Co-founder Thomas Aske talks flavour profiles, fresh approaches and clear and present pricing
At Black Rock there’s whisky in the cupboards, in the bottles, in postable pouches and even buried in a special glass channel in the enormous oaken table that dominates a raised portion of this recently opened bar.
If there were jars in the place, they too would doubtless be filled with the stuff.
Long in the arriving, thanks to the pandemic, Black Rock has finally opened the doors to a significant chunk of space at Republic in Blackwall as the regeneration of the business estate gathers pace.
Visitors can expect red white and black murals recalling both shogunate Japan and some of the brands of spirit on sale, spare bamboo panels and that blockbuster table, fashioned from the trunk of a tree that was probably 250 years old.
Significantly more expansive than Black Rock’s first site in Christopher Street, it showcases the tipples it sells without deifying them and that’s key for co-founder Thomas Aske.
“When we designed the blueprint for Black Rock, we knew interest in whisky was on the up and up, but we recognised there are a lot of barriers to trying the drink – it can be considered quite elitist and quite exclusive,” he said.
“We wanted to create something that would simplify the category for people and become the gateway to the spirit.
“It’s no longer this male-dominated drink consumed in a gentleman’s club environment with someone sitting in front of a log fire sipping a single malt from a cut crystal glass and smoking a cigar.
“That’s part of the history of it, of course, and the way it’s often been marketed and presented. But we look at whisky in terms of its flavour and its accessibility.
“We recognise there are lots and lots of people out there who want to taste these drinks – but it can be an intimidating category, so where do you start?
“People will say they want to try whisky but if they don’t find one they enjoy that doesn’t mean much.
“What my business partner Tristan Stephenson and I decided to do was flip it on its head and ask what the barriers were to understanding whisky – one is flavour, another is price and the third is presentation.
“First and foremost we want people to come into the bar and have a good time.
“The biggest part of that is the ambience – the lighting, the music and the atmosphere.
“We want to change the way whisky has been viewed for a hundred years. Our design is very minimalist with an almost Japanese feel to it.
“We play hip-hop because that’s what people want to listen to.
“That’s not something that’s been explored previously so it can catch people off guard but you can sit there listening to Jay-Z while sipping on a 20-year-old single malt.
“Secondly we present all of our whiskies batched into six different flavour categories – balance, fragrance, sweet, fruit, spice and smoke.
“When we talk to guests, we ask them what type of food they enjoy – if someone may says they like smoked meats, salamis and smoked cheeses, we’ll guide them to the whiskies in the smoke section, where they’ll find maybe a dozen whiskies in the cabinet featuring that flavour.
“We also ask people if they’ve tried something they like before and we can introduce them to similar whiskies that they might also enjoy.
“I think people genuinely like to discover things rather than be told what to have.
“If you’ve chosen a whisky and you really enjoy it, you become almost an ambassador for that liquid – you’ll recommend it to others.
“It’s also an experience that sticks in the memory – it’s more emotive if it’s something you’ve picked out.
“Thirdly we have price – whiskies come in four categories indicated by beads glued to the neck of each bottle.
“If there’s one, it’s £7 for a 35ml dram, two then it’s £9 and three then it’s £11. If there’s a golden bead the drams start at £12 and the price will be on the bottom of the bottle.
“We do hold a small selection of higher priced whiskies but we want people to know exactly what things cost so they know what they are buying is in the budget they want to spend.
“The idea is you’ll know what the whisky you’re buying roughly tastes like and what you’ll be paying for it.
“We want people to walk away going: ‘Hey, I found that whisky, it was perfect for what I wanted to pay and I’ve had a great time doing it’.”
Thomas and Tristan know what they’re doing.
Both have more than two decades working in the drinks industry, co-creating consultancy business Fluid Movement that ran bars such as Purl and the Whistling Shop and offering advice and services to the hospitality sector.
“Having spent nearly 10 years developing concepts, both for ourselves and for other people, we felt we wanted to focus on one thing in terms of bars and Black Rock was the one that worked best,” said Thomas.
“Our site at Moorgate worked on all fronts – financially, commercially and reputation-wise. We won top awards for it four years running and we really believe it has legs.
“We opened one in Bristol in June 2019 and we had about six months trading before the pandemic hit, which wasn’t the best for us from a cashflow perspective.
“We’d put everything into this so it meant we were in the hands of our landlords and sadly we’ve had to close Bristol.
“But we’ve had incredible support from our landlords at Republic and in Moorgate and we’ve just signed a five-site licence in China for Black Rock, with the first due to open in Shanghai in about six weeks.
“The key to business is persistence – seeing it through whatever happens. We’re incredibly excited to get Republic open. It’s been two years in the making and a lot has changed in the area since we first took the lease on.
“For us that feels quite fortunate – the occupancy of the buildings is a lot higher, which means you’ll get a snowball effect for the businesses trading here as the estate becomes busier and busier.
“You also have an ever-increasing number of residential properties in and around this area and the people living in them want a variety of places to go and enjoy themselves rather than having to travel all the way into central London.
“This whole area, with Canary Wharf as well, is evolving and will become an even greater hive of activity.”
Thomas and his business partner will be busy themselves, having recently won investment for one of their other businesses from three investors on BBC show Dragon’s Den – a tasting subscription service called Whisky Me.
The club sends out monthly dram pouches of spirit to its members packaged to fit through letterboxes.
The idea is subscribers get a regular flow of new drinks to try while the brands get to grace the mouths of a group of engaged consumers who will, presumably, purchase bottles should they enjoy the contents of the recyclable, postable containers.
As for the newly opened bar, it’s not just about whisky. Black Rock also offers wine and beers on tap for those who prefer to sip something different with their hip-hop.
Then there’s the cocktail in the table, dispensed from a little brass tap hidden under its LED-lit lip and currently featuring Johnnie Walker Black.
Food is also in the pipeline – customers can expect slow-roasted pork with an Americana flavour to sit alongside the drinks.
Like the whisky, this is a place to try on for size, then investigate further if the fit is right.