If you happened to have been driving around Hyde Park Corner earlier this month and were mildly baffled about why Wellington Arch had taken on a striking blue hue, its usually bronze sculpture glowing gold, making that night bus journey home slightly more enjoyable, we are here to enlighten you.
Unbeknownst to most, the historic monument houses a venue space concealed within its lofty heights which the makers of Haig Club – a Single Grain Scotch Whisky best known for its affiliation with David Beckham – saw fit to transform into a temporary modern interpretation of British private clubs.
Our evening began as it was to continue – in pure indulgence and luxury. We were picked up in a private Mercedes-Benz and driven to our as yet undisclosed location. When we arrived we were escorted towards the looming gates and ushered through a side door into a lift. As soon as the doors opened, a Haig Clubman (our first sip of Haig Club whisky) was offered to us and we were encouraged to wander round the nightspot that had been created for us.
The usually rather bare interior had been given a pop-up facelift, with everything from the wall panelling and floorboards to the copper bar and furnishings curated to embody the spirit of Haig Club. This included a low-lit bar serving Haig Club Signature Cocktails crafted and poured by world-class mixologists Sweet and Chilli (with the expert guidance of Haig Club Global Ambassador, Ewan Gunn); a whisky snug decked out to evoke the memory of the exclusivity of its 1920s counterparts; and an upstairs dining area, festooned with blue and purple flower arrangements, which opened up onto a terrace overlooking Constitution Hill and the fleet of Mercedes below.
Once our curiosity had been sated, we were seated in the contemporary white and grey panelled dining room and introduced to Mike Robinson, our chef for the evening and Director of The Harwood Arms (London’s only Michelin-star pub). He talked us through the four-course tasting menu and the “arduous research” that had gone into “coming up with the right dishes to match this wonderful whisky.”
We were prepared for our first course by the light scent of smoking peat from the Haig Estate which had been burning in the corner of the room and with which Mike’s team had smoked our salmon. This was not your expected thinly sliced, cold smoked salmon but instead came as a very soft fat chunk that had been carefully smoked and then cooked very gently at about 45 degrees. The result was a tender and incredibly delicate dish that was completed with a light crème fraîche, brown bread croutons and lemon. The Haig Club Sherbet Scotch cocktail accompanying it came served in a long shot glass; its fresh citrus worked with that in the dish and cut through the slight oiliness of the salmon.
Our next course was comprised of what Mike ventured was “one of Britain’s greatest ingredients which is so often overlooked” – wild rabbit. This was gently cooked, picked apart and then pressed back together with herbs, leaves and a bit of lemon, before being served with prunes cooked in Earl Grey Tea. The meat was surprisingly gentle on the palate and the Earl Grey sauce paired well with the smokiness of the Lapsung Souchong in the Haig Club High Tea. The ginger in the drink lent itself to the rabbit whilst bringing out a spice in the Haig Club that evolves on the palate to end in a creamy texture.
The “main event” of the meal, Mike eulogised, was fallow deer shot my himself: “The thing about wild venison, if anyone has any preconceptions that this might be strong, dark, over red, I can tell you, blow that out of the water. This isn’t a hairy Northern, Scottish deer, that’s licked lichen off the rocks in The Highlands all its life and weathered Western gales. This is a shandy-drinking deer that’s had a very easy life, and thus is rich and delicious and therefore only needs to be hung for four days.” He went on to explain that deer are the best converters of grass to protein on the planet and have no cholesterol or saturated fats, making it “The meat equivalent of a blueberry.” We were sold.
It arrived served with baked celeriac, burnt pear, pickled walnut and an amazingly rich sauce made of bone marrow. The venison was beautiful, as promised. The soft poached pear was rolled in hay ash which partially disguised its sweetness; the walnut cream and pickled nut added a woodiness which worked conceptually and palatably with the game. The Haig Club Shrub mirrored this with the distinct aroma of truffle pushing the mind-set into the forest. The spiced pear of the cocktail played with the walnut and meat whilst the citrus element of the drink balanced the sweetness of the pear in the dish. The truffle in the cocktail and the bone marrow sauce embraced each other in decadence to create a phenomenally intense, earthy and herbal course.
We arrived at dessert feeling utterly spoilt and were greeted by a very creamy and custard-y Rosemary Tart served with a slightly bitter goats curd ice cream. Its pairing was an incredibly sweet, delicate (whilst still incredibly potent) and beautiful Haig Club Clear Colada, served in a heavy glass (possibly to avoid the clumsiness of the well tippled). Ewan steps in at this point to voice his love of the tropical fruits and coconut milk that can be detected in Haig Club: “We wanted to highlight this so here we have Haig Club washed with coconut and burnt butter, sea salt and muscovado sugar.” The syrupy sweetness of the sugar coated the strength of the cocktail, balancing the creaminess of the dessert and highlighting the salt in the salted caramel notes.
Once we had finished with dinner, we were divided into groups and taken through a cocktail shaking-and-making class run by Sweet and Chilli “Drink’s Geek” Jim; a bespoke Old Fashioned class with David from Diageo; and a tasting break-down of the four stages in the Haig Club maturation and creation by Ewan.
With the market utterly saturated with high-end whiskies, each promising that its particular history and taste make it far superior to its competitors, its hard to know where the start. However, Haig Club really does have something for everyone: newcomers can look forward to something that can be drunk in a variety of cocktails whilst zealots will be more than happy to enjoy it neat or on the rocks. The complex yet versatile nature of Haig Club speaks to not only its ingrained history in the spirits world – Jim form Sweet and Chilli proves his Geekdom by regaling us with a longwinded anecdote which can basically be summed up in the phrase “If it wasn’t for Robert Stein, the cousin of John Haig, we wouldn’t have tequila, rum, vodka” – but also its commitment to modernity and a new breed of whisky drinkers. The beautifully designed bottle whose colours were projected onto over a century of history perfectly captures this. Haig Club truly is a must-try for any enthusiastic or timid spirit drinker out there.
Vicky Ilankovan – Lifestyle Editor