Peter Ranscombe toasts a new high-end whisky bar in Aberdeen and is impressed with its hotel setting too.
WHEN it comes to whisky, I sometimes feel sorry for Aberdeen; with names like “Speyside”, “Islay” and “Campbeltown” crowding into the Pantheon of Scotch, it seems that the Granite City often gets left out.
Which is a crying shame when you think about all the fine distilleries in the surrounding area, from GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh to Glen Garioch and Royal Lochnagar.
Now, the city has a new place to enjoy drams from Aberdeenshire – and further afield.
The Sandman Signature Hotel, which opened last year in one of The Robert Gordon University’s former buildings on St Andrew Street, has unveiled “Freedom An’ Whisky”, a new lounge off its main bar.
The new snug already has more than 150 malts and extensive tasting notes in its menu, sharing a little of the history behind each distillery.
Pulling up a stool at the bar, I rubbed my hands together in glee as the barman began selecting bottles to show me.
First up was the Inchgower James Eadie (46%), which spent nine years in a bourbon barrel. On the nose, it was full of caramel, vanilla, lemon and orange peel, with more toffee, vanilla and caramel coming through on the palate. Adding water brought out more chocolate orange notes on the nose – which reminded me of Dalmore – and more of the vanilla on the palate.
Off to Islay next and the Bunnahabain 18 year old (46.3%) offering wood smoke, peat and a splash of TCP alongside caramel and some prune aromas. An intriguing smoky bacon flavour joined the caramel, vanilla and red apple on the tongue, with its maturation in sherry casks bringing out spicier clove and black pepper notes once water was added.
Finally, the Port Askaig 100% Proof (57.1%) from Elixir’s Distillers, an independent bottler based in London that deals with Islay malts. It may look pale, but this non-age statement Scotch packs a punch, with pronounced bitumen, tar, peat smoke and TCP on the nose and then lots of spicy pepper and cloves on the palate.
The Sandman isn’t just a one-trick pony when it comes to its drinks though – I was very impressed with the wine list in the Chop Grill & Bar, put together by supplier Enotria.
Highlights included the 2016 Planeta Etna Rosso (£44.50) with its warm aromas and flavours of red cherry, ripe raspberry and spun sugar, which had both the freshness and grip needed to match a range of sharing platters, including calamari, prawns and nachos with cheese and guacamole.
The 2018 Mar de Frades Albarino (£41) offered savoury apricot and lemon rind notes on the nose and the variety’s textbook acidity on the palate. It perhaps lacked the grape’s salty tang on its finish, but the lemon and apricot flavours were concentrated and provided balance for the acidity.
One wine that was certainly firing on all cylinders was the 2016 Henschke Henry’s Seven (£55), a blend of shiraz, grenache and viognier from Australia, full of dark fruit on the nose mingling with light wood smoke, vanilla and pronounced dark chocolate, with more black fruit and vanilla on the palate and a deliciously rich mouthfeel.
It was really heartening to see a range of sweet wines on the “liquid desserts” menu too, including the D’Arenberg Noble Mud Pie (£7 for 75ml), made using viognier and arneis, and delivering pronounced aromas of peach, apricot and spun sugar, which all flowed through to the taste.
Chop itself is quite interesting – despite the large television screens suspended above the island counter, it’s not a sports bar, with lots of inventive cocktails and even some local beers on offer.
The sharing boards were definitely the high point in terms of the food and, although I was sceptical when I saw their uniformity as they came out of the kitchen, I’m assured the desserts are also handmade locally to the hotel group’s recipes.
Breakfast was also an impressive affair, with the delicious sausages and bacon on the buffet provided by Aberdeen-based catering butcher McWilliam.
A room for the night
The 218-bed hotel’s excellent location – a short stroll to the shops, Union Terrace Gardens and His Majesty’s Theatre – is also sadly its Achilles’ heel; even with the double-glazed windows closed in the bedroom, the road noise was still noticeable.
But the room itself was finished to a high standard, with a spacious seating area, a firm and wide bed, and a powerful shower, although I’d like to have seen a local brand of toiletries being offered.
In contrast, the soundproofing for the function suite in the centre of the hotel must be outstanding because I hardly noticed any noise from the large charity lunch taking place during my stay; I’d have no hesitation to stay at the hotel if it was hosting a wedding as there’s enough space to not feel overwhelmed by a large party.
The service from members of staff was excellent – friendly and cheery, while still efficient.
What made me smile the most was the display of multi-coloured umbrella lampshades suspended from the ceiling in the double-height lobby – if your city is known for its rain then why not make a feature of it?