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words Neil Geraghty
“Make sure you wrap up well. It’s always freezing up north at this time of year”, a friend warns me as I leave the warm comfort of a Kensington Café. I’m heading up to West Hampstead for an evening at The Gallery, one of north London’s most popular whisky bars, and an Arctic blast has just veered around from the north.
It’s by far the coldest night of the winter so far and as I hop onto the Jubilee Line with my dinner companion, all my south London prejudices about north London come to the fore. Sitting on the tube, I shiver as I imagine flurries of snow swirling down from the bleak Chiltern Hills.
When we arrive at West Hampstead station, I’m not short of the mark. Sub-zero gusts of wind force us to wrap our scarves around our ears, and although we’ve only travelled 5 stops on the Jubilee Line, it feels like we’ve arrived in the Siberian Tundra.
Mercifully, The Gallery is just a three-minute stroll from the tube station, but we’re so relieved to escape the cold that we almost flatten the burly bouncer as we swing the doors open in his face and run inside. And what a contrast indoors! We’re greeted by cheerful whisky-induced chatter, enhanced by a blast of upbeat funky soul played on real vinyl. A smiling waitress with a cute finger tattoo escorts us to our table and we sink into our seats absorbing the warm, welcoming atmosphere. The Gallery London is famous for its 101 whiskies sourced from all over the world which are beautifully displayed on broad wooden shelves above the bar. Flickering tea light candles illuminate their rich amber hues and infuse the bar with an irresistible seasonal glow. Adjacent to the bar, a towering bookshelf and ladder sends a clear ‘V’ sign to any would-be north London chavs who might dare to wander in and disturb the intellectual vibe. In a nod to the spiritual home of whisky, stained glass panels in the windows coupled with high backed wooden bar stools give a Charles Rene Mackintosh feel to the interior design and I’m transported over the border to Glasgow’s vibrant West End.
Sensing that I’m numb with cold, the waitress recommends a wee dram of Bain’s Cape, a single grain whisky from South Africa to warm me up. Intrigued, and rather wishing that I was basking on a sun-kissed beach in Durban, I agree to her suggestion and I’m not disappointed. Sweet, spicy and with a subtle fiery afterglow, after a few sips, tendrils of warmth begin creeping down into my toes. My companion’s choice is far more elegant – a blushing pink Boulevardier Cocktail made from smooth Monkey Shoulder Scotch. I try a sip, and the bittersweet medley of Scotch, sweet vermouth and Campari flits over my tongue. By the time we finish our aperitifs, we’re both glowing with festive cheer and half tempted to grab some reindeer antler head bands and join in the boisterous Christmas party downstairs.
For my next choice, I change continents and head over to South America with a Whiskey Sour (note the quaint New World way of spelling whiskey). It’s a cocktail steeped in Chilean/Peruvian rivalry. Both claim it as their own as indeed does the USA, but only in Chile is it served with jagged lumps of crystal clear blue ice hewn from Patagonian glaciers. Though not quite matching its Chilean counterpart in presentation, The Gallery’s zingy blend of Monkey Shoulder Scotch, lemon juice, sugar and Angostura Bitters is a wise choice and works perfectly as a refreshing palette cleanser in between dishes of intensely savoury pub grub.
The Gallery has recently launched a new winter menu designed by Nik Prescott, head chef at the newly opened, 1970s inspired Coin Laundry in Exmouth Market. A champion of no nonsense comfort food, Nik has made liberal use of The Gallery’s whisky and craft beers, concocting a witch’s brew of fiery marinades, sauces and batters that infuse the finger food with a punchy kick. The emphasis is on sharing plates and looking over at the crowds of happy looking punters lunging at each other’s dishes, it’s a winning formula.
We start with a basket of cheddar and black cab stout croquettes accompanied by hickory smoked corn on the cobs. The croquettes strike a pleasing balance between light crunch and lingering ooziness and come with the added pleasure of a feisty mustard after kick. With a subtle wood smoked frazzle, the delightfully sweet corn on the cobs soon have us nibbling left and right like a pair of hungry Hampstead Heath squirrels. Hot on their heels the meat dish arrives, a plate of ragged cuts of rosy skirt steak topped with Blacksticks blue cheese. The rumbustious kick me in the mouth flavours fully live up to Blacksticks’ reputation as being ”the daddy of all blue cheeses”. Next up, a couple of fish dishes: bourbon barbequed squid and braised cod cheeks with fennel. I eye the squid suspiciously. Not only is it marinated in bourbon, it’s doused in soy sauce as well. Surely that’s a recipe for overkill, but I’m pleasantly surprised; the intense saltiness of the soy is mellowed by the sweet bourbon and unbelievably the delicate flavour of the squid peeps through. Unfortunately, in between all these bursting flavours, the subtlety of the cod cheeks is lost. A shrinking violet in comparison to its gutsy companions, I wish I’d ordered it as a starter.
Somewhat belatedly, a couple of side dishes arrive, a basket of crisp golden fries topped with Wolfpack Lager and cheese sauce plus a bowl of fried, malachite green Padrón peppers. The finger-sized peppers are the vegetarian equivalent of chicken legs and sucking the delicious charred flesh off the stalks, I get an almost visceral cave man satisfaction. Sitting back with a satisfied glow, we both realise we’ve eaten way too much and order hot toddies for the road. Steaming glass tankards of Makers Mark bourbon infused with a heavenly blend of vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and unsalted butter arrive, and we’re instantly transported to Christmas. It’s like drinking glühwein without the cloying sweetness. Somehow the waitress persuades us to have dessert and we grudgingly order bourbon chocolate biscuits sprinkled with honeycomb and apple pie served with whisky custard. Feather-light with a pared down sweetness, the puddings seem more of an afterthought to prolong the pleasure of the evening, and I barely notice the flavours. That is, until I taste the custard. Silky smooth and with a deep fiery finish, it’s the devil in disguise and when my dinner companion nips down to the toilet, I pick up the jug by the handle and swig the whole lot down.
As we button up to leave we’ve completely forgotten how cold it is outside, but buoyed up by the fine whisky, good food and infectious bonhomie we barely notice the Arctic temperatures outside. As a winter warmer, this delightful West Hampstead whisky den is a hard one to beat.
words Neil Geraghty