The Secret Drinker reviews the Malt Room in Inverness
Easier access to your trusted, local news. Subscribe to a digital package and support local news publishing.
I know the Malt Room is already a loved, multi-award winning place to sip a fine whisky with decor that is straight out of Scotland’s Home of the Year, except with taste. I know all this but does it reach or breach my standards?
Like gastro-pubs, sports bars, cocktail bars, wine bars, speakeasies and other themed places that seem to bracket human beings into certain types, I have my prejudices. And those ‘types’ can be irritating when they congregate together.
Take, for example, your average golf club committee annual night out. Their conversation of clubs, courses, business and clothing is not my cup of tea. They would be considered a ‘type', right?
The type that I perhaps dislike more than any other are those who talk about what is in their glass. I suspect they are really just ordering so they have something to talk about and then engage in a singularly subjective view, often unlearned, and stultifying. Be that wine, be that whisky – the effect is the same, which is boredom.
It can turn the best of us into something less compelling than we should be. I have an amazingly loyal, generous and brilliant friend who I want to suspend from the ceiling by a painful part of his anatomy – I refuse to say which – each time he says “mmm caramel undertones” as he has yet another malt whisky on ice.
This impulse became unbearable on our first visit to the Malt Room some time ago when he, after several hours and several hundreds of pounds, treacherously started ordering whisky from Japan. And he got it wrong because they don’t stock Suzuki whisky nor on the second attempt did he find a bottle of Wassabi-biki. But I am a forgiving Secret Drinker.
I took with me our resident whisky expert, an Italian woman who seems to know not just about whisky but when the foundation stone was laid on every distillery in Scotland. She's fast too – if you walk after her down a street you will find the place littered with donkeys minus their hind legs.
So what will I make of this fine establishment on this occasion? The vitality of the place is not in question whatsoever – in both senses of the word, as it is both vital and vibrant. The only question was why it took so long to have a dedicated whisky parlour in the Highland capital in the first place?
The Mother of all Menus
First off – the menu is fantastic. Divided into three sections for whisky, an additional one for tasting (popular with the tourists I’ve noticed, but more on that later in the menu) and then the further down the food chain drinks.
The whisky is all I will concentrate on for obvious reasons – it is the finest spirit. The menu has ‘Modest’, ‘Memorable’ and ‘Magnificent’ sections. Veering between financial catastrophe and imminent bankruptcy to the point Boris Johnson briefly considered reinstituting Dickensian debtors' jails, I chose the Modest selection.
What does this have to say for itself? Glad you asked. “Our ‘Modest’ selection offers core expressions from the most popular distilleries. Don’t be tempted to overlook this section, you recognise these names for a reason.”
There are no less than 115 outstanding whiskies here running in price from £6 to around £15 and there are also some others from Japan (like Yamazaki Distillers Reserve also known as Suzuki Wassabi-biki).
And here I must raise a hand in gentle objection, there are selections of Bourbon from England and Wales. Only Janis Joplin could understand my anguish at seeing this: “Take another little piece of my heart now, baby.”
How you can allow English and Welsh Bourbon in a Scottish whisky-bar (“oh no, don’t ask why,” sorry) is a sorry reflection on our society. Now I know this is a niche view but I will die on the barricades to defend it.
Onward, to Memorable, beginning to heat up now, The Malt Room: “Like that first kiss, or those monumental nights in your life story. These are the iconic players alongside innovative editions that won’t be around forever. Don’t miss out – you’ll regret not having that chapter…”
The prices (around £20 or more) along with the passion escalate, but fortunately my father has a few of these whiskies and is hard of hearing while I walk like a panther in slippers over velvet when it is night and need to get into that stash.
The Glen Ord 18, Balvenie 21 PortWood, Glenfiddich 21 Gran Reserva are all worth their weight in gold. And they are not the sort of whiskies you will find too often on the shelf of the local supermarket (more on that later too).
I was curious about the Auchentoshan 1999 Wine Cask Matured and the Auchentoshan 24 1998 but didn’t feel like risking £20 on either given the Auchentoshan American Oak lacks a certain something.
Maybe those extra years is what it lacks but like I say I didn’t want the risk it for a Lowland Whisky when there was so much Speyside still to explore. Speysides by the way are the zenith of human achievement on this planet. And this is a fact.
Then came the Magnificent section: “The true elite of the whisky world embodying craftsmanship, artistry and the slow passing of time – savour the rarest of flavours. Ever wondered what that whisky ACTUALLY tastes like? Well, let curiosity kill that cat.”
The Italian was eyeing this up feverishly and I almost had a panic attack when she started ordering a la carte and not from the menu.
Almost a hundred drams ranging in price from about £25 to £250 (hence the panic) – not a price I would be prepared to pay at all but I doubt the company would get a thrill out of discovering that on my expenses: "For ONE WHISKY?!"
I did give serious thought to the Balvenie Single Barrel 15 1978 at £30 but in the end I weakly ordered a Modest dram for my peasant pallet and had a lovely little time in the Malt Room.
Wi-Fi and staff
We met a charming couple from Texas and when they were trying to follow some of the Italian's recommendations for distillery visits we tried to look them up but no Wi-Fi.
When I asked about this I was told "yeah, so you can just talk to one another instead". I probed deeper: "Yes, that is deliberate."
How gratifying and how impressive and how precisely right – you shouldn't be looking at your phone when you have a whisky in your glass.
The staff know each of the whiskies and I bet they had to sit an exam for that, or get clean on it, or both.
What is best about them is their responsiveness to requests, they don't try and tell you what the best whisky is, they don't try to get you to lose your job over a £250 dram.
In too many places people are telling you what is what with whisky, these guys don't and they vanish when you order and when you want to order again they reappear.
The Malt Room – I always want to say Rooms for some reason – is perfect. Even the decor feels like a mix of whisky colours from a light Speyside to a dark something else.
When you are inside you feel like you have left the world behind you and it works totally, you, your dram and your company.
The reason I went through the menu earlier on in such detail is that the Malt Room is the ONLY bar in Inverness where, like a restaurant, its strength IS the menu – I don’t mean to imply that it falls down anywhere else.
It is the effort and time expended in finding, sourcing and delivering often quite rare limited edition whiskies that makes this place special.
As I mentioned earlier, the place is vital – vital that we have a home for whisky which is so indelibly and profoundly associated with Scotland that not to have the Malt Room would be a travesty and an insult to our culture.
It isn’t a just bar, it is something more than that. In fact, like its neighbour the Market Bar it is now part of the scenery of the north and few places could be more different.
That they are direct neighbours is perfectly Scottish in a Jekyll and Hyde way.
The Malt Room is a place the north can be proud of having, the sort of place people talk about long afterwards with a smile: 10 out of 10 in a heartbeat.