Last year I took some time out to head home and visit a few distilleries. Glen Garioch is one of the closest to Aberdeen and so it seemed an obvious choice. In my review I made some sweeping allegations about the Aberdeen whisky scene – or the lack of one, as I thought – and this was brought to my attention by some of its prominent members. I decided to do a little more digging and check out Aberdeen a bit more. First stop on any Aberdeen whisky trip should always be The Grill, or so I am told, a bar I mildly remember from my pre-whisky days as being a very traditional ‘old mans’ pub. I spoke to owner Graham Watson and he kindly agreed to have a little chat with me in order to shed some light on the Aberdeen whisky scene.
A little history to begin with; The Grill was originally opened in 1870 as a restaurant and eventually converted to a pub under the same name. It has remained virtually unchanged since being taken over by John Innes in 1925, making it one of the oldest of Aberdeen’s pubs. Innes refurbished the bar and created the look that can still be seen if you pop in today. For the first 50 years of this refurbishment there was a sign hung outside the window which said “no ladies, please”. Obviously, with the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) the pub was open to females for the first time. Graham’s father took over the pub in 1971 and he himself started working there during his first year of university in 1974. Eventually in 1985 Graham took over and still runs it to this day.
As I was fairly young when I lived in Aberdeen I very rarely found myself in The Grill. A big mistake in hindsight as it is now popular with pretty much everyone. Old or young, male or female and local or tourist, The Grill is full of all of the above. My most recent visit prior to this meeting was on a Saturday night over the winter festive period. It was busy from bar to wall, lively and full of atmosphere. Brilliant for us that night but sadly it meant I had to wait a little bit longer to see its traditional interior. It was worth the wait.
The bar had just opened when I walked in for my visit and that helped to amplify the simplistic brilliance of the pub. Quite a long space and relatively narrow, it appears very empty as there are no seats in the middle, just a few benches against the side wall that runs parallel to the counter. The counter itself is a beautiful long mahogany one stretching the length of the pub. It matches the mahogany panels that make up the interior walls and the wooden floor which is wholly visible as there are no tables or seats. The whole place looks like a giant antique. A very tasty antique, as the mahogany cabinets and shelves behind the counter are lined with row after row of whisky. More than I have seen for a long time, potentially more than any bar in Edinburgh. The view alone makes it worth a visit.
Graham explains that they have between 500-600 whiskies. They originally started by ticking off Michael Jackson’s whisky list and just never really stopped. The new Glen Scotia’s (the weird rainbow packaging ones) and the Balvenie Doublewood 17 year old are sitting on his desk, telling me that he keeps up to date with the latest releases. The first point, one that sets the tone for the whole pub, is that this is a pub first and a whisky bar second. They do not promote the whisky over the other aspects of the bar, they are not elitist in anyway. Most of the customers are here to enjoy a drink in a good atmosphere and the whisky selection is seen as just an added bonus (by me at least). That is not to say that the whisky is not important to him. They sell a lot of whisky, and even on quiet nights there is always someone there looking to buy a dram.
Due to the oil industry Aberdeen has many visitors floating about. Norwegians and Swedes are prime examples of customers who pop in to The Grill just because they have heard talk of the huge selection. Graham tells me that many of the Aberdonians working abroad pass on the message that The Grill is the place to go for whisky enthusiasts.
Unfortunately they do not host any tastings themselves. The space doesn’t really allow for doing that and he is reluctant to close the bar. They do have flights that can be sampled and the staff are on hand to try and help out if needed. Graham does not go out of his way to try and train the staff, although he has sent some of the senior members to the Scotch Whisky Experience for Whisky school. The staff tend to use their own interest to build up their knowledge and the lass behind the bar that I spoke to was more than happy enough to point me in the direction on this particular occasion (a nice light Uigeadail to start the day).
Simply put The Grill is a top notch whisky bar. Simple and effective at what it does. I asked Graham a little bit about other places in Aberdeen. Outside The Grill there is the Malmaison, a bit more formal but great selection (including SMWS bottlings), Ferryhill House Hotel, the Palm Court and the St Machar Bar. He singled out the St Machar Bar as being one of the promising whisky venues, the Aberdeen University Whisky Society help to push it to new levels. He describes the Society as a thriving whisky society that can only be good for the industry and singles out their Aberdeen Whisky Festival as a great example of trying to bring the whisky community together.
All in all it sounds like the city has plenty of whisky to keep it going for a good while yet. With Glen Garioch and Royal Lochnagar reasonably close and Speyside just a tad further afield the growth of interest in Scotch whisky should also lead to more whisky venues popping up around Aberdeen. But for me at the moment The Grill is definitely more than enough.
213 Union Street, Aberdeen, Aberdeen City AB11 6BA, UK