A Trip Down Saigon’s Whiskey Lane

Owner Phil Maher and the team at Whiskey Lane

Forget smoky whiskey bars full of old men. Whiskey Lane is an intimate, design-conscious, new downtown cocktail and whiskey lounge, with service as impeccable as its signature cocktails.

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt

It’s a shimmering apparition in Ho Chi Minh City’s downtown District 1. As night falls, at the building near the corner where Phan Van Dat meets Mac Thi Buoi Street, the signage lights up the color of copper whisky stills, and chunky letters spell out this new bar’s name: Whiskey Lane. 

Taking a trip down Saigon's Whiskey Lane, at the David Hodgkinson Nood Design envisaged new venue.
Taking a trip down Saigon’s Whiskey Lane.

There are frosted, colored glass panes like Dublin pub windows. And inside, through the imposing wooden door, is a chic, contemporary space, created by David Hodgkinson’s Noor Design, with novel touches like muted mirrored surfaces that cast reflections of the extensive collection of whiskies, and green Connemara marble-style tabletops. 

Macallan M Collection in Ho Chi Minh City at Whiskey Lane cocktail land whiskey lounge.
Bar Manager Nhat with Whiskey Lane’s Macallan M Collection.

Old And New Side By Side

In Saigon, as in most burgeoning Asian cities, old and new sit side by side. The contrast is rarely as stark as at Whiskey Lane. 

Next door, as Whiskey Lane lights up enigmatically, the family-owned home-brewed rum bar sets out plastic stools and tables on the street. There’s mi xao bo-instant noodles with beef, and bottle after bottle of cheap rum, drunk with a swill of coke and a squeeze of kumquat. 

Back at Whiskey Lane, Nhat, formerly of Sorae – who has an encyclopedic knowledge of whiskies, especially ones from Japan (Whiskey Lane has 19 kinds on the menu) – twists a bottle from The Macallan M Collection, one of a range of limited release single malt whiskies worth in the region of $14,000 around in his hands, the angular crystal bottle catching the light as it turns. 

The bar in the center of Whiskey Lane
“Honestly, I wouldn’t have minded having a smoky old place,” Phil Maher laughs, but instead he has talented bartenders like Jimmy [pictured] in this chic, contemporary cocktail and whiskey lounge…and he’s getting used to it.

Making The Right Decision With Whiskey Lane

“Honestly? I would have loved to have an old-man’s whisky and cigar lounge – a smoky old place,” owner, and low-key cocktail and whisky aficionado, Phil Maher laughs. “But I think we made the right decision creating a modern bar, with an equally accessible selection of drinks, besides the large selection of whiskies,” he adds, looking around contentedly.

Phil mostly got that out of his system with his first bar, called Victory Bar, which he opened on Pham Viet Chanh Street in Binh Thanh District. 

There, he got to indulge in his passions for motorbikes, whiskies and classic cocktails. 

Somehow, the team managed to place a 900 Series Ducati – a bike made famous by Paul Smart at the Imola circuit in 1972 – on the back bar. Its sleek, curvaceous lines give guests something to consider while sipping on one of the city’s best Whiskey Sours. 

And the project provided Phil and the team with a test run before heading blinking, emboldened into the bright lights of the big city with Whiskey Lane.

Preparing some ice at Whiskey Lane for their 'On The Rocks' signature cocktails.
The three section cocktail menu includes: Highballs, Straight-Up, And On The Rocks.

The Bright Lights Of The Big City 

A couple of hundred meters away, traffic swirls around the statue of Tran Hung Dao, the central focal point of Me Linh Square. The square fans out like a peacock’s tail, pointing towards the newly completed Hilton Saigon Hotel and the soaring Vietcombank Tower, reminiscent of a Manhattan skyscraper piercing the skyline.

On the other side are the grand dames of Ho Chi Minh City’s hotel scene, The Grand, The Continental, and The Majestic, as well as more recent, regal upstarts like The Reverie. And, crowded around Mac Thi Buoi Street is a host of refined cocktail bars and restaurants. 

“We get a real mix,” Phil nods, “about half are tourists – lots of whom walk past and see the whisky collection in the window – and the other half locals, like the office workers from the Vietcombank Tower looking to decompress after work with a good cocktail.”

Whiskey Lane's signature cocktail, The Forest's Spirit.
Kai serving a signature cocktail from the On The Rocks Menu: Whiskey Lane’s The Forest’s Spirit, with Tanqueray No. 10, vermouth and a housemade green elixir.

Whiskey Lane’s Signatures: Highballs, Straight-Up, And On The Rocks

To help him realize the idea of “a high-end cocktail lounge with a very good whisky selection” he enlisted Pierluigi De Angelis, formerly of Nobu – in fact Pierluigi worked at various Nobu locations in London, as well as at Nobu Warsaw and Ibiza. 

Pierluigi developed the signatures, split, Phil explains, into three sections. “There’s highballs – refreshing, and usually with an enlivening touch of citrus – Ponyo, Sassy Sarsi and our Kelly’s Highball, named in honor of (and almost as effervescent as) our bartender Kelly.” 

Then there’s the ‘straight-up’ section, with our Chihiro, By The Fireplace, and, my favorite, Ashes To Ashes – which Pierluigini created for a competition, inspired by the famous fire of 1885 at the Old Bushmills Distillery. So, you have dark, velvety Bushmills Black Bush, with smoky Mezcal and spice from cinnamon and crème de figue, and some charcoal dusted round the glass, to stick with the theme.” 

“And finally, there’s our ‘on the rocks’ section, the 1800 reposado tequila-based Spicy Ladies, The Forest’s Spirit with Tanqueray No. 10 and a housemade green elixir, and our Dole’s Old Fashioned, that takes the three main ingredient-formula of the cocktail, to include Maker’s Mark, a salted caramel and pineapple sugar, and orange bitters. 

Mirrored surfaces and some fun references like the frosted colored glass windows and green marble tabletops.
No smoke, but there are mirrors are Whiskey Lane, enigmatically reflecting the bar team and the bottles of whiskey on the shelves.

Five-Star Service 

Pierluigi spent five weeks at the bar pre-opening developing those drinks, and training the team in the finer details of five-star service – the kind that Nobu Matsuhisa himself or his business partner Robert De Niro would appreciate.

And since then, Nhat has been helping to uphold the impeccably good service. 

For example, one the team whips your drink off its coaster the second you step away from your chair and return it, almost imperceptibly quickly, the moment you return, or they monologue at length about the finer points of Scotch whiskies and the provenance of New World whiskies, some of which Whiskey Lane have in stock. 

Kelly with her cocktail, Kelly's Highball at Whiskey Lane.
Kelly with the signature cocktail that’s named after her: Kelly’s Highball.

A Bit Of History 

Barring some of the especially hard-to-find single malts, everything is available by bottle or dram. There’s a selection of special releases, like the Mortlach ‘The Katana’s Edge’ and the Lagavulin 12 ‘The Ink Of Legends.’ Then the whisky menu flits around Scotland, by region – Speyside, the Highlands and Lowlands, Islay, the Islands, and Campbelltown. There’s a list of blended Scotch whiskies, and Irish whiskies, and Bourbon, Rye and Tennessee whiskies. And there’s a list of Japanese and Taiwanese whiskies too.”

“And we have some Tasmanian whiskies as well,” Phil interjects, while noticing we were on the topic of New World whiskies. 

“The Lark is a very good one,” he adds pointing to the bottle in the whisky cabinet that divides the main bar area with some private banquettes behind, and which, at least according to the distillery, might be the finest whisky you’ll find in Australia. 

Then there’s the multi-award winning Sullivans Cove, over in the other cabinet behind the door. 

“I’m especially interested in the up-and-coming distilleries, and the more obscure whiskies,” he explains. “But to save one bottle from the collection we have right now?” Phil asks. “It would have to be the 52-year-old 1946 Macallan because, besides its age, it’s a bit of history.” 

Adding to its mystique, the 1946 Macallan was made immediately after the end of the Second World War using peated malt due to the high post-war prices of coal. And it was a year when, Macallan helpfully put things in perspective,  the first official Formula One Grand Prix was held in Turin, Italy, and in the UK, Derby County beat Charlton Athletic in the first FA Cup final since 1939.

Phil Maher and the team at the newly opened Saigon whiskey bar, Whiskey Lane.
Phil Maher and the team at the newly opened Saigon whiskey and cocktail bar, Whiskey Lane.

Kind Of Getting Used To It

“But, given the choice, any evening I’d pull up a stool over there,” he says, pointing to the most reclusive counter seats over in the corner. 

“And I’d be happy to quietly enjoying a dram of Redbreast 12, a rich, and complex Irish whiskey that’s matured in bourbon and sherry casks,” he smiles, ever the low-key cocktail and whisky aficionado, looking forward to disappearing back into his reluctantly chic, contemporary bar, that he’s kind of getting used to.

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