Destinations

London’s Black Rock Bar is Making Whiskey More Accessible

An entry way to an underground bar called Black Rock.
London's Black Rock Whiskey Bar provides an entryway for consumers to learn to love whiskey. Photos by Addie Chinn.

Ordering a whiskey at the bar can be downright intimidating. Do you want it on the rocks or neat? Single barrel or blend? Distilled and aged in Tennessee or Scotland? One bar in the United Kingdom is making it its mission to break down barriers and make whiskey accessible to all.

Located in east London and opened earlier this year, Black Rock Whiskey Bar is the brainchild of founders Tristan Stephenson and Thomas Aske, whose mission it is to make ordering a whiskey less intimidating and more approachable. One of the simplest, most “why-didn’t-I-think-of-that?” ways they’re doing so is in the organization of the bar itself.

“Most bars organize their whiskeys by region and distillery, but that’s rubbish since it’s not very helpful for the average consumer, since then you’re lost with no roadmap,” Stephenson says. “Instead, we arrange our bottles by six flavor categories: sweet, spicy, smoky, fruity, fragrant and balanced.”

Bottles of whiskey behind a glass door that says "fragrant." To make whiskey more approachable for tentative imbibers, Black Rock sorts the bottles into categories: sweet, spicy, smoky, fruity, fragrant and balanced.

But rather than keep the bottles under lock and key and behind the bar, customers are encouraged to pull bottles from each cabinet, look at the liquid, and read their labels. (Stephenson says the bar has a selection of about 250 choices at any given time.) Bottles are also organized vertically depending on how light and heavy they are. So, lower shelves are reserved for heavier whiskeys.

“That’s the most exciting thing we’ve done here,” he says. “[We want to] challenge how we display and sell whiskey.”

To immediately know how much you’re spending, the 36-seat bar uses a straightforward pricing system. One, two or three black rocks dangle from the neck of each bottle, denoting seven pounds, nine pounds or 11 pounds per dram, respectively. (More expensive bottles are marked with a single golden rock, and prices for those bottles vary.) Whiskeys are available for sipping and also for cocktails, of which the bar has a well-edited cocktail list of unique takes on popular drinks, such as the “Insta-age Rob Roy” made with redistilled Scotch and vermouth.

A long table with spigots coming from it. In the center of the bar is a custom-made table, crafted from an 185-year-old oak tree. The 5-meter long showpiece contains two 17-liter hollowed-out channels equipped with a spigot on the end for easy access.

But perhaps the bar’s showstopper is its custom-made table, crafted from an 185-year-old oak tree. The 5-meter long showpiece contains two 17-liter hollowed-out channels lined with either American oak or French oak, each equipped with a spigot on the end for easy access. Each channel can be filled up with the remains of almost-empty bottles of whiskeys or even cocktails, depending on bartender’s whims, giving the liquid an additional dose of oak, or, as Stephenson says, “ever-evolving flavor.”

So what is it about whiskey that makes it so unapproachable for some? And how can a bad impression be overcome? Stephenson hopes he has the answer.

“Often people don’t like whiskey because they’ve had a bad experience with it, but it’s really such a broad category of spirits,” he says. “We want to gently ease people into drinking whiskey.”

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