If Black Rock is a church of whisky then the 18-foot, 185-year-old, three-tonne English oak tree at its centre is the alter.
Opened earlier this month, Black Rock is the latest bar from Tom Aske and Tristan Stephenson, the guys behind London's Worship Street Whistling Shop and Surfside in Cornwall. Not that the sunshine makes much of an impression inside the subterranean walls of Black Rock—any gleaming splashes of amber are reserved for the whisky bottles lining the glass cabinets.
The bar glows with a crepuscular ambience but it's the tree, propped up on its side in the centre, that draws your eyes through the dimness. This is not just any old tree. Black Rock's one-of-a-kind centrepiece has two glass-topped rubber sealed channels, containing 17 litres of booze each, carved along its length.
"It's bloody heavy but it's a work of art," Aske says, as he gives me a tour of the tree. It's riddled with stories. A nail, hammered into the tree 100 years ago (marked by the rings) and "probably where a child was trying to climb it" has become consumed by the wood and is now part of the tree. Half way down, a rotten branch has left a wound in the tree's flank, which the carpenter has filled with resin allowing you to look at its fossilised interior. It's a mark of this giant stoic oak falling into old age and then death, before being reborn with whisky.
The tree was sourced from a timber merchant near Manchester who specialises in creating bespoke cheese trolleys for Michelin star restaurants. Aske admits that the idea was a collaborative one.
"We told him about the whisky bar we intended to open and he asked if we'd ever thought of having an oak with two rivers of whisky running down it," he explains. "He had the engineering know-how, covering the functionality and the look, and we had the oak knowledge, what wood to use and how to that would influence the flavour."
One thing is for sure: it's not a gimmick. When the Shoreditch bar's opening was announced earlier this year, the press release extolled Black Rock as the place to "break boundaries and quash stereotypes in the world of whisky." And as much as the tree is a talking point—as are the "roaming" staff and taps piped into each table—that was kind of the idea: to get people talking about whisky.
"Whisky to the consumer can be quite a complex and challenging minefield of a spirit category," Aske says. "It's often misunderstood because it has a stigma of an old man's drink but it's actually one of the most complex diverse flavour categories of any spirit out there—so the tree is an interactive cocktail ageing system and a mechanic to simplify talking about whisky."
Aske lists the country of origin, style of production, terroir, time aged, type of oak aged in, and even what water is being used, as all the variables that come together to create the flavour of each whisky.
Black Rock hopes to demystify this, simply by making punters ask: "Why is there an oak tree here?" This gives Aske and his staff the "in" they need to explain whisky's relationship with oak.
Oak certainly permeates the air at Black Rock. The sweet yet musky scent of a softly burning wood fire has you mentally reaching for the whisky before you've even taken your seat. And when you do, they don't disappoint.
The Cherry River is Black Rock's take on the Cherry Bounce, an 1800s cocktail and one of George Washington's favourite drinks. This particular batch has been in the tree for a week. It's steeped with cherry sweetness and warmed through with caramel notes, the hallmarks of the charred American oak.
"The charred element of the oak caramelises the sugars within the wood and also creates carbon that acts like a filter," Aske explains. "So the American oak extracts certain compounds in the alcohol or distillate, which aren't always considered undesirable but are an acquired taste and also add flavour. In other words, the charred element helps to rounds off the whisky."
The tasting notes for American oak are traditionally vanilla, caramel, honey, and chocolate—essentially dessert notes. The Cherry River, then is a bourbon-based cocktail and the more accessible of the two drinks in the tree.
The Table Whisky, aged in the tree's European oak channel, features Macallan Gold scotch, the Talisker 10 whisky, a secret 34-year-old single malt, Johnnie Walker Black, Black Bottle, and a couple of other house mixes. It's a much more stereotypical whisky: warming, hearty, and strong.
"This our way of showing how blending whisky works," Aske says. "If you look at whisky blends, they're normally 60 percent grain whisky and 40 percent single malt, so the grain whisky which is lighter and delicate is usually used as a canvas."
Overall the Table Whisky has a more direct flavour and when married with the dried fruit notes—dates, figs, prunes—of the European oak, it's a welcome way to enter the world of more complex whiskies.
At the same time, both the Cherry River and the Table Whisky also work as an introduction to the wider whiskies available at Black Rock—all 250 bottles stored in signposted cabinets.
"Say you prefer the Table Whisky, you might then go look into the cabinet marked 'fruit' and find a lot of whiskies that have been finished or aged in European oak. Then you have an understanding of the kinds of flavour you're going to get from it and you've been introduced to a completely new whisky," explains Aske. "So we're starting a dialogue with people about flavour rather than brands or price."
What's more, Aske is not beholden to filling the tree's channels with a specific type of whisky. They can drain them out and put something entirely different in there, opening doors to more whisky styles and, as Aske says "breathing and drawing" on that particular wood to create a lineage of flavours.
As I finish off my whisky, Aske tells me that the Talisker distillery, which features in the bar's Table Whisky mix, opened the same year that the tree was planted—way back in 1830.
It only serves to make the dram taste even sweeter.