“There’s an open bottle on the table
And an empty bottle on the floor
Last night I thought I’d died
And I went to Whiskey Heaven” – Whiskey Heaven by Fats Domino
Ex-pats who are friends tend to have excellent if not random stories as to how they know each other. In this particular case, I met Mike through another friend because they had met at a music festival where he used an inflatable giraffe to keep his group of friends together. We recently found out we both have a love of whisky and with my girlfriend and another friend of his, Sam, we decided to make a night of it.
Black Rock Tavern is a small innocuous bar. Nearly perfectly in the middle of the Moorgate-Old Street-Shoreditch-Liverpool Street square in east London. If you didn’t know what was inside you may just walk past, but once you know, you know.
On a Friday night, you’ll certainly need a booking for the downstairs bar. It is a small but glowing tribute to all things whisky. You’ll find a mix of banker wankers from the square mile and bearded hipsters but don’t let that put you off, it’s worth it.
Firstly, you’re greeted by one of the two or three aproned whisky experts that work the small bar. I thought I loved whisky but these gentlemen certainly worship it. The bar is simple, there is a table running down the middle that holds two blended whiskeys made in house. Along the wall is three cabinets filled with dram upon dram. The system is that the number of dots on the bottle indicates the price range. Either ask the experts what you’re after or go up and have a gander.
We thought it best to start with the in-house blends. The two options were a bourbon, flavoured with mint and bitters, or a more traditional blend. I opted for the more traditional blend, while childishly chuckling at the name “American Wood”. You can dress me up and take me to classy places but that is unlikely to ever make me an adult. The blend was a smooth and sugary taste with a peaty after taste that had us guessing at the type of blend. By our estimation, it was a light American rye blended with an Islay single malt. However, we were too excited and forgot to ask. Try it either way and let me know if you find out!
Following that, it was time to explore the library. I love a good book library but I reckon even they could be improved with the addition of one of these.
Three of these beautiful sights line the back wall. Each having a selection that you would need a month just to get through. A selection spread across the major whiskey producers, both well known and lesser-known. I even spotted a bottle of Newfoundland’s own Signal Hill which certainly warmed my Canadian heart.
For the first round, we covered a few bases right off the hop. We immediately decided that simply trying only the one we ordered wouldn’t fly and after all, sharing is caring. Based on the expert’s description, we dove right into two spectacular peated whiskies; the Lagavulin Distillers Edition, Talisker 8-year-old Limited Release, the Irish Roe&Co, and a boutique American distillery aptly named That Boutique-y Whiskey Company.
I like a good peat from time to time but the Lagavulin and the Talisker blew any I’ve had before out of the water. The Talisker maintained the strength you expect from the Isle of Skye distillery but with a fruit and coffee note that pre-empts the smokey finish. The Lagavulin presented with the smoothest flavoured peat I’ve ever had. Double matured in oak and sherry casks it has a caramel and sugary flavour reminiscent of a Speyside like Aberlour, followed by a punchy smokey finish.
The American boutique and Roe&Co by contrast (perhaps made starker by the peats first), were the most fragrant and fruity tastes. Especially the Roe&Co. The notes were nearly as aromatic as a gin and incredibly flavourful.
The last round we opted for had even more variety. I had recommended Dalmore to Sam previously as it’s one of my favourites. Mike decided to dive back into the peat world. I had personally had never tried a Campbeltown whisky, felt that I needed to complete the tasting tour of Scotland. We rounded it out with Lot 40 Canadian rye.
I can now say I’ve visited Campbeltown in flavour. The Hazelburn is a nice, relatively budget-friendly choice. The high ABV gives it a stronger after taste but has a slight caramel taste and is unpeated unlike some of its counterparts making it a good intro to the region. The Dalmore turned out to be a rather pleasant surprise being the 12-year-old, bottled in the ’70s though. It lacked the sweetness of the current iteration without the use of sherry casks but still had a smooth taste. The Lagavulin perhaps would have been outstanding if it had come before the Distillers Edition. In comparing the two it didn’t quite stack up. Lot 40 is a staple of mine and makes for a really nice easy drinking Canadian Rye even for the non-whisky drinker.
We rounded out the evening at the upstairs bar with a smoked Laphroaig Old Fashioned, and in terms of whisky cocktails, a well made Old Fashioned cannot be beaten. We didn’t quite get to an empty bottle on the floor, but Black Rock Tavern is the closest I’ve gotten to whisky heaven outside of Scotland for sure.