Clearly, I’m in the wrong country. I’m writing an article about whisky, and I’m not in Scotland. “Is this some kind of a joke?” my friend asked. Everyone knows that Scotland is the spiritual home of whisky, we even call the drink, a Scotch. But what if I were to tell you that London has a thriving whisky scene as well.
Historically, London has been a Gin town. Gin production started in the 1700s and within a few short years became the scourge of the lower classes. William Hogarth, the 17th-century artist famously portrays London during the height of the gin craze, with scenes of debauchery, scandal and poverty.
Whisky is first recorded as having been produced in 1494; James IV of Scotland commissioned monks to produce some aqua vitae or ‘water of life’. The Gaelic for ‘water of life’ is uisge beatha which, if you pronounce it correctly, sounds a bit like ‘whisky’ and so is the probable source of the name.
Whisky production in England started in the middle of the 19th century and London’s first whisky distillery, The Lea Valley Distillery, was founded in the 1880s and whilst production north of the border flourished, London’s own contribution to whisky remains more a libation than a vocation.
But for most visitors to the city, provenance isn’t the important issue. The question on everyone’s lips, is where are the best places to taste the amber nectar in London. And this is where the fun starts.
Fortunately, London has a large array of outlets from local whiskey distilleries to basement bars.
There are currently two whiskey distilleries in London, the Bimber (the Polish name for Moonshine) distillery in Acton, founded in 2016 and the East London distillery in Bethnal Green, located in the site of a former glue factory. Geographically, a walking tour of both would be a challenge, as they are on opposite sides of town, but both of them offer an array of visiting options, so you can easily spend a few good hours enjoying their selections.
If drinking the night away is what you’re looking for, then here are a couple of my favourite places that, as luck would have it, fit nicely into a succinct group of geographic areas, lending themselves perfectly to a walking tour.
The pick of the crop is Milroy’s of Soho. Head to the back of this very famous whisky shop and look out for the fake bookcase. If you push hard enough, the bookcase will open to reveal a set of stairs leading down to the Vault – a brooding, underground, candlelit cocktail bar. Round the corner is the Soho Whisky Club, above, you guessed it, a whisky shop, a private members club, but well worth joining for the regular tasting sessions.
Shoreditch and Spitalfields are known for their cool demeanour, and that makes them a perfect home for two of the best whisky joints in town. Bull in a China Shop is one of them. A high-end Asian restaurant with an enviable selection of over 100 whiskies from Japan and around the world. The other is Black Rock, an institution and mecca for whisky aficionados.
But saving the best for last, the one to really head for if you’re looking for an all-encompassing whisky experience is………my speciality London Theme Tour called “Whisky & Ride” – Hope to see you soon!
Featured image: Photo by Dylan de Jonge on Unsplash
About the author:
Jonathan Cohen is a London Blue Badge Tour Guide specialising in making people smile. His tours are fun, engaging and informative and he enjoys nothing more than discovering new whisky bars to take people to on his “Whisky & Ride” chauffeur-driven tour of London. He’ll happily accept a few bottles of Lagavulin 16-year-old in lieu of a cash payment whether you take this tour or one of the more conventional tours of London he organises. You can contact him on his website or his Instagram page.