Stepping into the Fife Arms in the quaint village of Braemar in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve got an idea of what this place is all about. On the face of it, it’s your classic tartan and tweed drenched world of luxury seemingly featuring the same designer as every Scottish shortbread box you’ve seen at the airport. It’s where people come to see the magnificent Cairngorms National Park or the historic Braemar Gathering. Swanky Scotland to a tee. You know the score.
Except, you don’t. Take a couple of minutes to look around and you’ll see the Fife Arms is not what it seems. It’s an eclectic space dripping with art, furniture, military archaeology and taxidermy. You can grab a coffee for £3 and sit underneath a real Picasso, Man Ray, or Lucien Freud. The cocktail bar is clinical white in decor and a tribute to Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli. A custom Steinway player piano tinkles away in reception. Owners Iwan and Manuela Wirth, the couple behind Hauser & Wirth galleries, restored this former landmark Victorian coaching inn by marrying Scottish heritage and culture with relentless colour, modernity and eccentricity.
This approach extends to Bertie’s Whisky Bar, the Fife Arms’ latest addition, which opened on 17 May. Named in honour of Queen Victoria’s hedonistic heir, King Edward VII (or Bertie), the theme takes its cue from 19th-century Parisian opulence in a room you could be forgiven for thinking was Bertie’s living room. Once again, plenty will see the pictures and have assumptions. This is a posh whisky bar. That means prices through the roof and a snobby atmosphere that prioritises status above taste. Right?
Inside Bertie’s Whisky Bar
Wrong. Firstly, there’s no actual bar. A labyrinth of whisky bottles surround you like books on shelves, 365 of them to be exact, arranged by flavour profiles ‘Fragrant’, ‘Fruity’, ‘Rich’ and ‘Smoky’ by the wonderful Dave Broom. Half of the whiskies costs you less than £10 a dram. Grain whisky and blends are given pride of place next to single malts. Price is given no precedent. If you can afford to part with hundreds of pounds for a dram, a taste from the bottle next to it costs £9 and has a relatable profile. In the ever-evolving list of whiskies, 85% of them are Scotch, but there’s a raft of other options including a fair amount of new world whiskies here too. Mixers from soda, Sicilian lemonade, ginger ale, coconut water, and cola are recommended, while cocktail selections and complementing tasting menus are on-hand without any fuss.
The whole experience has been designed for the novice as much as for the expert. Bertie’s knowledgeable ‘whisky sommeliers’ are a constant presence, offering expertise on technical information like different grains, distillation techniques, and maturation processes, but more importantly breaking down flavour for each guest, reaching for trolleys and climbing librarian ladders to grab whatever takes your eye. Articulating whisky by flavour over distillery and production process to customers is not new. It’s really the Black Rock model, but it’s one that’s bafflingly not been adopted anywhere near enough for my liking. Bertie’s Whisky Bar, however, has taken notes.
“Our service is living room service. You want to see something, we’ll grab it, let you nose it and answer your questions. Our staff are trained to lead with senses before facts because they’re more engaging. People build relationships with whisky because they’ll recall certain flavours and that will trigger memories” says manager Mark Shedden. “We’re aware the room can still look daunting, but that’s what my team is here for. In five or six questions we can narrow in on three recommendations based on taste. You don’t walk into a bar and think ‘I fancy an ‘M’ whisky’. So we don’t operate like that”.
A whisky for every day of the year – and everyone
Ok, so the setting, the staff, and the approach tick a lot of boxes for me. But you know what really lifted my spirits? The clientele. During my stay here I saw people diverse in class, gender, race, and experience, and the staff say this is par for the course. Plus, the process works! People are whisky converts in the church of Bertie’s Whisky Bar. Even if you do already have some prior knowledge, you find yourself liberated from paralysis of choice by the ability to just ask for the flavour you fancy and go from there.
A breadth of experiences is available. You can engage the services of whisky ambassador Katy Fennema, who supports the team with weekly group tastings and historical tours of the local area. Her depth of knowledge and ability to tie in the surroundings add colour and life to an already vibrant space. Whisky flights, such as The ‘Edwardian Delights’ featuring the likes of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Redbreast 15 Year Old, and Royal Lochnagar Selected Reserve, are available so you can work through each of the four flavour profiles in an informed, collaborative setting. The bar even has its own whisky, made in collaboration with Broom and Alex Bruce, managing director of independent bottler and distiller Adelphi.
I expected to see The Fife Arms Braemar Whisky in the tasting I took part in when I visited last week. Once again, I was wrong. The hotel’s whisky isn’t even part of the selection I tried. This wasn’t a sell. There’s no call for convention here. Flavour really does come first in a range that includes whiskies I’ve never had before. Our tasting begins with ‘Fragrant’, featuring the herbaceous Old Potrero 18th Century Style Rye Spirit, then to ‘Fruity’ with the entirely unique The Baller. Aberlour A’Bunadh was at home in the ‘Rich’ category and Torabhaig Legacy 2017’s coastal, composed charm shines in the ‘Smoky’ section. The tone is conversational, this isn’t a lecture, and the whiskies are elevated by the comfortable and informative setting.
The dream whisky bar?
Our group is made up of folks with a wildly varying degree of experience and expertise, yet everyone is readily asking questions and engaging. It’s invigorating. For Shedden too, who fondly recalls one recent patron, an Indian lady, offering tasting notes related to specific spices he had never even heard of. This is a cause for celebration here, where widening what encompasses the whisky world is the whole point. “Sometimes I’ll just pop myself by the fireplace and talk to the room as the guests interact with each other and share their journeys. That’s this place at its best. It’s the whole point of whisky,” Shedden says.
This is the kind of place where a whisky nerd can get lost for hours. Shedden says people miss dinner reservations coming in here, and I’m not surprised. The bar is so lively with customers when I’m there (a Thursday afternoon), people had to arrange bookings to return so as not to miss out. This is wonderful to see after the year we’ve had.
Particularly because Bertie’s Whisky Bar is absolutely the experience it sets about to be. It’s much like its hotel home, suggesting traditional Scottish imagery and notions and turning them on their head. This is the promise of Scotch (and Scotland’s) future, not an effort to relive its past. An open-minded approach does wonders, letting flavour shapes perception and customers decide on their own terms what it means to be a whisky lover.
Is this the dream whisky bar? Let’s just say I have found myself back in Kent closing my eyes and wishing I was back there.