As a continuing service to the loyal readers of Our Man on the Ground Travel & Lifestyle Magazine I persist in discovering those interesting places you might not have heard of. On this trip I touch down in that playground of the rich in St. Moritz and check out the world’s largest selection of whisky available for sale. It really is a tough job, but I had to do it.
When I first read about Waldhaus am See and its whisky bar, The Devil’s Place, I knew I had to visit and as part of my dedication to the readers of this magazine. I was perplexed though, as I have been a frequent visitor to the region and nobody has mentioned it to me before, maybe that was a good thing, they knew me too well. Time to investigate.
The Waldhaus am See hotel is one of those perfectly run family Swiss houses, nothing too flash just good old honest service with a smile. And then there’s the restaurant serving all that is good about Switzerland. The Bernasconi family, initially the father and now son have furnished the large room with killer views and a few old retainers running the place perfectly. There’s lots of room between tables, a stellar wine list (over a 1,000 bottles) and great food with a few surprises as I was to find out on my second visit.
Then there’s the bar… A room designed to bring whisky lovers to their knees and that’s not the half of it. Sandro Bernasconi is a quiet man, he says little but knows a lot, you know the kind. His father started collecting whisky and bourbons years ago and it turned into an obsession. So much so that he spends all his time seeking out the unusual and the rare across the globe. Sandro runs the hotel but has been schooled well by his father and is now an oracle of the amber fluid in his own right.
On my first visit to this 3-star hotel (yes only three stars but it is THE best 3-star hotel in Switzerland) I had what was a very pleasant meal (the meat had a whisky sauce, it seemed the least I could do) and met Sandro for a chat with the hope he’d open a few of the famed 2,500 bottles they have on the premises. Yes, you read that right, 2,500 bottles of whisky and bourbon (although the latter is a collection of a mere 100 or so, some 95 more than I have in stock at home). The Guinness Book of Records has officially recorded them for the last 20 years as having the most whiskies in the world in a bar for sale. There is a tasting room with a menu so thick it would make the sommelier of the Savoy weep and then there’s the shop downstairs and the storeroom all packed to the ceiling with bottles of the good stuff.
I sat dizzy with expectation. I’ve never been to a bar that literally has everything on offer that I’ve ever heard of, let alone tasted. They even have their own brand, Signatary as well as one-offs (think bottles of Playboy Whisky etc.) and some pretty expensive options too (the most expensive sits at around CHF 70,000).
Edradour, a 10-year-old sherry cask 46% alcohol kicked off the proceedings. Good, rounded but I knew there was better to come. A few more passed my lips and then things got really interesting. A Signatory Ledaig again a 10-year-old but this time from a port cask and quite a bit punchier at 59.3%. This was fabulously peaty with deep undertones of beach party smoke. Virtually no burn and my what a long finish. This little beauty will cost you a sizable CHF 130 for a bottle.
Sandro was taken onto his father’s knee so to speak at the tender age of 19 and has been buying ever since. His knowledge is impressively deep as it is broad. His first serious purchase was a case of Macallan priced at the not unserious CHF 120 a bottle. That little investment some 20 years ago has proved he has the chops for the job, it’s now worth CHF 2,500 a pop, the boy done well.
Price does not necessarily determine superiority though, as I found with a Balvenie, 14-years-old hand-crafted peat rich. At 48.3% it wasn’t the strongest either but my goodness it blew my mind. Butterscotch and honey with sweet peat and vanilla smoke to finish. This I could literally drink all evening, so smooth with no burn to speak of it was such a pleasure (and privilege) to taste it in such knowledgeable company.
As the evening wore on it became apparent that I’d missed a trick earlier. Hidden in the depths of the Waldhaus am See dinner menu was a Whisky flight to accompany a set menu. I immediately booked my table for the next evening.
I wasn’t disappointed, a beef broth came with a stout Macallan from a sherry cask with umami notes that sat very well with the clear broth. The surf and turf course was skillfully met with Bowmore 10-year-old sherry and bourbon casks, smokey with mid-range peat, made it taste a little like bonfire food. And so it went on. I can’t recommend this combination enough; head barman Giani who talked me through his selections curated all the choices after careful tasting (I bet he did)! Great fun and an education to boot. Who needs winter sports when there’s this on the lakeside? Actually, if you visit in winter you can combine the two, they hold annual cricket and polo matches on the frozen ice so settle in and order a bottle of something that takes your fancy; they are bound to have it.
My visit coincided with the St. Moritz Tavolata, a kind of open picnic for the town that lasts a few days and is now drawing in the crowds. I was able to consume some of the best foods available in Switzerland, learn how to make sausages with Patrick Marxer and taste the most sublime truffle pizza ever created thanks to the owner of the Che Cha Club, the St. Moritz stalwart and all round bon vivant Reto Mathis. Large benches are placed along the streets and stalls set up their wares. It’s basically luxury on tap all day long, but hey, that’s Switzerland isn’t it.
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Neil Hennessy-Vass is Contributing Editor for Our Man On The Ground as well as a widely-published globetrotting food and award-winning travel writer and photographer.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass