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The Jefferson

Famous whisky fan George Bernard Shaw described his favourite tipple as “liquid sunshine”, and Auckland’s sophisticated underground bar The Jefferson would surely have been given the nod by him, thanks to its staggering selection of varieties, from Aberfeldy to Yellow Spot.

Descending the exposed brick and concrete staircase, one could be forgiven for wondering just exactly what awaits them behind the double doors that mark the entrance to The Jefferson. This subterranean space is a whisky-lover’s dream, with hundreds of bottles  glowing amber and caramel on long shelves behind the bar. 

“When new people come in and see our bar for the first time, they usually stand there for a few minutes, saying, ‘Holy c**p—what is going on here?’ The first mistake they make is thinking there’s a mirror behind the bar, but there isn’t. There are 600 individual bottles of whisky up there,” explains owner Ofir Yudilevich. 

The sheer quantity of whisky is awe-inspiring, but The Jefferson isn’t only a whisky bar, also stocking gin, vodka, tequila, rum, wine, champagne, and more. Yudilevich explains. “It’s a normal bar, with a specialty of 600-odd whiskies.”

The vibe is that of The Great Gatsby meets up with Mad Men in a speakeasy. The bar is situated in the basement of the Imperial Building in central Auckland’s Fort Lane. The plush, sophisticated, blue velvet and dark wood décor conjures up the feel of 1970s film noir. Embellished with gold art deco details, it’s cosy rather than cavernous. It’s stylish yet welcoming and the friendly, knowledgeable staff are on hand for recommendations. 

“We don’t have a menu,” says Yudilevich. “We don’t want you to choose based on price, or on a brand you think you know. The whole idea is that you come in here and we’ll ask you a few simple questions, and try to direct you towards two or three whiskies you’ll like. For example, you may indicate that you want a non-peaty, sweet whisky that tastes like orange and chocolate—well, here it is.”

Yudilevich continues, “We help you figure out your flavour profile, and then we match whiskies to that. It takes away the intimidation of a 600-bottle menu.”

A former chef, Yudilevich admits that when he conceptualised The Jefferson, he didn’t know much about whisky—

and three years on from the bar’s opening, he’s still learning new things all the time. When researching the type of bar to open, he realised that there wasn’t a place in Auckland where he and his mates could go to have a drink “without being surrounded by 18 year olds. There was no ‘adult’ kind of lounge. So we wanted to create the style of bar we’d want to hang out in,” Yudilevich says.

The decision to focus on whisky was a strategic one. “Whisky was and still is the biggest growing segment of the market. Internationally, there are more and more women drinking whisky, and they’re really driving the market. That’s attractive—we’ve got a product sought  after by women, and a bar brings in the guys... It’s Bar 101, really.”

“This bar was not created for old men in the corner drinking, eating, smoking cigars... That’s not our culture. As a 25-year-old guy, you can feel just as comfortable at The Jefferson as a 60-year-old man,” Yudilevich says.

Another point of difference is the inclusion of regular pop-up bars within The Jefferson, which change every three months. The first incarnation, called The Juniper, focused on gin, and proved so popular that the concept has taken off. “If you haven’t been here for a while, our pop-up bars will keep your experience fresh,” Yudilevich says.

But back to the 600 whiskies, starting at $10 a shot, the highest-priced dram is currently $320. But it isn’t price that elevates a whisky from “good” to “great”, Yudilevich explains. “The price is based on how rare something is. There’s no such thing as a ‘bad’ whisky. 

For example, Buffalo Trace is a great $10 bourbon. In the same distillery, you have all these other products made, right up to Pappy Van Winkle, which is $320­—and it’s also a great bourbon. A good whisky is basically a whisky that you like to drink. It comes down to your personal tastes.”

There are a number of types of whiskies and whisky-like liquors, but bourbon whisky, specifically refers to an American whisky which is made from fermented corn mash. With regard to the vanishing ‘e’, ‘whiskey’ refers to the Irish and American versions, and “whisky” is used by all other whiskey-producing countries, including Scotland, where it originated. Barley, corn, rye, wheat, whatever

your flavour preferences, all whiskies originate from cereal grains, and The Jefferson is sure to have several to suit your palate.

And how do they stock the bar? Yudilevich laughs, “If we can get our hands on it, it’s here. Getting whisky is our biggest challenge because so many of them are special and independent bottles—there’s only one bottle of each, and when it’s gone, it gets replaced by something else. We have our core range, but we also seek out the independent bottles and the rare bottles you can’t find anywhere else. Japanese whisky is huge right now, and hard to get hold of—we got ours from friends who went to Japan and found some bottles for us. For the rare and wonderful stuff, our suppliers know there’s an open chequebook. If you’ve got something rare, difficult, and expensive, we want it.”

As a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, The Jefferson is also the only bar in the North Island licensed to sell exclusive single-cask, single malt whiskies, which can’t be purchased anywhere else. “It’s a huge point of difference for us,” says Yudilevich.

“But it isn’t price that elevates a whisky from ‘good’ to ‘great’... the price is based on how rare something is. There’s no such as a ‘bad’ whisky.”

As a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, The Jefferson is also the only bar in the North Island licensed to sell exclusive single-cask, single malt whiskies, which can’t be purchased anywhere else. “It’s a huge point of difference for us,” says Yudilevich.

The Jefferson is also the first and only New Zealand embassy for Ardbeg, a remote Scottish distillery whose whisky has been called “as close to perfection as makes no difference” by whisky connoisseurs. As as a result of this distinction, The Jefferson is the first bar in the world every year to serve the limited Ardbeg day release. This year on June 2, it serves Ardbeg Grooves 2018. 

Although Yudilevich is cagey about the 100 or so special whiskies The Jefferson has “out the back”—the “money can’t buy” whiskies that people are passionate about—he does reveal a rather special secret: birthday whiskies. “If it’s your birthday, we can sell you a whisky that was made in the year you were born,” he explains. “So if you’re turning 40, we can bring out a bottle from ‘78. Although some of the older years are getting hard to get hold of. We do have a ’63 at the moment; I think it’s the oldest we’ve got.”

Yudilevich may know far more about whisky now than he did two years ago, but he admits that he’s “not even scratching the surface yet—but I’ve grown to know and love it.” Consumers are learning more too, he says. “People are getting more and more educated about whisky. If you know about something, you’re more inclined to drink it.” 

“If you want to get into whisky, talk to your bartender. Tell them you don’t drink whisky, but you like pinot noir, and they can match you with a whisky that’s been in pinot noir barrels. Don’t choose whisky based on price—you might choose completely wrong. It’s no different to tasting olives and coffee for the first time. You’re not going to like it unless you try it slowly.

Yudilevich’s best piece of advice? “Leave your perception of whisky at the door, and just come and talk to us.”


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