We caught up with Steve Cooney from Edinburgh’s boutique hotel, Tigerlily.
Hey Steve, let’s talk whisky.
So, when and where did you first discover whisky?
My father was a whisky drinker, so I always remember seeing bottles of Glenfiddich and Johnnie Walker around the house. However, it wasn’t really until I started bartending that I got into whisky, initially Bourbon and American whiskey. But my love and passion for Scotch really took off when I was hosting whisky classes on a cruise ship in Australia.
What is your favourite Scotch whisky?
What I love about Scotch is the huge variety of flavour. So as such, I don’t have one favourite dram. What I’m drinking really depends on my mood and situation. There are distilleries that I really love, such as Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Caol Ila, Bowmore, Glendronach, and Mortlach. I’m also a big fan of Douglas Laing and always look out for their special releases as they are usually pretty amazing. One dram that really does stand out for me was Gordon & MacPhail’s Generations Mortlach 75 Year Old, a whisky so amazing I didn’t want to finish it so I kept a little keepsake aside for a special day!
What’s your favourite Scotch whisky cocktail to drink?
I love cocktails that really bring the whisky to life and showcase the flavours. My current favourite is Pete’s Word, a variation of a Last Word from Death & Co in NYC.
How do you make it?
Pete’s Word is made with equal parts Ardbeg 10, Maraschino liqueur, Green Chartreuse and fresh lime juice.
Has the perception of whisky shifted at all since you’ve been in the bartending business?
The perception of whisky has changed completely since I began working in bars. The whole industry has exploded globally, whisky has always been behind the bar, but it’s different now. Whisky is no longer just a drink for old men with their half pint, we have seen whisky become a real focal point in bars. If you look back to the 90’s, city centres were full of vodka bars, now we there’s a real change. There are so many amazing whisky-focused bars opening not only here in Edinburgh, but worldwide. Whisky really has become a global spirit.
I’ve also found that the consumer now wants to be educated, not just be given a dram and positions such as my role as a whisky ambassador have been created as a result of this. My job is to help improve bartenders’ whisky knowledge, so that they have the confidence to impart their knowledge onto the consumer. In short, the whisky industry is a buzzing global industry, almost unrecognisable from when I started working in bars in the late 90’s.
Have you noticed more people ordering Scotch or whisky cocktails?
The whole whisky industry is currently booming worldwide, it’s everywhere your look, from the movies to social media, and as a result of this, more and more people want Scotch. This has actually resulted in distilleries running out of aged stock. Working in a cocktail bar that isn’t just whisky focused, I find people of all ages and both sexes are drinking whisky. Many come to cocktail bars to try Scotch in different way, as they can have a simple dram at home whenever they want. The diversity of whisky makes it the perfect spirit for bartenders, as it not only allows for innovative drinks, but also lends itself to many classic cocktails.
Have you been to any whisky distilleries in Scotland?
I’ve been very lucky throughout my career and have been invited to a number of distilleries. My highlight would have to be my time spent on Islay, it really is a stunning and special place. One trip that really stands out for me was when I flew over to Ardbeg Distillery by helicopter, the views were amazing. It really is the only way to travel to Islay!
Any distilleries on your wish list?
There are many distilleries I want to visit in Scotland, including Springbank, Scapa, Mortlach, Royal Lochnagar, along with new distilleries such as Ballindalloch, Daftmill and Kingsbarns to name a few. I also wish to visit some distilleries further afield, such as Kavalan Distillery in Taiwan, Mackmyra in Sweden and Yoichi, Yamazaki and Miyagokyo in Japan. I just want to visit as many distilleries as I can.
Where’s your favourite place in Scotland?
This is a tough question for me! I love Glasgow and Edinburgh in equal measures, but for different reasons. However, Dundee will always be home for me. I also love visiting the Highlands and Islands. There are so many great places, with so many great memories for me to pick just one.
What do you love most about Scotland?
The people are crazy, the whisky phenomenal. The scenery is stunning and the history and stories make Scotland such a great country to live in.
Any hints or tips for those coming over to explore Scotland’s whisky?
Visit as many distilleries as possible, from small to large. You have to go to Islay, it is such a magical island. Talk to the people who work in the distilleries, guys like Mickey Heads at Ardbeg and Iain “Pinkie” MacArthur at Lagavulin. These guys are the life and soul of the whisky industry and their stories will make you never want to leave. Also, you can’t come to Scotland without visiting some of our fantastic bars and restaurants, there are an abundance to chose from.
Steve Cooney from Tigerlily, Edinburgh