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A Year to forget? Whisky Bars in 2020

This is the article I hoped that I wouldn’t have to write. The premise had crossed my mind earlier in 2020, when we were all in lockdown and assisting local businesses as much as we could via home orders. In contrast, whisky bars were out of mind, out of reach and very much adrift.

The summer brought shoots of promise with a relaxation of rules and the hope that things would be returning to normal; a new normal. This hope seems short-lived, with a step back to restrictions and the uncertainty of a new lockdown being imposed. For bars across Scotland and beyond, it brings more hardships and an uncertain future. Now, seemed an appropriate time to reach out to several establishments and gauge how 2020 has been for them, what’s worked, what hasn’t alongside and what awaits.

Representing the Independent Whisky Bars of Scotland, we have the Dornoch Castle Whisky Bar, and The Malt Room in Inverness. I’m acutely aware this isn’t a Scottish problem and many of the comments will echo for bars across the world. For this reason, Dick Mack’s Pub in Dingle, Ireland, joins us to provide their own take on what a year it has been.

Each establishment kindly agreed to take time out to answer my questions, so my thanks go out to Phil, Anna, Finn, and John. This is greatly appreciated knowing how difficult things are right now in these turbulent times.

The Malt Room, Inverness

MALT: Can you give the unaware an introduction to the Malt Bar in Inverness?
John: The Malt Room was founded in July 2017, before this there was no dedicated whisky bar in Inverness. We pride ourselves on taking the time to have a conversation with our customers rather than just asking “what would you like?” and we always try to help them decide on a dram that’s right for their tastes, whatever the budget.

MALT: I’m sure you’re thinking what a year this has been. Can you summarise how it has been for the Malt Bar?
John: In short, it feels like everything we’ve been building towards has been wiped out this year. When we first opened in July 2017 we always planned to turn the space above the bar into a dedicated tasting room but didn’t have the funds to do so. We’ve worked incredibly hard over the past couple of years to turn that into a reality and were ready to open our tasting room in April of this year but obviously, that didn’t happen with the lockdown coming into effect about a week before construction was due to be complete. At the start of this year, we were gearing up for our busiest summer yet with the opening of our tasting room and Inverness’ usual summer trade which was due to be busier than ever.

It’s now a case of surviving through until next summer when, hopefully, we can return to some semblance of normality.

MALT: Did you begin to anticipate the restrictions when cases started appearing in the UK?
John: Absolutely not! The thought that we might be forced to close for an extended period of time never really crossed our minds until about a week before it happened.

MALT: What has been the impact on the Inverness bar scene?
John: It’s hard to say because I think the long-lasting impact of the pandemic is still to be determined. At the moment the majority of bars in Inverness are still operating, albeit at a vastly reduced capacity. Late night bars like ourselves have then been further punished with the newly introduced 10pm curfew, which means we’re operating at somewhere between 30%-40% of our usual number of guests in any one day. When we were operating until 1am there was still a buzz about the bar scene, with staff from other bars coming in after they’d finished a shift – there was a genuine sense of community. But having everyone close at 10pm has totally killed that.

Without further government support, there will not only be redundancies over the coming winter (which is a difficult time of year anyway given the lack of tourist trade) but permanent closures too.

MALT: How much has this affected your business and staff?
John: As I mentioned before, the 10 pm curfew has been a devastating blow. We’ve always made a point of staying open until 1am regardless of how busy the bar is – something that in the past few months has really helped the business as waiters, bartenders and other hospitality professionals would come in for a drink after their shift. Not only was this really rewarding to see (personally I think being a trade bar is the biggest accolade you can receive) but it gave the business a considerable boost and made opening worthwhile.

MALT: What measures have you taken in the bar to reassure customers and how have they been received?
John: We’ve marked out the separate seating areas of the bar with bright red tape, we have perspex screens hanging from the roof over the bar, we wear masks for the duration of our shifts and we have hand sanitisation points at the entrance and at each separate seating area. Perhaps full-on hazmat suits are next?

The vast majority of people have been very understanding and have been easily reassured, I think most people understand that there will always be a degree of risk when stepping into a restaurant or bar.

MALT: If Nicola or Boris were to read this article, what would you say to them? Any particular areas of attention?
John: I’d ask if either of them have any idea how people actually socialise. I think it shows how grossly out of touch both of them are that the 10pm curfew was implemented, all this did was create a huge demand for house parties, which the government itself admitted were a huge problem for the spread of the virus. Why not let people socialise in a controlled environment that also helps the economy?

Now, we’ve been told that we can open between the hours of 12 noon and 6pm but that we can’t serve any alcohol inside. I doubt many of our customers would be interested in sitting in the bar all afternoon discussing the virtues of green tea, so we’re left to make the decision ourselves to close. Where does this leave us? Because we’ve not been ordered to close we may be unable to claim any financial help.

It feels like for the past 3 months the government has essentially tried to make an evening out in a restaurant or bar as unappealing as possible. No music, no standing at the bar, no opening past 10pm and now no alcohol inside. When will we be officially ordered to close so that we can actually have some help?

MALT: Has the spirits industry had much of a say in all of this?
John: There are a few spirits producers who have been a huge help. At the very beginning of the pandemic, Diageo announced £1m of funding for bars which we successfully applied for a share of, as well as this they also provided us with 20 litres of hand sanitiser. We’ve also received a huge amount of support from William Grant & Sons who’ve been a major help with our Whisky & Doughnuts Tastings that we did with our neighbours Perk Coffee & Doughnuts.

MALT: You have an online dram ordering service via the website. How has this been received and the take-up?
John: Drams Delivered was something that we created in lockdown to try and get some of the whisky that was sitting gathering dust in the bar into peoples glasses at home.

We initially listed everything that we had in the bar but have removed a few bottles as they’ve been finished off. There are three whiskies in particular that we’ve been sending out more than any others – our own Caol Ila 9 that we bottled with help from our good friends at Adelphi and the Independent Whisky Bars of Scotland Daftmill and Chichibu releases, so these would have to be the three that I’d pick out of the lineup. After that, the most popular drams would be anything from the Thompson Bros. and Adelphi which I suppose reflects why people come into the bar in normal times, because they want something that they can’t easily get hold of anywhere else and at a fair price.

MALT: It’s a sizeable listing, very impressive. If a reader was looking to pick out a trio of whiskies to order, what would you recommend?
John: Whisky and Doughnuts were inspired by our friends Johnny & Erica who started an Instagram page Whisky & Donuts and reached out to us last year to get involved in a tasting at The Spirit of Speyside Festival. They flew in from California and we took doughnuts from Inverness and co-hosted a tasting. When lockdown happened and virtual tastings took off, we thought a virtual whisky and doughnut tasting could get some important revenue in and offer something fun for those stuck at home. It proved to be a big success, we have kept it going with a Halloween Special coming soon and we’ve expanded our reach offering UK wide delivery – get involved!

MALT: You’ve also done some online tasting packs; I remember one with doughnuts. How have these gone down?
John: My hope is that we’ll be able to return to our usual opening hours by the start of next summer but I think that’s probably optimistic. In the past few months, we’ve seen that people are not afraid to travel within the UK, hopefully, this “staycation” culture continues as it’s given the industry in Inverness a major boost.

MALT: What are your hopes and fears for the remainder of 2020 and into 2021?
John: My fear though is that the temporary closures we’ve seen across hospitality in the past few weeks will shake customers confidence in going out to visit restaurants, pubs and bars and lead to an even further decline in visitors during what is already a difficult time of year, and that this will lead to many venues shutting their doors for good.

The Dornoch Castle Whisky Bar, Dornoch

MALT: Firstly, can you give us a few words on the Dornoch Castle Whisky Bar, it’s background and the crew.
Anna: The Dornoch Castle Whisky Bar was built up over many years by Phil and Simon Thompson, who now run our onsite micro-distillery. The Thompson Bros have collected a huge array of both scotch and international drams, from the finest old malts to flagship releases. We pride ourselves on serving drams which other people wouldn’t open, in current fashion a lot of bottles are being flipped constantly for more and more money but the Thompson Bros firmly believe in offering the chance to try drams unavailable elsewhere. We have a strong team of bartenders, led by myself (Anna) our bar manager, who are on hand to recommend drams to suit all tastes, price ranges and experience.

MALT: How has 2020 been for the team? What struggles have you faced?
Anna: 2020 started with a bang during our Hogmanay package where we all enjoyed the bells with the help from a lone piper on the roof of the castle, could there be a more perfect beginning? As Covid hit the mood changed to a slightly more …. one as we packed up all of our bottles and put them away for over 3 months as lockdown took over. There was delight when these were unboxed in July for the reopening of the hotel and since then mostly all of the bottles have been reopened and customers from all over the UK and sometimes further have enjoyed being able to visit us again. Luckily over the closure period all of the DCH team were furloughed and so upon reopening everyone was brought back, and we even had enough demand to hire more staff! We have followed all government guidelines step by step and our glorious beer garden has helped this massively. The latest rules mean that we will only be able to serve drinks in the garden but personally I couldn’t think of a better way to warm up on a cold October day than to pour a crisp dram, wrap up and embrace the weather!

MALT: The hotel and bar utilised a crowdfunding programme to bring in some revenue when the pandemic restrictions started to bite. It was a novel approach as many were pinning their hopes on the furlough scheme. How surprised were you by the response?
Anna: We were all absolutely dumbfounded by the amazing response to our crowdfunding push. We offered funders the chance to deposit any amount and rewarded them with an additional 20% to spend on top of their very generous donations. We owe our lively hood to all of our supporters as without them we may not have been able to reopen at all! Not only are we thankful for the financial gain but what really touched us was how much people were willing to part with their hard-earned cash because of their love for the Castle. We knew that we had some loyal regulars, but we are in awe of everyone’s generosity in a hard time for everyone.

MALT: The hotel and bar have become an international destination in recent years, what’s been the impact on your international business?
Anna: You are correct in your comment that people come from all over the world to visit us, however, whisky is loved by so many, from everywhere, every country and every walk of life. This means that whilst some people weren’t using us as a whisky destination those on the NC500 or similar have been partaking in many drams, flights and in-depth conversations with staff. Our local helping of drams and the Thompson Bros’ bottlings have been particularly popular with visitors.

MALT: Has the NC500 been a lifeline to the bar and the wider community? Particularly when the restrictions were relaxed?
Anna: Absolutely. The NC500 has put Dornoch even more on the map over the past few years, diversifying our business from golfers to travellers. Depending on which way people choose to travel around the NC 500 we are normally either the first or last night of their journey. This means we spend a lot of time either revelling in the experiences they have had or recommending our favourite parts of the trip, including any and every distillery they will find on their journey. Luckily in Dornoch and surrounding areas, we have had a very low infection rate and so as soon as the travel ban was lifted the area started to fill up again and we were flooded with business.

MALT: What measures have you taken in the bar to protect patrons and staff?
Anna: In addition to the government guidelines of table service, mandatory face masks and social distancing we have reduced the number of tables both in our bar and our restaurant, meaning customers can still relax and enjoy our roaring fire but feel completely secure and safe doing so. Having the distillery making WHO recipe sanitiser has been a huge blessing for us as with unlimited sanitiser the castle is cleaner than it ever has been! We have sanitisation stations all over the place, and you are no more than 2 meters from a bottle of sanitiser at any point (the only thing you want to be within 2 meters of at the moment!)

MALT: What 3 drams would you suggest to our readers that are worth purchasing and why?
Anna: Yes, the whisky list is still in operation and we are looking to be able to publish the list online to allow customers from all over the see what we have available. Personally, I find it hard to choose my favourite drams because as soon as a bottle I like hits the shelf I have recommended it to so many we have sold it all! This is very true with local drams, for instance, Balblair (particularly anything that has been anywhere near a sherry butt) and Clynelish (particularly anything young and spicy). My favourite 3 on the bar as I write this would be- Balblair, Gordon and MacPhail’s Pure Malt Labelling, Thompson Bros Redacted 24yo Speyside Malt (those who know will know what this is) and my curveball favourite is Bimber’s latest ex-bourbon cask release!

MALT: What’s the one thing you’d like to see the government do to help bars such as yourself?
Anna: We have been far more fortunate then many bars due to the support we received, however, the newest regulations will be a major test for us as people cannot browse our collection, in the same way, to purchase a dram and sit by the fire talking to staff, so watch this space for an update after a few days of trial. One thing we would love to see is more support for small businesses, whether this is financial, regulatory or advertised.

MALT: Are you trying to remain optimistic about 2020 and early 2021?
Anna: Absolutely! We are still open, we still have visitors and most importantly we still have a beautiful collection of whiskies! How could anyone be down when your daily job is to talk about the one thing you are passionate about and have people hang on your every word? Whilst this year has been challenging, we have made it through and now are looking forward to the next hurdle. We have made it this far and we will continue to stive for higher customer and tastebud satisfaction. 2021 will hopefully be the year we can hold the next Dornoch Whisky Festival which has been sorely missed this year.

Dick Mack’s Pub, Dingle

MALT: Can you give us a little background to everyone about Dick Mack’s and how long you’ve been in business?
Finn: Dick Mack’s Pub was established in 1899 as a bar and leather shop. My great great grandfather John Mac Donnell had a little farm on the site where the pub is now. He built Dick Mack’s in 1898 and opened it a year later. His son Tom took it over but it wasn’t until the summer of 1988 that the name ‘Dick Mack’s’ was painted on the front of the building by a local artist Sean O Treasaigh. Prior to this Dingle had very little tourism so it simply wasn’t needed. Dick Mack is my grandfather and he ran the bar up until his death in 1992 when my uncle and father took up the mantle. I now run it and have been for the past 15 years.

The pub itself is comprised of the main bar which houses our whiskey wall. Then off of this room are what would have been the living quarters. Up until 1994, the bar consisted only of the main bar but when my Grandmother Angela died in 1994 the rest of the rooms were opened up to the public.

Now we have several cosy rooms and a second bar out the back for when it is busy. To the rear of Dick Mack’s we have a lovely beer garden which was originally the farmyard and it is here that you will find Dick Mack’s Brewhouse housed in a 250 year old cowshed. A place where old meets modern. A place where beer has replaced milk.

MALT: You’ve been closed since 14th March; what measures have you taken to reassure customers they can visit in safety with bars now reopening? The bar itself seems very snug and atmospheric, but you have an outdoor area to utilise.
Finn: Having closed on March 14th for 6 months we had the opportunity to have a look at what food pubs did in order to reopen safely. These pubs were allowed to open sooner than ‘wet pubs’ or pubs that didn’t serve food.

This ruling was considered farcical by most and was a slap in the face to publicans who are well able to run a good show. We were kept in the dark right up until the final hour every time the government made an announcement about further restrictions etc. It just wasn’t fair but we were eventually given the chance to open on the 21st September.

Upon reopening, we were able to use what we had learned from other food pubs and restaurants who had already reopened. We chose to strictly limit the number of people indoors rather than erect a lot of perspex screens or the sake of a few more patrons. The numerous little rooms we have worked in our favour as we could group people and easily adhere to the 2-meter distance and time slots. By the time we opened, it was a little too cold and wet for outdoor socialising but we plan to cover our beer garden with retractable canopies for next season.

We did however only get to open for two weeks as restrictions were brought back in as cases rose again, mainly in clusters around the country. We remain closed, some pubs never got to reopen.

MALT: How has COVID-19 affected Dick Mack’s and other bars in Dingle?
Covid 19 has decimated our season. Winter has always been about survival even without covid 19 restrictions but this year is set to be brutal. A number of businesses have already closed their doors for good and that includes two pubs. The fear is more will close down, particularly if paying rent and if they have bills outstanding. We are currently in a level 5 lockdown with 3 weeks to go so all hopes are that we can get something out of Christmas and New Years.

Regarding operating under covid 19 restrictions and government guidelines the biggest impact was obviously on the numbers allowed on the premises. However, the biggest cost was in wages. Where we would normally have 1 bartender working we were having 3 to deal with everything safely and according to the guidelines. Without a wage subsidy support, it simply would not have paid so the worry going forward is that without these supports and or a change in restrictions/guidelines the pub business will not be viable.

MALT: Pubs seem to be a vital component of daily life in Ireland and the wider community, how important is it to ensure they are supported and survive?
Finn: Pubs in Ireland are very much a social destination. Speaking from a personal point of view we have some locals here who would have a few pints almost every day. On paper, they could be classified as heavy drinkers but they do not drink at home. They barely drank during lockdown thus proving the pub is not so much a place to drink but a place to meet people and socialise.

So many people come to the pub to simply have a chat. I feel so sad when I think of some of my locals who are sat at home with no company watching the bad news on TV every night I certainly took for granted the social aspect f the pub with regards to certain age demographics. It has over lockdown become clear to me from my many phone calls to lonely and concerned locals that the pub is so much more than a drinking outlet.

They are also a place for younger people to socialise in a controlled environment. This has been ignored during Covid-19 by government and as a result house parties where there are zero controls have become a huge problem in the spread of Covid-19.

Apart from the social aspect for the immediate population pubs have become a destination for tourists to visit when on holidays. Without pubs, a lot of towns and villages in Ireland would become very dull. There are such towns and pubs are a big reason why Dingle itself is so popular.

MALT: Have you received any support and assistance from the council or government?
Finn: We have received financial support. Most of our staff could avail of the pandemic support payment of 350 a week if they had been working in January and February. Commercial rates etc. were put on hold.

We received support and funding from Failte Ireland for outdoor works as a result of covid 19 – up to 2k. The Local county council had/have restart grants available based on the rates we pay per year. Wage support for when businesses reopened so for example during the two weeks we were open the government paid us 200 euro a week for each member of staff. Without this, we had no chance as we were regularly employing 4/5 staff on a night when 1 or 2 would normally manage. The budget has just been released with good support for the hospitality sector based on percentages of your total revenue that you have lost on previous year.

MALT: Has there been any noticeable differences between the approaches taken in the north and south?
Finn: It appeared more strict here, certainly with regards to pubs I think they opened sooner and for longer than they did here in the South. Not up to speed on Covid 19 in the North really, enough of our own problems here. Lol.

MALT: What would you ask officials in Ireland to provide to help bars in general?
Finn: All we would ask for really is to be kept in the loop, given a chance to show we are a responsible sector that can operate safely. It has been proven. An article in the Irish times yesterday put dingle as the town with the lowest incidence of Covid 19 in Ireland. This is a town that was very busy when things reopened, I mean really busy but the people, businesses and pubs of Dingle have shown we can welcome people and operate safely. Financially the wage supports have to remain in place as long as restrictions in place.

MALT: You’ve been selling drams online during the closure, how has this been received?
Finn: So, the drams online was launched in June. I and our bar manager Derek O Sullivan went to work on the idea hoping it would tie us over until we reopened. Five months later it is going stronger than ever and we are close to shipping our 2000th order any day now. The idea was to make whiskey accessible and as a recognised whiskey bar we felt we had the platform to do it. The time was perfect really, people couldn’t go to pubs and there is a whiskey renaissance here at the moment so we had a captive audience. On top of this and this is a personal view I feel that whiskey has become an expensive experience. A lot of whiskey upon release is snapped up by flippers and often never opened. I was guilty of this myself 8 years ago when I first got into whiskey but have since seen the light and have steadily been putting some of my own bottles up onto the shop. With this in mind, we decided to try to offer more added value so we pour 50ml measures and charge for 35ml measures. We offer everything from your standard Jameson to 30 year old Midleton whiskey with a more recent focus on sourcing new releases. An exciting time for Irish whiskey, in general, we stock a lot of Scotch too and just as well seeing as we couldn’t make our annual trip to Islay this year.

At the moment we are waiting on specialised branded packaging to arrive to give our whiskey packs a more professional look and in the process help us cut down on packaging such as bubble wrap etc. When this arrives we plan to really push it beyond Ireland and the UK. We have taken baby steps so far but really feel this online whiskey service can grow and thrive even when pubs etc reopen as normal.

MALT: What 3 whiskies would you recommend on the list to anyone that’s interested in ordering?
Finn: So a name that comes up whenever we discuss whiskey is Peter White. He is the person who got me into whiskey back in November 2012 and a huge driving force behind us attaining the title of Irish Whiskey Bar of the Year on multiple occasions.

He introduced me to Scotch whiskey and after our first trip to Islay, I fell and remain in love with Bunnahabhain. Of course, the older bottlings are incredible but as a recommendation, I always encourage people to order the 12 year old to get them started. Redbreast 12 Cask strength is always there and for something with the wow factor I love to recommend The Irishman 17 Single Cask, Single Malt Sherry. A bomb!

MALT: What’s your thoughts on the remainder of 2020 and next year?
Finn: Remainder of 2020. If we open for Christmas great, if we don’t it will be my first proper Christmas spent at home with my family and part of me wants the latter. If covid 19 has taught me anything, it’s that I took hugging my mum for granted and that family is all we have at the end of the day.

2021. As they say here: ‘We havn’t died a winter yet’….so bring it on!

My sincere thanks again to everyone involved for taking the time to answer my questions. When I started these interviews, it was pre-lockdown-part-2 and any regional restrictions, so I’m delighted that amidst such a turbulent backdrop they all came through. I hope that these conversations have highlighted the issues facing not only the aforementioned bars, but establishments everywhere.

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    Andrew says:

    Thanks for the article, it is good to hear updates on how these bars are doing. I visited Dick Mack’s in July 2018, hope to get back there some day. They have a great spirits collection and a very nice outdoor area during the summer months.

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