by Simon Smith of Whisky & Cynicism
The George Hotel has always been a bastion of Scottish Hospitality on all fronts - whether it be local produce, local music, the history of the building or its selection of Scotch Whisky. The whisky selection has both grown and shrunk, and changed in nature over time - depending on the changing landscape of the industry at large, as well as who was curating the range at any given point. Going back to the mid-late 00s, the selection reflected the nature of whisky bars at the time. At 150-200 bottles, it was a sizeable collection for any venue. At least 90% of the bottles were what are known as ‘core range’ and ‘original’ or ‘distillery’ bottlings. The former part meaning a bottle that was regularly available at all times - the core of a brand’s offerings - and the latter that it was bottled and distributed by the distillery who produced it (or the company that owned them). We also saw at this time the last drops of some now legendary whiskies, still regularly available - before the whisky industry became one of widespread collectors and commonplace scarcity. A 1982 Port Ellen from Gordon & MacPhail’s ‘Connoisseurs Choice’ Range springs to mind - now almost impossible to come by (and if it were to be found, at great expense), bottles and bottles were sold over the bar at The George for what felt the princely sum of £7 a dram in these years.
If we fast forward to the post-Covid world, we see a very different whisky landscape. The interest in whisky at all levels - globally - has increased dramatically. Rare and desirable whisky is almost impossible to procure - collectors and investors, as well as those known as ‘flippers’ (who snap up rare whisky to be sold almost immediately at auction for a profit) make bottlings like the aforementioned Port Ellen feel a thing of the past, especially at an accessible price. It means that whisky bars such as The George need to be much more aware of the comings and goings of various products, and snap up what they can - where as not so long ago companies would be actively trying to sell them to bars in the hope of a win, they now have to allocate bottles and limit what can be purchased. In order for The George to give its customers the range and selection they desire, all year round, an active and shrewd procurement process must be undertaken - gone are the days of ringing up your wholesaler and knowing that all the whiskies that you stocked on the bar would always be available for reorder.
This increase in whisky consumers has, inevitably, brought more product to market. Historically, these ‘Distillery Bottlings’ mentioned earlier might number three to five from each distillery - typically along the lines of a 12, 15, 18, 21 and 25yo - or maybe some early examples of NAS (Non Age Statement) releases. Now, almost all distilleries are releasing several limited editions a year, and even some ‘core range’ products - like Springbank 10yo - are hard to come by most of the year. Add to this the rise in independent bottlers (essentially the opposite of ‘distillery bottlings’ - third parties who buy whisky produced by others and release it under their own label, almost all of which are limited editions in some way) and you have a whisky industry as varied and changeable as the ocean during a tempest. This means that far from contacting a supplier every week and saying ‘same again’, a whisky list by nature must be constantly updated, dictated by what comes and goes from the market in order to fill gaps in the selection - not just physical gaps on shelves, but gaps in styles of whisky on the list. At the George, the majority of bottles to grace the gantry will be one offs, to be replace by something different upon their completion, never to be seen again.
All this leads to a completely different attitude towards curating a whisky selection - one more akin to the buying of wine (stocking wine from all over the world is pointless if they’re all full-bodied reds - offering the consumer a variety of styles is foremost in wine lists). Whereas once all that was needed was to simply stock ‘core range’ whisky covering as many distilleries as possible, the modern consumer - on average far more educated than any before - wants to try something they’ve not seen before, and maybe won’t again. To this end the Public Bar at The George - now stocking over 200 whiskies - is full of limited releases, independent bottlings, or otherwise interesting and unusual drams. In fact, apart from a few classic brands stocked - they’re classic for a reason, and deserve their place - almost every bottle on those shelves will not be replaced like for like, but a different bottle will take its place, possibly from a different distillery, or different region entirely, but in the same style so as to keep the selection balanced in terms of flavour. Whilst a lot of these independent bottlings may also be foreign to the consumer in terms of name and label, the distilleries contained therein may not be.
Flavour is definitely the key word here, and must be taken into consideration above all else. With every type of whisky - light, rich, unpeated, peated - being made in every corner of Scotland, the old regional distinctions mean less and less. In order to give the customer a balanced selection, it is imperative to fill gaps in a selection stylistically rather than geographically. All of the Scotch Whisky at The George is demarcated by flavour instead of (or sometimes, as well as) region. In the aforementioned public bar, containing simply two long shelves one above the other, this is done physically. The top shelf contains all unpeated whisky, with he lightest at the left running to the richest at the right. The second shelf is all peated (or smoky) whisky, running from the lightest on the left to the most intense on the right - providing, as it were, a visual menu. This means that two whiskies from the same region, or even the same distillery, may be on completely different parts of the gantry - denoted by their style rather than where the kettle that produced them was situated.
The cocktail bar, containing a further 200 or so whiskies, is slightly different. Whilst the public bar looks at limited releases, the cocktail bar has more examples of core ranges and ‘better known’ whisky (but still enough interesting stuff to keep even the most avid enthusiast’s attention). While the public bar has, where possible, a West Coast bent - the Cocktail bar is more representative of Scotland as a whole. Due to the idiosyncratic nature of the physical gantry, the whisky here can not be laid out here by flavour (bottles must simply go in the shelves where they fit). However, on the printed menu available, flavour is noted using a unique code, and every whisky has an example of this code next to it. This means, essentially, that should you, the consumer, find a whisky you know you like - anything else in the selection with that code next to it should be right in your wheelhouse. How does this code work, you ask? You’ll just have to stop in to find out.
So we have, at The George, arguably the most dynamic whisky selection around. Whilst numbering approx 400 bottles, it is by no means the largest. Many whisky bars around Scotland offer up to twice that and more. However, this number is more reflective of what’s considered an exciting selection in the modern landscape - the 150 bottles of old would have seemed standard these days. But its the nature of the selection - the limited releases, the one offs, the unavailable drams that make it. If you know your whisky, you can find gems by the dram - reasonably priced - that you would only find by the bottle at auction, many times their original retail asking price. There are whiskies open and on the bar at The George that are almost certainly the only open bottles of their kind in Scotland. From a post-lockdown bar that looked, to our own admission, like a Christmas Tree in July (the trunk was there but few branches were left) to a groaning gantry filled with the most interesting drams around - and a guarantee that it’ll never be the same selection twice.
Whisky & Cynicism for The George Hotel Inveraray (Whisky Bar of the Year 2022).
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