From the editors

Whisky should be accessible for everyone

  • The spinning speakers gave the impression of a frenzied air raid. The noise – I can only describe it as ‘noise’ – bounced off the red brick walls and dusty chalkboard as we looked on, dumbfounded. ‘What does it mean though?’ my friend asked, equally confused by the eerie starkness of the classroom. We crossed the corridor and ventured into another room. Plastic chairs lined one wall facing a giant projection of a film showing an animated interview of a designer discussing the merits of Minecraft, of all things. Was this really a nightclub, or had we blindly wandered into a Dutch post-modernist Bauhaus revival?

    De School has a reputation as the trendiest nightclub in Amsterdam. Situated in a former school in the west of the city, it’s become a destination for locals and tourists looking to dance into the early hours. But what’s kept behind the school gates is a secret – strictly no cameras are allowed (so sorry folks, no photos of the spinning speakers).

    We’d strolled down from the more touristy Leidseplein with its piles of Old Amsterdam cheese and overpriced beer, via a vibrant street party in Jordaan blaring a classic combination of traditional Dutch folk songs and techno. A short queue was beginning to form in the playground as we arrived at our designated venue.

    De School: The Amsterdam institution is an arts venue, restaurant and nightclub

    ‘Hey guys, welcome to De School,’ the doorman said to the three English guys ahead of us, eyeing them closely. ‘Do you know who’s playing here tonight?’

    The English guys shook their heads, IDs in hand, faces beaming with anticipation. ‘Not really, we just know this is the best club in town!’

    ‘Oh, well, I’m sorry gentlemen. If you can’t be bothered to find out what we’re playing, then we can’t be bothered to let you in.’ Say what? ‘Thank you very much gentlemen, goodnight. Please leave.’

    It wasn’t just their faces painted with shock. The entire queue fell silent at such an absurd reason for refusing entry. Was he serious?

    ‘But we’ve just walked all the way across Amsterdam to get here!’ they cried, their frustrations falling on the young Dutchman’s shrugging, ambivalent shoulders. Hospitality obviously wasn’t ‘hip’ in this über-cool establishment.

    We stepped forward; it was our turn to be judged. Would we be deemed cool enough to get in? Considering the pejorative attitude, did we even want to? Drawing on our experience of the Jordaan street party, we guessed the club would be playing techno (what else, Amsterdam?). The doorman sighed and almost reluctantly stepped aside to let us through, his face showing a look of contemptuous disappointment. How dare we get the answer right.

    We were informed by some of the other patrons lucky enough to make it past the reproachful child on the door that De School takes a similar approach to the famous Berlin nightclub Berghain. Its operators have a strict policy to refuse entry to those they believed wouldn’t enjoy the evening. The club’s house rules state: ‘Our visitors should be aware of De School’s musical identity. People may be denied entry to the club when we think this is not the case.’ Other grounds for being asked to leave include wearing a suit, or a shirt.

    De School claims its strict door policy is designed to give patrons the very best possible experience, although a cynic might say it veers heavily towards discrimination on the basis of someone’s musical and clothing preferences, for the sake of infamy.

    Free for all: Drams of Craigellachie 51 Year Old were given to anybody interested in trying it

    As I stood watching the Bauhaus speakers whizz around it occurred to me that although I wasn’t the biggest fan of techno, although the doorman would have made a snap judgement about my perception of the club if I’d been honest, I was in fact enjoying myself. De School was fascinating in a twisted, surreal kind of way: the music was alright, actually, the local beer pretty good and I discovered Club-Mate. Turning someone away from a new experience just because they’re uninitiated robs them of an opportunity to discover something different, and potentially transform a novice into a life-long devotee.

    Much in the same way, whisky can also sometimes fall into the trap of adopting discriminatory ‘house rules’, whether it’s a brand ambassador directing newcomers away from heavily-peated whiskies and toward the ‘easy-going’ Speysiders, or a bartender suggesting a lady may wish to top her dram up with cola, despite ordering it neat.

    Brand ambassadors and bartenders are the doormen of the whisky world. They shouldn’t be afraid to pour old, rare and unique whiskies for newcomers in the hope of igniting new passions. They should be encouraging novices – young and old, male and female – to sample everything, even the bold, peaty and funky whiskies.

    Over the last year Craigellachie has been hosting free tastings of its new 51-year-old single malt across the world. Tickets have been allocated via ballot, not on the basis of whether a potential guest had tried a whisky of that age before, knew what it tasted like or had done their research into the distillery’s spirit cut points and yeast pitch rate. Craigellachie simply wanted to share its oldest and rarest whisky with everyone in the belief that whisky is in fact for everyone.

    Proof of familiarity or fandom shouldn’t be a prerequisite to experiencing something new, just as a person’s appearance is no indication of their personal taste, be that in music or whisky.

    If the operators of De School had a more open mind perhaps the three English guys wouldn’t have been turned away, and could well have fallen in love with techno, and possibly also Club-Mate. But I guess they’ll never know. 

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