THE BRUCE BAR –
A SPIRITUAL HOME OF WHISKEY
There’s a little lane that’s just a wee dauner from the Kremlin, which might pass off as any other regular Moscow Ulitsa, until that is, you take a close look at the name. Brusov Pereulok seems as Russian as the next Russian street name – but on closer inspection you’ll see there is much more to this name than meets the eye, for it is Scottish. Brusov Pereulok is no less than a Russianized version of ‘The Lane of Bruce’, where Bruce-ov is an old grammatical case meaning ‘of Bruce’. Of course, I now wonder how I managed to miss that for so long. Once you see it as Bruce’s Lane – you can’t unsee it.
The street has become a little treasure trove-ichka of things Scottish. The eponymous, Bruce family were heavy weights and illustrious; their clan chalking up copious accolades over the centuries, starting with James Bruce (1669-1735), a General, Count and general renaissance man at the court of Peter The Great (they even had a shindig to England together). The Bruces that followed did a whole bunch of stuff; Field Marshals, Governors of Moscow and St. Petersburg, there was even one that somehow got the name ‘Pushkin-Bruce.’ You don’t come more Russia-integrated and celebrated than that. So it’s really no surprise that they had a mansion on their own down-town street… a hop, skip and a jump away from the Kremlin and convenient for nipping out to give Peter-The-Great late night ship building tutorials (I made that bit up … but urban myth claims there are tunnels from at least two buildings on this street to the Kremlin). The mansion is still there – the building overlooks Prosti Veshi restaurant – so as you sit on their beautiful terrace, quaffing a good Cabernet Sauvignon, ponder that you are in the presence of an awful lot of history.
On the subject of Quaffing – it should come as no surprise to discover that Bruce Lane – our little Pereulok of Scottishness has its own whisky bar, and to keep things simple, it’s called the Bruce Bar. This is no ordinary place and just might be the world’s best whisky bar. It is intoxicating in more ways than you might expect; it’s a museum, a curiosity shop, a whisky experience, a tasting emporium, a music venue and a cool place to just hang out. I love my after-hour visits to Daniil, whose passion and excitement for all things whisky is larger than life and a joy to behold. Over the years he has taught me so much about whisky and its incredibly rich culture. For example, there is an extensive community of people that collect Whiskies, and others who create special blends and editions, often with exotic and unusual labels. This was first bought to my attention when the Brusov Bar ran a Whisky Festival in St. Andrew’s Church, an Anglican Church with a Scottish name and another resident of the Scottish world along Brusov Lane. This was my whisky epiphany. I had never seen so many different Whiskies and collectors in one place, each displaying, sharing and offering tastings of their unique ‘spiritus frumenti.’ Each whisky is like a family member, literally the product of love and passion, and each with its own special story. Experts swooned around whisky collections that are rarely seen and exchanged notes, while collectors swapped and bartered. I had never seen whisky in this light before, hitherto I had been wholly unaware of just how rich and deep the whisky world is. What we see in shops and airport duty free is just the tip of a mighty whisky iceberg, the slick and commercialised wing of the vast whisky empire!
I have had further insight into ‘bespoke blends’ inside the Bruce Bar itself. For they also create blends of their own and one of the interesting residents of the bar is a working copper still, with its gloriously russet sheen. Daniil and his clan get creative and experimental, concocting genius libations of a whisky nature. The inside of the bar doubles as a miniature distillery where they make and blend whisky, and Danill says this is an integral part of the whisky experience he wants to share with people. I love the fact that in the same space whisky is both created and consumed – it gives the Bruce Bar a very unique ‘whisky-kitchen’ feel and means the place is packed with unusual artefacts to look at. Over the years the Bruce Bar clan have made special blends, in small batches, for different people as well as for their own tastings.
This even includes a special blend for St. Andrew’s Church. During lockdown, with no one able to visit the bar, they became busy distilling, finishing and blending whiskies. I tried the product of a recent experiment; a high alcoholic content rum (specially for mixing beech cocktails where, due to the heat, the alcohol evaporates) which they mellowed, then aged in sherry casks. This ended up tasting like an incredible whisky – it was sheer genius and the drink was quite out of this world – but no one would ever have guessed it started life as a rum! This is typical of the experiments the Bruce Bar carry out, though Daniil modestly confesses that they are not always successful. But as they say in Russia ‘ Кто не рискует, тот не пьёт шампанское’ (whoever does not risk, does not drink Champaign). In true highland spirit the Bruce Bar has taken this to heart, and have quite literally adapted that Russian proverb too: ‘whoever does not risk, does not drink whisky’!
It doesn’t stop there. As I said this is no ordinary bar, but rather a whisky ‘destination’, which Daniil describes as a ‘gathering place’ for people with a common love of good ‘spirit’, in the sense of both soul and whisky. They have regular whisky tasting, whisky and cigar evenings in the back garden of St. Andrew’s Church across the road (which is basically the defacto terrace of the Bruce Bar, there being a ‘special understanding’ between church and Bruce Bar). If at some point you are lucky enough to get Daniil on his own talking and tasting whisky you are in for a treat. Fortunately for me (I help manage the ‘garden understanding’ on behalf of the church), Daniil and I have frequent late night discussions. Sometimes it’s not clear if we are sorting out the garden or introducing me to another whisky, and thus Daniil has helped me discover my favourite tipple, from among hundreds that line the shelves and cupboards in this magical repository of whisky. And… my tip-top tipple of choice is Cardhu, which was the first distillery bought by Johnny Walker over a century ago.
And yet there is more to discover… the music often comes with a fiddle and a gallic charm, the kitchen does one of Moscow’s finest burgers, there’s likely to be something in a few casks ageing quietly to one side and there’s bound to be some creative whisky cocktail on offer. The era of Covid presents new challenges. Daniil states that there are many people who are ready to visit the bar and those who are still afraid to venture out, and it is the task of the Bruce Bar to somehow connect the two. So they have tastings that now combine off and on-line participants. It certainly would be plain foolish to be in Moscow and not step foot inside the Bruce Bar for a wee dram of the golden nectar and soak up the experience, as well as sample how these guys vigorously breath ‘life’ into the Water Of Life, or, as they say in Gallic ‘Uisge Beatha.’