The Smallest Whisky Bar on Earth Is as Magical as It Sounds
It may seem arduous to take two trains and a bus from Zurich to St. Maria, an Alpine village in Val Mustair, halfway between St. Moritz and the Italian border, but consider the distances Lord Gunter Sommer travels to keep his Smallest Whisky Bar on Earth and High Glen Distiller stocked with over 300 bottles of whisky.
Airmail requires too much paperwork, so the retired sporting goods importer routinely makes the 24-hour trip in his Skoda station wagon, driving back and forth from Scotland to replenish his inventory. Sommer crosses the English Channel at Calais, then makes the rounds sampling at uncharted distilleries, "without visitor centers or little plastic cups," he says, while stocking up on raw materials for his own experimentation.
Sommer will pack paper bags with peat at Bowmore, where distillery manager Dave Turner is a friend, siphon spring water from an iconic distillery where the night shift has long looked the other way, then pick up his patented casks assembled by Speyside Cooperage's Gary Taylor. After that, it's only a matter of passing muster at customs.
"You can imagine the guards at the border," Sommer tells me over a seven-year-old single malt Bruichladdich, a private double-wood single cask bottling simultaneously aged in sherry and bourbon oak. "It looks like I have 200 kilos of hashish in the car, plus 100 liters of clear liquid in a stainless steel container. They always want to know, 'What's wrong with the water in Switzerland?'"
But it's always been Sommer's preference to innovate where possible. That includes inventing mix-and-match barrels. "Alternating staves is too dangerous as the cask could leak, so we have staves from one cask, and ends and heads from another–port, sherry, bourbon, Amarone wine," he says.
And while the barrels are too small to display in the bar, his other innovations are essential to the the space while hiding in plain sight. Bottles rest on LED spotlights he commissioned in China, which have never been switched off since the bar opened in 2006. Behind the bar, heating pads from Chinese space shuttles maintain the room temperature without overheating the 300 bottles that line the walls of what's essentially the vestibule of a one-story home.
Of course, Sommer isn't always home, so the SWBOE, named after its Guinness Book of World Records title, is open on weekends and by request. The bar can accommodate five guests on stools, thirty standing, or more when on warm summer nights crowds spill onto the cobblestone curb outside.
"I have 90 glasses, and sometimes no glasses, because they're all outside in summertime," he says. "People come in and want a whisky and I'll say go look for somebody with an empty glass and i'll clean it for you. This goes on until 5 o'clock in the morning."
More often however, he receives requests for private tastings from international connoisseurs, celebrities, and royalty. Those experiences may include tastes of Auchentoshan's first 12-year-old whisky, originally produced in 1966 for the cruise ship Queen Elizabeth 2, which was decommissioned in 2008.
"I knew the master distiller, Iain Mccallum, and I told him the deal; I'll buy their inventory but only if I can have every bottle from the ship," he says. "Now I have 167 bottles all of them signed, and today they are $3000 a bottle." Sommer knew the ship was headed to Dubai to reopen as a hotel, and didn't think the liquor would be in demand in a Muslim country. But it wasn't long afterward a powerful Emirati family commissioned High Glen to produce a whisky just for them, using Oloroso sherry staves and Heaven Hill barrel heads etched with a diamond saw to draw the greatest flavor from the wood.
The barrel, much of it lost to angel's share, produced only fourteen half-liter barrels, the last of which are available at the bar, and online as well, at The Smallest Whisky Shop on Earth. Though for the right price he'll go out of his way to get you what you want.
Another private customer, following a night of drinking, left without buying any bottles, then the next day his assistant called requesting one of everything. "They gave me a number that got me to the airport before they could take off."