26 June 2012

Markus Blattner: Zurich's Own Whisky Master

The Widder Bar in Zurich is a world class bar and would be remarkable in any of the more cosmopolitan cities on the globe. In the utterly charming, (if small and not quite totally cocktail savvy), city of Zurich, Switzerland, it is a revelation. Boasting over 1000 bottles of fine spirits and a dizzyingly long and comprehensive cocktail list, this old school bar has hosted some of the finest jazz musicians in Europe. But there’s more. Markus Blattner, the bar manager for over 12 years has a passion for and knowledge of whiskies that is truly remarkable. There are over 250 bottles of rare single malts lining the library-like shelves of the back bar. And he knows about each one. A lot about each one, in fact, since most of them he has researched and bought at auction himself. Here Markus shares a bit about his passion for whisky, bartending, and some excellent advice for new bartenders starting out in the careers.

How long have you worked at your bar?

Close to 14 years now. I started my career as a “commis de bar” and waiter at the Widder Bar in 1996. Then from 1998 till 2000 I worked on cruise liners as bartender/bar manager. Mostly on expedition liners from the Arctic to Antarctica. Late 2000 I got the job offer as “chef de bar” or bar manager at the Widder Bar. I’ve been here ever since.

How do you go about finding all your rare whiskies?

Like a hunter. Mostly while travelling and of course through the internet and industry publications such as whisky mag, mixology mag, class mag….and by talking to my dear customers.

What was the first drink/spirit you ever tasted and what was your reaction?

I can’t hardly remember. Probably the hidden sips of my father’s brandy and coke when he wasn’t looking. But it was really more about the Coke which was always a treat since we only had it once or twice a week! I soon then discovered beer which was obviously a drink which didn’t harm you too much and widely accepted even in younger years.

What is the first cocktail you ever made?

You really don’t want to know. But it was definitely with some Dutch sweet coloured liqueur.  

What was the first drink/spirit you really fell in love with and why?

Whisky and Rum. Balvenie 12 year old Double Wood opened my heart for whiskies. The smooth delicate slightly honeyish and sweet character impressed me and still does. Even after having tasted probably more than a thousand whiskies still always a great dram. Rum at the beginning of my career but rather as mixer but after a hardcore period of Rum and Coke I neglected this spirit for a while.

What is a whisky that you have discovered recently that people might not know about?

The Nikka 70th anniversary selection, a limited collection of a Yoichi 12years, a Miyagikyo 12years, a Coffey still grain whisky 12years and a 12 year old blended whisky of the three. All of them at cask strength 58%. A superb quartet and a very interesting ideology. Further and the longer the more old blended Scotch whiskies preferably from the 50th, 60th, as an White Heather 5years from the 60th (can’t get any better!!!). An unfortunately or luckily unknown and in the whisky branch never mentioned Italian independent bottling company –
Samaroli./Moon. Their bottlings till 2000 were and still are, outstanding.

Do you see the bar scene in Switzerland changing in the next couple of years?

I hope so! There are a few geeks. The Swiss bar scene suffers a little bit from lack of attention since there are not too many attractions as in other major cities. Having the choice between London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna ….understandable. Nevertheless Zurich and Switzerland in general is a great place to live and spend a few days on your way to….!

If you were to have a conversation with a particular whisky (and presuming it could talk back and tell you its past) what would it be?

I would be probably more interested about its future. Being kept away for decades and just letting the angels share your soul is quite lofty, but maybe kept away after that for another decade in a collector’s cupboard doesn’t sound really exciting. Not letting people taste your body and soul and not to be able to reveal your innermost being seems extremely sad.

If you could pass just one thing on to a young bartender what would it be?

“Carpe Diem”, life is not always about being a mixologist. And not everybody is supposed to be a bartender. It’s far more important that you find what you really love to do. And then it doesn’t matter where and what you are. As a mentor I always try to push my young employees to question themselves. Until they are thirty the world is open and they should try as much as possible to find what they were looking for before deciding.

Do you have any crazy stories from whisky auctions you care to share?

There are not too many stories on auctions since I always bid on the internet. But buying a totally unknown old bottle of anything for nothing is thrilling. You never know what you get. But it is by far one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done and will ever do.

What’s the best whisky to have with fondue?

Presumably a Laphroaig 10years old, a Bruichladdich X4 Quadruple (new spirit) or and probably even better a new spirit of any whisky.

You can find Markus behind the bar most nights at The Widder. Do yourself a favour and if you decide to have a whiskey, ask for a recommendation. This fellow knows what he is talking about.

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