When we first heard of Melbourne whisky bar Whisky & Alement putting on a "consumable exhibition" of Japanese whiskies, we were intrigued. We've been to art exhibitions where you can actually eat the work on display. But booze? Were we going to be treated to a alcoholic version of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory?
Alas, no. Lest anyone has images of being able to run through alcoholic showers or sup from a fountain of whisky, the format is a lot more refined and understated. Ahead of the public opening on 18 May 2016, we attended a preview exclusive to members of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society on 15 May to suss out the fuss.
To many a whisky enthusiast in Australia, W&A needs no introduction (read our review for global bar site BarChick here) Their consumable exhibition titled Bar White Oak is perhaps more accurately described as a pop up bar within a bar. To achieve this, the front section of W&A has been transformed into a hatch complete with a serving counter and shelves of Japanese whiskies curated by W&A owners Brooke Hayman, Julian White and W&A bartender Kelvin Low. The trio have been amassing an impressive collection over the years, and originally were intending to open a stand alone Japanese whisky bar but the increasing scarcity and difficulty in sourcing the liquid meant an evolution in their plans to its current format.
Alongside mainstream bottlings such as Hibiki Harmony and Hakushu Distillers Reserve, you'll find on the menu many distillery only bottlings, limited edition runs and whiskies from closed distilleries such as the likes of Karuizawa and Hanyu. The shelves also feature the most extensive range of SMWS Japanese bottlings we've seen in Australia (and arguably the world); if you've always wanted to try that society Hakushu (both 120.7 and 120.8 are on pour), those Karuizawas 132.2 and 132.5, or a rare society Chita grain whisky, now's your chance but do it quick, because once it's gone, it gone. (we've already made a small dent in those stocks ourselves, #sorrynotsorry)
In the wake of the great Japanese whisky craze sweeping the globe, this pop up is quite a savvy and timely initiative because there's no doubt it will be very popular. But it's also a welcome one in our eyes. For those who think Japanese whisky is a recent phenomenon and/or see a very famous Yamazaki as the holy grail of the category, the range available at this consumable exhibition will give you cause to pause, and think again. If anything, it's an opportunity like no other to taste the spectrum of Japanese whisky (some stunning, some good, some not so much). And given the age statements on some of the bottlings we tried, it's also a reminder that the Japanese have been making fantastic whisky for some time now, well before one man in a hat named a particular Japanese bottling as the best whisky in the world.
Like any artistic exhibition, we say go with an open mind, appreciate and be educated. But at what price comes this educational experience? Is it expensive we hear you ask? Yes and no. There's no cover charge to get in and entry is subject to the venue's usual capacity. Everything you see on the shelf is available to purchase by the 15ml or 30ml nip, with entry level whiskies starting from as low as $12 a full nip. We found prices hovered around the $30-$40 mark on average for a full dram of the more unusual ones and they went up from there - just by way of example, we spied a Nikka Taketsuru Sherry Cask for $40 a nip and an Ichiro's Malt 23 year old for $87 a nip whilst the SMWS Chita was a mere $38 a pop if you're a SMWS member. If you really want to go to town, you could really drop a fair bit of coin here. Having said that, W&A has long had a reputation for making whisky accessible and given the provenance and rarity of most of the whiskies on taste, the prices are actually very reasonable compared to what they could have been.
Those new to whisky appreciation or see whisky as just another alcoholic spirit may well baulk at some of the prices. For those who are into their whiskies or are open to embarking on a spirit-ual journey however, that evergreen MasterCard campaign sums it up for us. Cost of one dram: $60. Sitting in a convival space with friends and experiencing a taste of history from a bottle you might never otherwise get to try? Priceless.
Bar White Oak runs from 18 May for six months (or maybe sooner if you all drink them dry). More information including opening times are available at the W&A website here. Details about the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, their whiskies and events such as the preview we attended are available on the SMWS website here.
We attended the preview event as a SMWS member and paid for our own ticket and drinks. Opinions are entirely that of our own.