Despite bearing the title of group bars manager at Boisdale of Canary Wharf – a bar, restaurant and music venue with one of the most extensive whisky collections in the world – Joe Boxall isn’t all airs and graces.
“We had one cocktail bar in Northampton, where I grew up,” he said when we met for an after-work Old Fashioned, rustled up at the long, dark-wood bar dominated by some 750 whiskies.
“I started out there working part time alongside my graphic design degree as a bartender in a dirty, dingy rock club called the Sound House where we didn’t even make cocktails.
“Jelly shots were about as experimental as we got.”
It’s a far cry from Joe’s work today, which requires him to be an ambassador for and expert on all things spirits, with Boisdale’s whisky menu – or the “bible”, as it’s referred to – stretching to nearly 100 pages.
The collection’s emphasis on Scotch, as well as the deep-red walls, tartan carpet and Scottish seafood on the menu, are thanks to the maverick tastes of Highlands-born founder Ranald Macdonald.
But it’s important to Joe that whisky fans and newbies alike can sample a wide range of blends when they pull up a stool at the bar (which is overlooked by a stuffed boar’s head).
“If you have a whisky bar, you have to have whiskies from all over the world because there’s so much variety,” the 32-year-old said.
“Although 85% of our whiskies are Scotch, we’ve got bottles from Sweden, Switzerland, India, Taiwan, America, France and Japan – Japanese whisky is huge and it’s only getting more valuable.”
So how did Joe go from jelly shots to high-end malts?
“After the Sound House I worked as a bartender in a casino in Northampton,’’ he said.
“It was the first time I realised the drinks industry was actually quite exciting.
“They did Hennessy Paradis there for £70 a shot and I was like wow, people would pay that?”
He transferred to a bar manager job in London at the first super casino in Stratford – where he still lives today – and quickly realised bartending in the Big Smoke was a very different game.
“I’d hired all these people who knew so much more about drinks and cocktails than me, so that made me learn. “And when I interviewed at Boisdale, the whisky just wowed me.”
It was a step up by anyone’s standards – the priciest dram on the menu is a Macallan 1946 single malt, which goes for the eye-watering price of £2,718.40 for 50ml, putting the casino’s Hennesy Paradis firmly in its place.
It also meant Joe had his work cut out for him.
“There was a bartender here called Ernest whose knowledge on whisky was incredible,” he said.
“I came in as his manager and knew nothing.
“I crash-learnt for 18 months on all things whisky, just so I could get to the point that he would respect that I knew what I was doing.”
It paid off. Joe’s passion and expertise now make him the go-to bartender in Canary Wharf to talk whisky with both amateurs and connoisseurs, whether during a tasting event there or just over a chat at the bar.
“Everybody wants to hear the stories of the distilleries,” he said.
“Gin distilleries are quite new, and the gin boom that’s peaking now won’t continue forever, but some of these whisky distilleries are 300 years old. They’re family owned.
“You can follow the whole history of what you’re drinking and how many years have gone into mastering the craft.
“If you sit there with a whisky that’s 15 years old and costs £10, that’s nothing when you think of the work and years of experience that have gone into it.”
Gesturing at the rows of bottles behind him, Joe described some of the legends behind the distilleries that have captivated whisky drinkers’ imaginations.
“Take White Horse Blended Scotch,” he said. “Prohibition ended in America in 1933, and there was suddenly a huge demand for whisky to be sent over.
“This one was made for a company on Rockefeller Plaza. It’s unopened but only four-fifths full, due to tax avoidance at the time.
“It’s nearly 100 years old and £190 for a double – which sounds like a lot, but it’s for something that’s museum standard.”
Going through the whisky bible, which is divided into four flavour-based sections – smoky, rich, winey and delicate – patterns began to emerge that explain the wide-ranging methods and conditions that give each whisky its personality.
“There are only three ingredients in whisky – barley, water and yeast, and geography has a lot to do with flavour,” said Joe.
“The best and cheapest thing to do is plonk your distillery next to a really nice water supply. The River Spey in Scotland is soft, clear, beautiful water. You can just put it in a glass and drink it straight from the river.
“Then there’s smokiness. Dig down six to eight metres in Islay (an island in the Inner Hebrides), and before you get from soil to coal, you find peat.
“If you dry it out in the sun you can burn it. The smell attaches to the barley and that’s what gives you the smoky flavour.
“The lochs in Islay are like peat banks, too, so all that smoky flavour is already in the water. If you take a glass from the lochs, it’s brown.”
Turning to the new world whiskies, factors such as climate and humidity reveal new and experimental techniques and flavours.
“In Scotland, distilleries generally lose 2% to the angel’s share (evaporation during the cask ageing process),” said Joe.
“But in Taiwan, they can lose up to 10% in a year. So their ageing process isn’t as long, but the reaction happens with the cask much quicker because it’s breathing with the whisky quicker.
“Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique is a Taiwanese whisky aged in red wine barrels at the highest point in the warehouse, with the most humidity, so it reacts with the cask the quickest.
“It’s black. You can’t shine a torch through it. But it won Best Single Malt Whisky at the 2015 World Whiskies Awards.
“It tastes weird, but it’s great. It’s got that sweaty-leather, farmyard smell of an Argentinian red wine.”
Boisdale Of Canary Wharf draws punters in with a live music schedule almost as eclectic as its whisky collection – Lulu, Horace Andy and Alexander O’Neal all feature in the coming weeks – equating whisky with a kind of nightlife that’s got a lot more kudos than your grandad’s dusty drinking cabinet.
“Whisky has never been in such a strong position within the marketplace,” said Joe.
“It’s become a lot more youthful, there are a lot of female whisky clubs, it’s getting more experimental.”
Pour yourself a wee dram – and watch this space.
Go to boisdale.co.uk for more information.