Where the spirit lives

Whisky sommelier Angelo Gobbi.
Whisky sommelier Angelo Gobbi.

The style is timeless and the location ideal, but it's the whisky that lures Keith Austin to the Athenaeum hotel.

Park Lane, Mayfair, Piccadilly - you can almost smell the money. A hotel, maybe two, and that's it, game over. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

And as with Monopoly, so with life. This part of London, on the fringes of two royal parks, is synonymous with wealth. After all, this is the place where the Down Street Tube station, opened in 1907, had to be closed in 1932 due to a lack of interest from the well-heeled denizens.

Today the roads are lorded over by the glitterati of the hotel world: the Ritz, the Hilton, the Park Lane, the InterContinental. And among them, like some happy five-star cocker spaniel surrounded by toffee-nosed aristocratic Afghan hounds, is the Athenaeum, a boutique establishment that punches well above its weight.

Not only does it have a whisky sommelier in Angelo Gobbi, but it also was voted as having the "best afternoon tea" in London for 2012 by the Tea Guild; was named among the best child-friendly hotels in Europe by the British Daily Telegraph magazine (a kids' concierge is on hand for the littlies); and also has the first vertical garden in Britain by French botanist and designer Patrick Blanc, inventor of the living wall technique.

In 2009 it was, at eight storeys, the highest such wall in Britain - a record long since surpassed, but it still curls up one corner of the hotel like some great green tapestry that every day draws tourists who gape and take photographs. Did I mention it has a whisky sommelier? But let's talk about toilet paper. Many things go towards the making of a great hotel and, to my mind, toilet paper is near the top of the list.

At the Athenaeum it's so thick and soft that I am tempted to have it made into shirts. Honestly, where I come from this stuff is called bedding.

Hotel greatness, then, starts at the bottom and works its way up - via exemplary service, food, attitude, a whisky sommelier and decor - to location.

And what a location: from here, Buckingham Palace is a short walk through Green Park, while Hyde Park is marked as a good nearby jog in the hotel's small but perfectly formed basement gym. Two other royal parks - Kensington Gardens and St James - are just beyond them.

Inside, you get the impression this is the sort of hotel for which the word "boutique" was invented. The rooms are eclectic and full of humour, each one an Aladdin's cave of artworks, black-and-white London-themed photographs and knick-knacks, such as serried ranks of miniature London buses, taxis and toy soldiers. The top-floor apartments are particularly impressive. This is a rarefied atmosphere in more ways than one, with floor-to-ceiling windows that afford perhaps one of the best views in London - a stunning sweep that takes in the Shard, the Houses of Parliament, the Gherkin and the London Eye.

As with all the rooms, there's a general 1920s-1930s vibe or at least a modern interpretation of it, with bevelled mirrors everywhere that add to a timeless style. There is also a set of 18 luxury serviced apartments in a row of Victorian townhouses by the side of the hotel proper in Down Street.

Of course, one of the other great attractions of the Athenaeum comes in the shape of whisky sommelier Gobbi. In his immaculate white tuxedo and black tie, he looks as if he belongs in Rick's bar in Casablanca. Well, if Rick's bar were lined with whisky bottles - 270 varieties and counting - of every shape, size, age and provenance.

"So," Gobbi says, placing two bear-like paws on the bar, "I hear you are a whisky aficionado."

Later, I will have to look up this word "aficionado" but if it means someone with an unhealthy interest in drinking the stuff, then guilty as charged.

"No," I say. "Not really. Though I have toured some of the Islay distilleries [Bruichladdich, Bowmore, Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg]."

"Good," he says, laughing, "then we can dispense with the making of whisky and move on to the history of whisky."

In front of me are four 12-year-old whiskies (Aberfeldy, Glenfiddich, Dewar's, a Balvenie) and four cheeses, which we are going to "match". I'm gagging to get to the tasting of the whisky, but if we must ...

Gobbi's patter is absorbing, passionate, funny and enlightening. Did you know, for example, that the Speyside distillery Glen Grant was one of the first to take advantage of the post-World War II desire for whisky in Italy?

"Growing up there," Gobbi says, "every house would have a bottle, or two, of Glen Grant."

Before he took up his current job, Gobbi would haunt the hotel's well-established whisky bar, trying a few new brands each week and scribbling his thoughts into a notebook he still has and to which he still refers.

Gobbi tells fascinatingly rambling stories of whiskies sublime and ridiculous, and his intimate but affable manner is almost as seductive as the whiskies he's offering.

At last, Signore Gobbi is imploring me to waft a glass of 12-year-old Doublewood Balvenie under my nose - but not too close. You must, he says, treat each glass like a new friend and you don't poke your finger in a new friend's eye, do you? No, you introduce yourself slowly, carefully. Well, it's the same with whisky.

The Balvenie is a very nice drop but a close encounter with a soupcon of water - enough just to break the surface, as a Scottish friend of mine says - and a touch of Blue Monday, a British cheese named after the New Order song, and everything changes. The pairing produces an almost mystical chemical reaction that sees the cheese become less pungent, smoother and easier on the palate.

And if that wasn't enough, the next pairing, the Glenfiddich with the tornegus, a semi-soft washed-rind cheese, takes things even further - something I wouldn't have thought possible. For me, Glenfiddich is a bit of a "starter" single malt; something to drink while you're finding your malt legs, as it were. I drank a lot of it years ago but these days I find it a little harsh and generic. And yet, in an opposite reaction to the Balvenie, the cheese entirely changes the nature of the whisky. Suddenly this is the king of whiskies, smooth, warming, aromatic, while the edge is also taken off the cheese - a revelation even for this "aficionado".

After this we move on to the Dewar's and a Golden Cross goat's cheese, then finish with a beautiful Aberfeldy/parmigiano reggiano pairing.

I am listening to Gobbi's story of his father, his irrepressible uncles, and the parmesan and prosciutto glut when my partner, all freshly pressed and laundered, saunters up.

She hoes in to the remaining cheese and says, "I'm starving, can we eat now?"

Eat? Now? I look at my watch; it's 8 o'clock. Two hours have fled by and it's time to bid a sad farewell to Mr Gobbi and his 270 whiskies.

Still, it's a start. Four down, 266 to go.


Staying there The Athenaeum has rooms only from £265 ($407) a night midweek and weekend specials from £199, including breakfast, with luxury serviced apartments from £399 room only; see athenaeumhotel.com.

- The four cheese-and-whisky pairings with Angelo Gobbi cost £50. A single pairing is £15. The Athenaeum hotel and apartments are at 116 Piccadilly, Mayfair.

Nearby The Shepherd Street market is one of London's best-kept secrets. The warren of streets and alleyways around the market, which is a five-minute walk from the Athenaeum, feature a cornucopia of eclectic, eccentric shops, restaurants with alfresco eating, bars, and a pleasing concentration of lovely old British pubs such as Ye Grapes, the King's Arms, the Market Tavern and the Shepherd's Tavern — perfect for a cleansing ale and some dinner after all that whisky. See shepherdmarket.co.uk.

This story Where the spirit lives first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.