Think you know Glasgow? Maybe time to think again. And there’s no better place to challenge your preconceptions – maybe even shed some No Mean City1 gang-era stereotypes – than in the Gate, a recently opened whisky bar on the city’s less-than-glitzy Gallowgate2.
That’s where I find a group of five Society members on a dreich3 Monday night, gathered round a table in this cosy bar next to an old-school ‘Adult’ shop and directly across from the Barrowland Ballroom4. The area is undergoing a bit of a makeover, with hip bars such as the Gate, the bourbon-focused Van Winkle on the next block and indie music venue St Luke’s opening up amid the bargain-basement shops and traditional boozers named after an important date in the local football team’s history5.
It’s an part of town you might associate with hard-drinking and making sure you don’t wear the wrong colours into the wrong pub6. But in the Gate, we’re kicking off our whisky night out in Glasgow in a pub that has chosen not to sell any alcohol.
The concept behind its ‘Reset’ Monday night alcohol-free evenings comes from bartender and mixologist Phil Robins, who prepares a selection of alcohol-free cocktails for our group to start our night out.
“It makes the Gate a place where there’s no judgement for abstaining, and with the range of non-alcoholic products expanding all the time it’s also a driver for us to be creative and get out of our comfort zones and think about the construction of the cocktails,” he says. “It’s also about still celebrating the social aspect of the pub without people being reliant on alcohol to bring them together.”
The reaction from our whisky lovers is certainly encouraging, especially when they’d been led to believe they were embarking on a whisky-fuelled night out in the city.
“It’s an interesting approach to wellbeing, very forward thinking and a brave move,” says Julie Hamilton. “And the cocktails were all really intriguing – you could see how much we all enjoyed them.”
Even if we may have entered as sceptics about the concept of a booze-free bar, it’s clear that the Gate’s bold move has won over some new recruits. And there’s a fantastic selection of whisky to indulge in on every other night of the week.
STILL GOING STRONG
From the Gate, we head west and the heart of the city centre. The Horse Shoe Bar is as iconic to the city as the traffic cone placed irreverently on the top of the Duke of Wellington’s statue7. The pub opened on a cobbled side-street in 1846 and it’s hard to imagine that it’s changed all that much since then, apart from the parked cars spoiling the scene. The horseshoe-shaped bar also played an integral role in the history of the SMWS, as the venue where founder Pip Hills ventured west from Edinburgh to recruit whisky-maker Russell Sharp from Chivas to join his fledgling syndicate, as someone who understood not only whisky but the wider industry8.
We pop in to this most traditional of bars to savour one of the city’s most traditional serves – a hauf’n’hauf9. There are many variations on the theme, but we go for a half pint of heavy10 and a smoky Islay whisky. It’s a bit of a departure for Macon St Hilaire, who’s from the US and more used to a sweet bourbon boilermaker, but seems to hit the spot.
Even on a Monday night, the karaoke bar upstairs is getting into full effect – Glasgow is a true all-year-round music city11, whether it’s crooning Sinatra classics above the Horse Shoe, catching an up-and-coming band in King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut12 or a blockbuster performer in the SSE Hydro13 by the banks of the River Clyde. And any artist will tell you – there’s no audience quite like a Glasgow audience.
PIES BUT NO PINTS
The Horse Shoe is by no means what you would describe as a whisky bar, but as with almost every Scottish punters’ pub14, it has increased its selection of single malts hugely in the past couple of decades, and should be on the list of everyone’s must-visit bars in the city. But if it’s whisky that you’re focused on, then you have to take a five-minute stroll around the corner, up Hope Street, to the legend that is the Pot Still.
There’s been a pub on this site for almost as long as the Horse Shoe, although it didn’t take on the Pot Still name until the early 1980s, when its whisky selection started to become more of a focus. Nowadays, it’s a true whisky mecca, with more than 700 bottlings from Scotland and around the world on the gantry.
With five whisky fanatics in our group, choosing a dram from that selection could leave us deliberating all night, so Julie takes the initiative by going for the current malt of the month – a wonderfully acceptable Glenfarclas 10-year-old, which ends up pairing nicely with our selection of Scotch, steak and yes even a vegan pie15. I told you times have changed in Glasgow, although if you’re looking for any options beyond the pie category, you could be waiting for a while. Some things just work as they are, and beer or whisky with a pie is one of them.
THE WAIT IS OVER
Of course there’s a new whisky venue in town, although on our night out it still hasn’t opened. But we decide to take a quick walk past the Society’s new Members’ Room at 38 Bath Street, for a peak down the stairs and a discussion of what it means to this group of Glasgow-based whisky enthusiasts.
“I’ve known about the Society for a long time and used the Members’ Rooms in Edinburgh, but as a member here I can’t wait to take my own guests in,” says Mark Stuttard.
“We’ve been waiting a long time for a venue in Glasgow!” says Julie. “I can’t wait to see the finished article.”
Tonight, there’s no reason to linger, but we agree to catch up again once the work is complete and the doors to 38 Bath Street are open to members.
THE PERFECT PARTNER
In the meantime, there’s nowhere else in Glasgow you’d want to finish up a whisky night out than the Society’s partner bar, the Bon Accord. Tucked away next to the magnificent Mitchell Library16, the Bon isn’t somewhere you stumble across – it’s a destination in its own right. Owner Paul McDonagh, his family and staff are famously hospitable and knowledgeable about their whiskies, of which there are more than 400 behind the bar.
Again, we’re in good hands with Julie – she already has the Bon Accord app downloaded on her phone to help navigate the whisky list, in this case with its selection of SMWS bottlings. Mark Bradley has even brought his own flavour profile chart, the sign of a true devotee to the Society cause. At the Bon there are about 20 Society bottlings to choose from, and we end up spoiling ourselves with a dram of Cask No. 46.74: <Orchard perambulation>. The 21-year-old bottling from our Old & Dignified flavour profile sparks a discussion in the group about the Society’s Tasting Notes and some particularly unusual references in the bonkers-but-brilliant Cask No. 93.122: Baldrick’s cosmic Tardis.
There’s no such divisive outlandishness in our final dram together – instead, we end our evening sitting beneath a huge portrait of two Scottish footballing heroes17, savouring the deep and comforting notes of overripe oranges, wood polish and runny honey. I take the opportunity to gather some final thoughts from our Glasgow-based members on what they appreciate about the city’s whisky scene.
“It’s one of the best places you can imagine for enjoying whisky,” says Julie. “Just look at the hospitality we’ve seen tonight, from all the bartenders, owners and proprietors, who always make you feel really welcome.”
“That’s true,” says Mark B. “When I moved to Glasgow people warned me about it, but they had no idea about what it’s actually like. The people’s friendliness is a genuine part of the city – you can walk into a bar here on your own and people will always have a chat with you.”
“Whether you want it or not sometimes!” says Scott McKinnon.
On that note, we clink our glasses in celebration of whisky, Glasgow and the Society’s new-found presence in the city. Hope to see you there…
This feature is from the February 2020 issue of Unfiltered. The magazine is delivered four times a year to members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. To sign up and receive your own copy, visit www.smws.com/whisky-club-membership