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Jackson Biko’s Top Six Whisky Bars

written by Jackson Biko 23rd November 2016

Drinking whisky isn’t about getting toasted, or staggering, or showing off or being an ass. Drinking whisky teaches you things. It teaches you camaraderie, humility, responsibility, moderation and that if a man says he’s had enough, then you shouldn’t pour him any more.

I started drinking at the age of 30,  nine years ago. I never drank a drop of alcohol in University so I have no young tales of stupor to tell. Unbeknownst to me then, my sobriety was the universe saving my whisky virginity for the drink that deserved me. Because I deserve the best. Why the hell shouldn’t I? Ain’t I a child of the Lord, made in his own image and likeness?

Whiskey drinks on bar counter with blur bottles on background

At the beginning I drank cheap brandy, I then moved to red wine (oh the headaches!), and finally  discovered whisky at 33-years. I have never drank beer. I don’t drink vodka, gin or anything clear. I can humour a good cognac because I love how a brandy glass fits in my palms, it’s something seductive. A brandy glass feels like the small of a woman’s back feels when you lead her through a doorway. Plus, cognac smells like adventure, of open savanna land and binoculars on your face. But I stuck to whisky because it spoke to who I am. Now I drink nothing but. The most important thing to know about drinking whisky or any other alcohol? When to walk away. If you don’t know when to walk away from your drink then you are miles from admission in the great hall of noble drinkers.  

Here are the places you are likely to find me with my double single malt and one icecube. Always one ice cube, never two.

Explorer Tavern Lounge

What I’m drinking – Singleton of Dufftown.

Someone once said that each person in a bar has the opportunity to contribute to the character of said bar: whether they’re behind or in front of it. The bars that encourage this, tend to last. Explorer Tavern has lasted this long simply because of the character they’ve been able to grow. There is nothing overtly grand about Explorer other than the fact that it’s a place where I feel like I belong. I belong to the people who frequent the bar. I belong to the music that they play, from a time when we were breaking our voices and virginities. This is my regular local where I drink my regular drink which they keep a bottle of locked in a drawer. The clincher? Explorer is not run by businessmen, it’s run by whisky enthusiasts (I dislike the word connoisseur), so you know it’s more than just the bottom line.

Jackson Biko's Top Six Whisky Bars

Exchange Bar

What I’m drinking – Chivas Regal 18-year old

When I walk in from the rain, there is a grave looking man seated at the piano. I shake my jacket off and hang it on my chair. The bar is rich. The ambience swanky. I’m going to nurse a double because Exchange Bar isn’t exactly cheap, but then again, I mentioned that the ambience isn’t either, didn’t I? The pianist is killing it. Affluent looking after-work suits are spread out on the heavy settees, eating peanuts, rattling ice in their glasses and talking shop. You can tell a man’s worth by his shoes and the shoes at Exchange Bar are half the story. Whenever I’m in the CBD (hardly ever) and I need a drink, I will most likely sit at the Exchange Bar and have just one double.

Jackson Biko's Top Six Whisky Bars

Mercury Lounge

What I’m drinking – Glenlivet Founders Reserve

A thousand moons ago I fell for this bird at this lounge. She was with her girlfriend drinking chilled rosé. She was tall with these long legs that seemed to go on and on like a broken record. That night they were playing old skool and the crowd was grown up. The night was warm and her laughter drifted to my table like a good omen, the perfect night to ask for what you can’t be given. I stepped up to her table at some point during the night and she told me she was married. Those words hit me hard in the chest and – hands on heart  – I staggered back with disappointment. Now when I go back to Mercury, and I do often, it’s like going back to a shrine.

Jackson Biko's Top Six Whisky Bars

Uptown Lounge

What I’m drinking – Glenmorangie 10-year old Original

I visit Uptown Lounge because I can always call the lovely Millie and get a table upstairs in the whisky lounge. Because they have the best chicken tikka in that side of town. Because when you go on a slow night, you get to sit upstairs on the balcony under a heater, and watch the sky turn all shades of blue and black. Buy a bottle, they will hand you a key to a locker where you can keep it.

Jackson Biko's Top Six Whisky Bars

Brew Bistro

What I’m drinking – Oban, 14-year old

For the longest time I avoided Mpaka road at dusk, or what is famously called ‘Electric Avenue’. It had the middle-class zombies, staggering in and out the many pubs. Cars crammed it, honking, hazard lights blinking furiously. Skinny girls in short dresses, stepped out of Ubers, talking with cigarettes in their mouths like plumbers. Then Brew Bistro happened on one of the rooftops and I braved it. It’s been worth it: great ambiance, wonderful service, and on Wednesdays Kidum rocks up and sits behind the drums, adjust the microphone in that boyish goofy grin and he sings. Beautifully. Those nights are short.

Five One Lounge

What I’m drinking – Singleton The Duffton

This bar is on Apple Cross Road, just off Waiyaki Way. What else do you want to know? Doesn’t the street it sit on make you curious? It did for me, and I went. I went because everybody I know had been. Five One is only a couple of months old now and half of Nairobi wants to be there, because half of Nairobi wants to be where the other half of Nairobi goes. It’s a lovely bar. I have been twice now, at the time of writing this. The music stood out; I’m a sucker for New Jack Swing. It’s open and airy and the crowd is, well, half of Nairobi. The type you might see at Koroga Festival, or Blankets and Wine.

Jackson Biko's Top Six Whisky Bars

Kengeles Bar

What I’m drinking – Glenkinchie, 12 year old

They redid the whole place. They have a sign in the men’s room that says, “All our waiters are married, they take orders well”. Truth is, they don’t. Not all the time. My service experience at Kengeles has been lacklustre but somehow my friends go and they invite me and I whine about how service is shit there and they say, “Don’t be a pussy Biko, come have a drink.” So I go and we sit at their lovely inside bar and the ambience and the energy of the place makes me lose my hang-ups.

Jackson Biko's Top Six Whisky Bars

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