San Sebastián is famous for its food, from its Pintxos to its multiple Michelin rated and Michelin three star restaurants. What I didn’t expect to find, as I crossed one of the main thoroughfares at 12.30am en route back to my Airbnb, was the Museo Del Whisky. I had no particular expectation of what to expect except that it seemed to be a bar and possibly a good spot for a night cap with my other half and family following that evenings Pintxos tour.
What greeted us as we went though the doorway of this bar, with its slightly rundown reddish salmon pink exterior, was in a word nirvana, or rather nirvana for anyone that enjoys whisky. Walls of glass fronted cabinets and bottle racks hanging from the ceiling all filled with antique bottles of scotch whisky and bourbon. In all there are some 3,400 bottles of the Scottish nectar. Though many of these are unopened there’s a wide variety of whiskies from across the world (including a coffee infused Japanese whisky) behind the bar for you to sample.
Given the array of whisky’s to choose from I was at a loss as to know what to order, other than not ordering my standard tipple of Laphroaig. The barmen know their stuff though. Given the simple request for something smoky but not Laphroaig, the barman picked out 4 bottles for me to chose from. A few sniffs later I had settled on the 12 year old Caol Ila, used heavily to produce Diageo’s Jonny Walker and Black Label blends. As a single malt though it’s a lighter Islay malt with a pale amber colour that speaks to its milder peaty flavour compared to the likes of Ardbeg and Lagavulin. This milder peaty style allows the peppery and floral notes to come through.
The bar staff serve each whisky in what they feel is the most appropriate style of glass, be it a standard tumbler, rounded tumbler or even an elongated cognac glass. For those that like to add a few drops of water they have small glass bottles with metal straws so you can pippet in just the right number of drops for your taste. If you prefer ice (and we can debate the varasity if such a choice another time) they even have a variety of ice cubes for certain drinks and glasses, from the usual ice cubes to cubes 2-3 inches squared, or large balls about 3 inches wide. Whether you’re a fan of ice and whisky or not, the cubes and balls are something to behold. As the evening (well morning) wore on, Lime permeated the bar as a few ordered Ron (as the Spanish call Rum) and cokes. It is at this point that the skill and dexterity of the bar staff became clear. It was a joy watching them work while sipping a Hibiki with its spicy finish, and final notes almost reminiscent of sake.
The strong fragrance of lime was caused by the way they put the Rum and Coke together. Both hands hold an ice tong with a clawed end. They speedily fill the large cognac style glasses used for the drink with one ice cube at a time alternating between each hand. Following this they take a large peel of lime and pass it from tong to tong while scraping the clawed end along it releasing the oils and fragrance of the lime. After a quick run of the lime round the rim of the glass, it goes in and the liquids added. The smell is heady and sight mesmerising.
As the evening moves into the early hours of the morning, the bar fills with more and more locals. Some headed to the small basement bar with its piano. Most, like my group, remain upstairs laughing and chatting away, playing the chain and ring game left on the bar for all to try their hand at, and dipping into a dish of penny sweet bar snacks as they’re passed around. The bar also owns a 5cm tall cocktail shaker that holds the record of being the world’s smallest working cocktail shaker.
Gin and Tonics are just as popular as whisky at the bar. Spain knows gin and what to do with it, after all Britain exports more gin to Spain than anywhere else and the Spain’s consume more of it that the Brits, which is going something. The bar has a selection of well over 20 or 30 gins, from well known British brands, small distillers and Spanish distillers. Seeing they had the new(ish) Tanqueray Sevilla, and it not being something I see often in the bars of London, I plumpt for it. Out comes the copa, the glass is filled with ice with the ambidextrous skill earlier observed and then in with the gin, followed by the Fever Tree Tonic (you’ll be hard pushed to get a GnT in Spain or Italy that doesn’t use Fever Tree). The tonic is poured in over the back of the mixing spoon ensuring it doesn’t over fizz as it combines with the gin. Finally it is dressed with a peel of orange. A slice of pink grapefruit and a strip of bright green candied mango, a strange final touch but a fun one that speaks, like the bar snacks, to the fun side of this bar that takes what it does seriously. Staggering out at 2am the bar was still going strong. It’s a must visit when in San Sebastian.