Exclusive Interview: Planet Whiskies talks to Paul McDonagh owner of Bon Accord: Glasgow Whisky Bar
Published Date: 16th February 2019
It’s a pub that I have been into many times in the past, even before my passion for whisky took over. So, when I got the opportunity to meet the owner of “Bon Accord”, Paul McDonagh, I jumped at the chance. The interview took place at the start of February 2019 and walking into the Bon Accord pub it felt like I was home. It had been many weeks since my last visit to one of the best whisky bars in Glasgow (Charing Cross), and as I approached Paul, I knew this was going to be a very informative and interesting meeting.
As we sat down on the Chesterfield armchairs at the back of the bar and started talking to each other, I sensed that Paul was a man who took great pride in everything that he has done in life and not just the aspects of running the Bon Accord.
Starting the questions, I asked Paul how long he has had been running the Bon Accord, and he stated that he bought the pub in 2001 some 20 years after the bar was established in 1971. It was a cask ale bar at the beginning with a selection of ales that could only be bought on the premises, and the most significant spirit sold was Gordon's Gin in the traditional G& T, which even outsold the more traditional spirit of vodka at the time. You have to remember this was in 2001 before the gin boom started.
Most of Paul's working life has been involved in the pub trade and before he bought Bon Accord, had been manager of a few bars, so with all the experience he gained from ‘running’ the previous bars, he could now focus on a bar that was his.
His passion for whisky has there from the early days of running the business, as was his passion for cask ales. He carried on choosing unique cask ales as his customers expected this and bought in many ales that had never been seen before like Brew Dog, Kelburne, Fine Ales and Tryst to fill the ten cask ale pumps he has available behind the bar. He also carried on with all the other spirits including rum and gin, but then he turned his focus onto whisky.
The bar when he took over only had a couple of the regular mainstream blended whiskies that all bars up and down the country would have had present. Paul’s plan was to make room for 30 bottles of whisky from a wide range of distilleries throughout Scotland all in the range of 10 and 12 years old and see how they went. It was a significant outlay for the bar as you have stock on the shelf that you don’t know if and when they will sell. Every penny at the start was a prisoner as all new ventures have to be, but Paul thought it was worth the risk and over the next few years as and when whisky bottles finished he would replace them with higher aged ones. He also started stocking whisky from distilleries that were less known to ‘general punters’ and was amazed by how well all these ‘different’ whiskies sold.
It was a massive turning point with the Bon Accord when Paul decided that he must up his game when buying quality long aged whiskies. So back in 2008, when he had well over 250 whiskies already in stock, he felt it was time to spend over £1000 on a single bottle. After a few sleepless nights, he chooses the bottle, and it was a Bowmore Black at a cost of £3,500. It was over £150 for a nip (35ml). You have to remember this was in 2008 and how much the Bowmore Black has increased in value since then. Buying this bottle was one of his proudest moments throughout the years of owning the Bon Accord, and you can still see the excitement he has for this bottle when even thinking about it.
Over the years Paul has built up his ‘whisky collection’ behind the bar to an amazing 450-500 bottles, but to my surprise, he also has another 70 bottles waiting for room on the shelf at the bar. He keeps track of all the whisky news out there and the number of times he has heard a certain whisky has won an award, which he has down in his ‘cellar’ already makes him so pleased about his judgement when buying the stock. He then has to put the award-winning malt behind his bar as it would be expected that his whisky bar would have this to the ready for his clientele. The Bon Accord’s most expensive whisky is a 70-year-old Glenlivet and to buy a dram of this you are looking at spending £900 (35ml). It was also interesting to hear that the most popular whiskies sold in the bar are ones for sherry cask, but as he stated everything sells, but just some whiskies sell faster than others. Asking Paul what his favourite dram was, his answer, after a long delay, was Macallan Sherry Cask, as he loves so many drams and did find it hard choose just the one.
During the interview, it became clear that Paul has so many whisky stories from all around Scotland and the world that you could see in his eyes his passion for whisky was second to none. Over the years his whisky travels have taken him around the world, but some of his best stories have to be the ones within Scotland, and his favourite whisky heaven is Islay. Anyone that has been to Islay will know what he is talking about. It has everything for a whisky enthusiastic, and with the number of distilleries still growing on this Scottish Island, you can’t see that changing. One of his best experiences was going to Islay as a ‘punter’ without anyone knowing he was a leading whisky bar owner. He just thought it was a fantastic experience and was on the island for four days. His daily schedule was a drive, yes a drive, to a couple of distilleries each day and take part in their tours. It was there that something happened at Ardbeg distillery. You have to set the scene, there were about 12 people on the distillery tour from around the world, and Paul was the only Scottish person taking the tour. So as with all tours, the tour guide will ask everyone where they are visiting from. Paul said Glasgow of course. So when it came to the tasting at the end of the tour, as this can be a highlight for most people, the tour guide was giving everyone a dram and Paul said no. She played this up saying everyone else took a dram, but the Scottish man said no. It was just the overall experience of Islay that Paul loved, and as I have been there for few times myself, I know exactly how he felt. All through the interview, Paul told stories like this about his passion for the whisky industry, showing the true passion he had regarding this industry.
So back to the Bon Accord and today, Paul has a thriving business with a total of 20 staff working their shifts in the pub from serving at the bar to working in the kitchen. The bar is twinned with three other bars outwith the Glasgow area. The first one is Ballygrant Inn on Islay and second is Mulligans in Dublin. The latest Bon Accord is twinned with is the Caledonian Bar in Toronto. On the premises, three whisky clubs meet regularly at Bon Accord including the Glasgow Whisky Club who meet up on the last Tuesday of the month. The Glasgow Whisky club started there in 2007 when they first met for a Burns dinner, the average attendance is 30. Since the early days of the Glasgow, Whisky Club membership has developed, and their duties have changed with most of them being involved in Glasgow’s top whisky festival - The Glasgow Whisky Festival. This whisky event is held every year around November time and has been running for the last few years at one of Scotland greatest sports venues – Hampden Park. One of the directors of this event is Paul and he is proud of how this whisky event has developed over the years. The other two clubs that meet up within the bar are the Scotch Whisky Auctions and Velanch Whisky Club (not sure spelling is correct). There are also three other whiskies clubs that meet monthly in the bar and are run by Bon Accord themselves. All the members of the three clubs have to be invited. The night starts with a two-course meal and then you are straight into having six drams of various ages and a speaker telling you all about them. The whole point of these meetings is to bring different whiskies and whisky people to Bon Accord and give the members of the club the chance of tasting malts they would not usually be able to try. All this for a great price of only £25.
Recently, two more significant developments have happened. Paul launched his Bon Accord Whisky app last November where you can view all the whiskies that the bar has in stock, their all-important price and read tasting notes for each whisky. Demand for this app has been fantastic in the first three months and is a must. It can be download for free from the apple and android stores. Within the app, there is a section where you can add to favourites. This means you can view at home with your friends and plan a whisky tasting night at Bon Accord without even being in the pub. You can go down the list of whiskies and add the one to a ‘Wish List’. So, all you have to do is come into the pub and show the bar staff your iPhone and the whiskies you have chosen, and these will 'found' for you. It saves all the hassle of not knowing what to have and also set up a general plan for your tasting a few days beforehand. Depending when you do choose your drams there is a small chance someone could finish off the bottle before you hand over your list. It just as well there are another 450 malts to choose from if on the off chance this happens.
Bon Accord also has a whisky store on their premises and online at www.bonaccordwhiskyshop.com/
The second development was Paul introducing the Bon Accord Famous Keys Club. This club is for people who have a special bottle that could be at home which they would like to leave in the Bon Accord and only have on special occasions. The whisky bottle has to be unique and can’t be a run of the mill type of bottle. It has to be valuable to the person and in price. So, to join this Keys Club, it comes at a cost of £50 and is by invitation only.
When you become a member, you will be treated like royalty and the bottle, top of the range whisky glasses and jug will be bought out to your table, and then your party will be able to enjoy your particular dram. It is an exceptional service that has been introduced and one that is growing with major distilleries and companies storing bottles in the bar for individual representatives from all around the world, so when they are in Glasgow, they know their people can visit the Bon Accord and be treated to a particular dram of the distillery chosen. If you would like to inquire about becoming a member of the Bon Accord Keys Club, please ask about this when visiting the bar.
Lastly, Planet Whiskies would like to say thanks to everyone at Bon Accord for their time and hospitality and especially Paul McDonagh who gave up 2 hours of his busy day to meet with me. It was an absolute pleasure meeting the owner of Bon Accord and listening to all his stories, whisky adventures and the way he built up his business over the years with whisky and cask ales. To say when I left the bar, I had gained knowledge of the whisky industry is an understatement. This is why I am in this industry, and every day is a school day when you hear about adventures like the ones Paul told to me during our interview.
Next time you’re in Glasgow, a visit to Bon Accord at Charing Cross is a must for all whisky drinker to see the full selection they have to offer and to try a new whisky from a distillery you have never heard off. But remember to download their whisky app first.