“The streets of London are paved with gold” said Dick Whittington (and his cat), though I doubt they were referencing the hue of the nectar flooding our capital with the current demand for America’s spirit. The ambling pair of vagabonds were of course referencing the promise of prosperity which lucky for us was a promise kept, for with prosperity comes opportunity and with that, the slew of choices every member of the rat race is afforded when deciding where to eat and what to drink in the capital. Thankfully for me and the musings of Dick Whittington, my boxes are ticked. You see I like meat, and I like bourbon, both are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Barbecoa has been on my radar since it opened, playing into my weakness of providing barbecued meats in coma inducing portions whilst being a stone’s throw from my office, but this isn’t a restaurant review and I’m no AA Gill (I think of myself more Jay Rayner). I’m writing about American whiskey and more specifically, the extensive list that until only recently, despite having eaten here a few times was blissfully unaware of.
My friend who knows me well enough to know that I would ‘dig this sort of thing’, emailed over a copy of their menu, which to my surprise included many rarely-seen-in-London single barrel, small batch, ryes and bourbons at pretty reasonable prices. With my interest peaked to excitable proportions, I got in touch with the bar manager to see if he would be interested in chatting to me about his collection with a view to writing a piece and help spread the good word to the rising Anglo-Bourbon community that long for something even remotely close to the Haymarket in Louisville. Thankfully he was more than happy to oblige.
As I walked in to the bar post-work, I forgave myself for not stumbling across it sooner, for tucked away at the back of the restaurant was an unassuming but modern bar stocked with everything you might expect to see with no obvious indication of the extent of whiskeys on offer. My appointment with ‘Spencer’ was in an hour so I had a bit of time to kill before getting down to business. The first thing that caught my eye when scouring the menu was good old Elmer T. Lee and proceeded to order two pours for my friend and I on the advice of its UK rarity. “I’m afraid we don’t have any of that” was the response from the bartender, reaffirming my previous comment. Not a good start but by no means the end of the world as I settled on Weller 12 as a worthy substitute, followed by an Old Fitzgerald 1849 and I was now ready to chew the proverbial fat.
Spencer joined me at my table, a sprightly guy with bags o’ gusto, bringing with him an infectious enthusiasm exactly what I was hoping (not expecting) to be greeted with. Adam Perry-Lang, Spencer told me was the American responsible for bringing his ‘vision’ of barbecue to London with well-known UK chef, Jamie Oliver. This marriage of expertise brought with it the marriage of barbecue and bourbon, an age old institution in the US, but relatively unchartered waters on these shores that when paired together, invoke scenes of grizzly men with long unkempt beards, worn out baseball caps, lumberjack shirts with dungarees playing dixy on a one-string guitar (have I just described Seasick Steve? Does he even like bourbon?). This is London though, not Kentucky and a far cry from campfires under moonlight (£100 fine if caught) and as Spencer tells me, the menu here was built up to provide an after dinner aperitif to the clientele, offering the whiskey menu with the desserts following the carnivorous smorgasbord preceding it. I’m not as specific with my choice of course to indulge my obsession with, hell, I even drink it while ironing my shirts (anything to make it more palatable) so I was interested in sampling some of what Barbecoa had to offer irrespective of belly fill-level.
After answering a few questions and, as I’d like to think earning the respect of my subject through sheer nerd overload, I embarked on a journey of Spencer’s dram choices:
1) Barbecoa Single Barrel Elijah Craig 12 – Chosen by Spencer and his team on what must have been the most difficult day of their lives, this single barrel offering from Heaven Hill’s fifth floor was exceptional. We sampled it side-by-side with the standard EC12 offering and the differences were obvious. Whilst being a single barrel offering, they were unable to return it back to Blighty straight-from-the-barrel due to customs restrictions and so was proofed down from 108% to 94%. The flavours straddle the standard offering and the barrel proof edition but with a balance that makes this possibly the most drinkable and downright tasty Elijah Craig I have had to date. Their next expedition is to Buffalo Trace to select a barrel from Eagle Rare and if this selection is anything to be judged on, I will be first in line when it hits their shelf.
2) Tincup American Whiskey – This was a bottle I had seen a few times on my travels but always passed on simply because I knew little about it, but on a night of surprises, this was one of them. A light nose and mouthfeel of creamy vanilla has convinced me that despite the short finish, this would be a great ‘gateway whiskey’ for newcomers looking to dip their toe in and one I would be able to serve anybody without scarring them for life with my high proof barrel strength offerings. An easy drinker for the rarely drinker.
3) Charbay 3rd Release – Another surprise for me of the evening was this bottle, proudly presented by Spencer as being ‘as unique a whiskey you’re ever going to get’, and he was bang on the money. This is a whiskey distilled from 20,000 gallons of craft pilsner beer, aged 6 years in American oak barrels and a further 8 years in stainless tanks producing outstanding results. The nose on this was like nothing I had ever experienced, with distinct hops and fruit cake that intoxicated me to the point of almost forgetting to taste it. When I did, I was advised by Spencer to hold it in the mouth for a few seconds and allow it to foam, just like a beer would and explode across the palate into a finish that seemed to last forever. This was my dram of the night and I’ve been thinking about how to get hold of a bottle ever since to review properly……watch this space!
4) Old Fitzgerald Stitzel-Weller – This bottle arrived on the table with a thud. A gallon of bourbon distilled at the famed Stitzel-Weller? Yes please! The nose had all the familiar characteristics of Stitzel juice that you would expect, sweet caramel with a hint of banana and light spice, though I found the palate and finish to be quite weak. This could be due to oxidization of the bottle or the fact that my palate by this time was probably fried like a Cajun chicken wing, but whilst being extremely smooth, didn’t carry the notes of the nose the way great bourbons separate the good. What was I expecting? The same thing I always expect, which is to finish a pour thinking of having another and/or seeking out a bottle for the bunker. I’m afraid that there are way too many bourbons at this price point to convince me to do that, though the bottle was indeed a head-turner…..I had to turn mine significantly to see around the thing!
5) Old Overholt 1920’s Bottling – On the back of my badly hidden excitement, giggling like a Japanese schoolgirl in Trafalgar Square, Spencer took me to the ‘whiskey wall’, a room by the front of the restaurant that housed, or more aptly imprisoned many of the high-end delights on offer such as the full BTAC lineup, AH Hirsch 16, Pappy 23 and my personal favourite, Rittenhouse Rye 25. He then reached for a bottle of Old Overholt from the 1920’s in pristine condition and offered me a taste paired with a warning that ‘it’s not good, you won’t like it’. He wasn’t wrong, the nose had an astringent prune-like quality to it (not in a good way) which the palate faithfully replicated. It was like drinking a really bad bourbon mixed with a really bad cough mixture. It was however a bucket list pour and I’m very grateful that I got the opportunity to taste a piece of history…….though some bottles are better left in the museum.
After our tasting had concluded and Spencer excused himself to get back to doing ‘actual work’, I felt buoyed by the evenings events. “Another place to add to the London bourbon trail”, I thought, placing Barbecoa right next to the likes of M.A.S.H., JW Steakhouse and Milroys. managed by a clear enthusiast as in love with the spirit as I am. Would I come back here? At the time of writing, I have been back twice already and sampled the Colonel EH Taylor Sour Mash and Jefferson’s Presidential Select 18 with many more reasons to go back again. For the cocktail lovers, they also serve an Old Fashioned made with Old Rip Van Winkle 10 which was a carefully considered choice of bourbon to compliment the bitters and not a way to fleece the presumably already drunk yuppie. It’s up there with one of the best I’ve had.
here’s a link to the menu: http://www.barbecoa.com/pdfs/WhiskeyMenu.pdf
Oh, and they also do food.