.” At Bertie’s, you can even ditch traditional tasting notes and go with feelings, movies, music or art.
“I could match a film like Master and Commander with something that’s salty and gritty and woody,” he says. “I’m good at interlinking something to something else.”
And Yes, You Can Pair Taylor Swift and Whisky
Our little group asked Upton to pair whisky with everything from The Clash to Coldplay. But what about something a little more modern? I put forth Taylor Swift.
Upton didn’t miss a beat. “So it’s the strongest craft and strong songwriting possible to the broadest…when was the last time you had a Glenfiddich 15?,” he says. “Like the world’s best whiskey that’s commercially available. You don’t have to be uber hipster about this, but you have to identify what’s the thing that you get out of this. For something like Taylor Swift, it’s like an emotional honesty and there’s a craft to it.”
As you can see, if you have a preferred Lagauvilin or can’t even comprehend the idea of ordering a whisky that’s not a Scotch while you’re in Scotland (or you don’t care to play music association), Bertie’s may not be the bar for you. But if you throw off every preconceived notion and trust Upton and the bar team, you’ll be delightfully surprised.
“If someone wants to engage with what we’re doing, that’s when they’ll have the most fun,” Upton says. “If someone’s just come in and ordered a whisky that they know, I feel like they’re not getting the most out of the room. And we’ve been hearing this feedback, that on some nights this is the best bar on Earth. And we feel like this is the ultimate place to come and drink the best stuff on Earth.”
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