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Focus on-trade:The Analyst

Published:  18 January, 2007

Fed up with stray tartan and bagpipes hanging off the walls of themed Scottish places, City boy Neil Barnes has created a modern Scottish bar in Trafalgar Square. Some might wonder why this entrepreneur with no experience of catering should do such a thing when the country can't even put together a decent football team, but Albannach is a fair attempt.

The building used to house an Angus Steak House, so anything would be an improvement; and thanks to 2.5 million, much of it courtesy of the Bank of Scotland and Scottish Courage, Albannach is providing competition to next-door Rockwell at the very least. Wooden stag chandeliers, glass and steel shelves lined with whisky, and long wooden blinds make for a modern take on Scottishness. The money will take a while to pay back, but Barnes is well on the way, thanks to a loyal after-work crowd.

Though there's a restaurant that has been given okay-ish reviews from Giles Coren and Jan Moir, it's tucked up on a mezzanine level, so the bar is the main thing, and the extensive cocktail list has been completely overhauled since the place opened in January. Initially, Tony Conigliaro created a list that was too vodka-heavy and with only a token use of whisky in his cocktails. Conigliaro had done great things at Roka, Zuma and Isola, but he seemed to find it harder to create a cocktail list here.

So, almost from out of nowhere, and at considerably less cost, head barman Jamie Forbes devised a cracking list with more malts. Monkey Shoulder Triple Malt whisky is blended with lemon rind, orange flesh and grapefruit juice (Malted St Clements). The drink is poured into a martini glass, on the pomegranate-based liqueur grenadine. This is clever; Forbes has picked out the citrus flavours inherent in the whisky and exploited it in the cocktail - it's what mixing should be about, but a 9 price tag also comes with the drink. Cocktails here are made with named premium spirits as opposed to a usual stock pouring brand. This isn't a huge jump from cocktail prices in central London, but it's a large step nonetheless.

There are more unequivocally positive things about this list, though. It's the right size, with 22 drinks; has simple, easily understandable headings - short', long', blazers'; and it seems fairly well targeted at its market. The groups of business people that make up its standard week-day clientele will more than likely try the range of martinis on offer - or a Champagne cocktail. Forbes has commendably accepted that vodka is so popular that it has to play a part in any list, however tedious some barmen may find it. And there is, after all, a fine Scottish tradition of drinking the stuff.

On the minus side, there's an annoying subtrend of Hispanic cocktails that adds a touch of naffness, such as Gran Centenario Reposado Tequila shaken with apple juice, elderflower and mint leaves, which comes out of Forbes's liking for premium Tequilas. Of only six martinis, one is made with vermouth. You can't really call them martinis, then The lack of Singapore sling or mai tai-type drinks is not a problem - this is a Scottish themed bar, after all, and you can't do everything. But a little tweaking and two or three cheaper drinks would improve matters.

As to the inevitably vast selection of whiskies, there's a slightly box-ticking nature to those on offer. It's a good list, but something shorter and more personal might have worked better. Thankfully, all those great-value middle-aged buys, such as Lagavulin 16 Year Old (8 a glass) and Springbank 15 Year Old (8.50 a glass) are present, but there are few really unusual malts to denote private-cellar delving. Another failing is not providing a separate Speyside' heading, instead throwing them into a catch-all Highland malts' section, which will confuse people.

For Albannach to be taken seriously, the wines have to be good, too. Barnes took a risk by employing Sam Caporn to devise the list. She recently passed the MW exams, but it's a first bar or restaurant consultancy for the former Wine International tastings coordinator. Caporn has at least managed the crucial task of giving people what they want, while making sure they are good examples of what they like: Pinot Grigio, a 2004 from Lageder in Alto Adige (28/9.50 a glass), is an example of this. By contrast, the complete absence of Bordeaux and only one Burgundy in the bar will annoy some, but it marks the place out as different to so many fusty London wine bars. And cheap versions of these classic regions are rarely any good. More expensive claret, though, is lacking from the restaurant list. This is a mistake, because central London is not short of people wanting to splash out on top chteaux.

In any bar there's one weak area, and at Albannach it's the beer. The usual Guinness and Kronenbourg are stocked, and there's one Scottish ale: the excellent Deuchars IPA. But when there is such a growing array of small Scottish brewers such as Black Isle Brewery or the Heather Ale company, it seems a wasted opportunity not to list more. Barnes wants to move people on to wine and spirits, but serving decent ale wouldn't necessarily turn the place into a Glasgow boozer.

It's indicative of the approach at Albannach, however. There's a fear of being seen as anything other than a slick style bar. It's worth trying the lovely whisky cocktails on offer - just ignore the staff with walkie-talkies and the suits scattered among the settees.

Albannach Bar Restaurant, 66 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DS. Tel: 020 7930 0066.