In any large glittering metropolis, I like to find The There: that tiny spot somehow adds up to more than just the sum of its parts. Location, architecture, design, and staff are all important, but they don’t always add up to exceed their worth. However, sometimes you get lucky.
Smack in the middle of Beverly Hills you will find The Maybourne Hotel. If you have to ask how much a room is per night, you can’t afford it. The Maybourne Hotel Group is an Irish and Qatari owned British luxury hotel operator, which owns and manages The Berkeley, Calridge’s, and The Connaught hotels in London.
The story of its origins, its owners, their partnerships, the buying, the selling… put them all together and you’d get a terrific TV series. Add in the misallocation of funds, the bankruptcy, the deceit, and the professional and personal betrayal, and you’d get a series like Succession. Within The Maybourne Hotel, you’ll find The Cigar and Whiskey Bar.
The name. Flawless. The Cigar and Whiskey Bar. Simple and unpretentious. Like Scotch, quality doesn’t require anything extra. Another bonus? You can’t see the lounge from the outside of the hotel, or the lobby, or anywhere within the first floor. I arrived on foot, parked a few blocks away and hoofed it to save myself the embarrassment of rolling through their valet in my old Honda, which gets me around town safe enough but upon first glance frightens children.
A little bird told me that Mick Jagger was staying at The Maybourne that week, so I was looking my best while looking for The Cigar and Whiskey Bar entrance, on the off chance I collided with Mr. J. There are no signs or hosts specific to the lounge, so I pretended to know where I was going. I approached a friendly host who was eager to corral a free-range ruffian. After asking my name, they offered me a seat while I waited to be escorted up.
There is a $50 minimum per person, and any yahoo with $50 is allowed to make a reservation. That said, I felt rather baller when the gentleman from the lounge greeted me. It’s a nice touch to be walked in. I followed him past a windy staircase with carmine colored wallpaper before landing at a double-doored entrance.
The lounge itself looks like a tiny library with a dark, cavernous front, and decidedly tiny bar. The bar’s top shelf is my Conspicuous Consumption fantasy: only high-roller bottles, nothing younger than 50 years old.
The lounge opens up to a bright, expansive patio overlooking the hotel courtyard. It’s a beautiful view, peaceful, with the bustling action below giving off an ambient low roar. The patio seating is for the cigar smokers, or for people who don’t smoke cigars but who want to pretend they’re at a party in 1995. The vibe of the place is quiet and communal. Everyone there was interesting-looking, friendly, and solo! Very cool.
I take my seat at the bar, scan the menu like the Terminator, and that’s when the real fun begins. Most places exhibiting such a selection of prestige bottles coast by on just that. Don’t get me wrong: that’s usually enough. It’s always a little sobering for a whisky nerd to realize that the person behind the bar doesn’t really know his whisky, because most people don’t. It happens a lot, even at places with famously grand selections. The bartenders usually have dilettante level understanding, and can field the top five remedial questions everyone asks, but they can’t go much deeper.
When two people who really DO know their scotch meet, it is, at first, always a polite dance, to be sure. Sean, the head bartender, is helpful and congenial, and we casually discuss the menu together for a good 30 minutes before I realize who the fuck I’m talking to. This guy KNOWS about whisky. He wasn’t grandstanding what he knew. He was present, he wasn’t dismissive.
Listen (personal note here): even in the top tier of hospitality men have consistently been politely dismissive of me. This has happened in some of swankiest whisky bars in the world. I’m a fully functional, grown ass woman who meets the textbook definition of cute. As a reward, men have told the difference between bourbon and Scotch, they’ve described peat to me. They’ll tell me about Pappy like I’ve never heard about it. I never cut them off or correct them.
I’m not saying it’s bad when guys do this. Sharing knowledge and making conversation is fine. The sad part is I’m so used to the inevitable raised eyebrows and surprised comment about my esoteric choice of something on the menu. The, “Oh that’s a very good one, one of my favorites!” and I’m like, “Yep! Mine too!” (I can already see the alerts of the same group of negative commenters lined up to complain about my description of my experience. Save yourself some time; I don’t care.)
My point is Sean was not dismissive at all, and that was refreshing. Neither of us were trying to competitively talk about Scotch, to the point where we’d been chopping it up for quite a while before I realized how much he knew. We are excitedly going toe to toe about our favorites, the classics, and the curios.
That’s another thing: whisky knowledge is easy to fake, because it’s not common knowledge. Most people aren’t confident enough to have an in-depth conversation, so one could scoot by without knowing much. If I had to staff an elegant whisky bar, I wouldn’t even know where to mine the talent. Where did they find Sean? Is he related to the Irish owners? This nice young man is from Ireland, who hails from the same area where they make Kerrygold butter?
Sean did not speak about Scotch as someone who was learning on the job. You can tell he really loves his job. That truly enhances the experience. He introduced me to some Irish whiskies, taught me how to pronounce the names, and at one point, we glanced at the adjacent shelf with mostly bourbon and I admitted I don’t really love a lot of bourbon, and he told me it wasn’t his preference either! YES! This is my favorite thing to have in common with a whisky fan. His suggestions blew me away, I wouldn’t have selected them myself, and his descriptions of the bottles that I could not afford taunted me like the devil.
Alright, we’ve set the scene, now let me tell you about my new “Wish List” Scotch, and everything else I sipped that made me squee.
This is my new bucket list bottle: The Highland Park 1968 Orcadian Vintage Series I could not afford to try it; it was $700 an ounce. But I was allowed to nose it, and you guys you guys you guys you guys you guys: IT SMELLED IDENTICAL TO A GLASS OF OCEAN SPRAY CRANBERRY!!! Exactly like it. Never in my life have I nosed something so similar to something else. It was fresh and tart and sweet. I’m so angry I know about it. Sean is the worst. I will never forget the nose on that bottle. I’m determined to taste that bottle. Some day.
Here is the front page of the menu. Isn’t that nice?
Next up is the Italian indie Samaroli with a 1983 Caol Ila! This one I had a full pour of because it was under $150 a pour (my limit; it was my birthday month!) I’m already marveling at the charm of a label starting to peel off the bottle. Real details like this warm my heart. On the nose: Poised peat, anise, Land-O-Lakes butter, predominantly iodine but then oysters and club crackers. Oyster crackers? I adored it. It never would have jumped out at me. The palate gave way to nuts and dessert-y type things, raspberries, whipped cream. Lucky me.
Next up is the Glendalough 17, which I had been pronouncing “Glen-da-logcch” like an absolute buffoon, but learned it was “Glen-da-low.” Or is it Glen-da-loo? All I know is Sean said it better. This was a real treat. But also, I’ve never met a Japanese Mizunara finish that I didn’t love. It gave this beauty this soft Angel Food Cake on the nose, and a tiny little oud woody spice in the mouth! The faint oud was seductive. And I would have never guessed Irish in a blind taste, but absolutely the Mizunara was obvious. Other woods give so much intense vanilla, but this one was softer, like cake batter.
Apologies for my crunchy picture. This was the Shelf of Mordor. I see a Macallan 50 and 60, do you recognize the others? Chime in if you can tell what they are just by the bottle silhouette. But I know one was $20,000 for one ounce. (What I would have ordered had Mick Jagger offered to buy me a drink. Just kidding, I’d order the Highland Park 1968.)
Can you believe all this Irish? This knocked my socks off. The Midleton 2018 Vintage Release. Definitely more robust of the three, this nosed and tasted higher proof, even though it was a measly ‘ol 40% ABV. The nose was gingery forward (which is an astringent scent to begin with) and cardamom, cedar, and plush figs and sticky nectarine skin. In the mouth it had orange sherbet, or orange julius. Frosted Mini Wheats, and a lingering clove, nutmeg, and tapioca. I’m not a fan of overpowering baking spice + orange notes, they’re all the same and they remind me of a grandma’s bathroom, Potpourri and orange cleaner. This was not that. It was layered, it was aggressive where desired and subtle where desired. To use the worst whiskey word on Earth, it was smooth.
The Mortlach 20 I saved for last. I couldn’t really even pick a favorite! The only exposure I’ve had to The Beast of Dufftown has been in my Whisky Advent Calendars the past two Christmases, and I liked them the most out of anything else in the calendar, so I was excited for this guy.
This dram was perfect, but it had no surprises lurking except in the finish. It was straightforward elegant, classic, and actually reminded me of Christmas; the nose was Allspice and Pannetone! Some strong dark chocolate, cacao maybe? In the mouth there was the blatant full maturation in sherry: moist raisin-y sherry influence, and Milk Duds.
Mortlach is interesting, because it has all the typical notes of standard scotch, but with more protein. I can see why they call it The Beast. It’s chewy with appetizing leather (or what I presume leather tastes like? I have barely resisted licking a brand new leather boot or a handbag strap in the past) and it’s strangely meaty and oily to me. The finish gave me a hint of a Burger King Whopper. I haven’t had one in years, but the BK burn and oil is very distinct.
It’s really hard to get anymore in-depth when you’re working with a tiny pour. I love the challenge! I love that I have a new place to take people when I want to impress them. It’s hard to find the perfect blend of secretive yet happening, fun but totally mellow in Los Angeles.
After doing my homework on The Maybourne Hotel Group, after meeting Sean, I’ve decided this is my new favorite place to sample a smattering of whiskies. At this point I’d rather spend $300 for an awesome experience, great guidance, and four different pours of whiskey that aren’t on my radar, then spend $300 on a bottle. As our dear readers know: it’s not just about what you drink, it’s where you drink it.
Lead image courtesy of The Maybourne. Other photos author’s own.