When a Scotch whisky-drinking club developed new premises in London, award-winning architect Allies and Morrison came up with the right blend of classic and contemporary.
Think “malt whisky drinkers’ club” and a vision is conjured up of worldly connoisseurs sinking into padded leather armchairs, draped with tartan rugs, in front of a roaring fire and surrounded by timber panelling. Such an image is not far from reality at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s headquarters in a converted warehouse in Leith, Edinburgh. And this ambience was what the society’s directors, Richard Gordon and Anne Cooper, wanted to replicate for its new premises in London – except that they wanted it “highly contemporary” in style.

With this brief, and a budget of £235 000, they approached Allies and Morrison, one of the few architects that combines modern style with classical sensitivity.

The society’s recently completed London home is located above a Victorian pub in Farringdon, a few blocks north-west of the City of London. A large lounge on the first floor fits the bill perfectly. Well upholstered furniture is grouped around an open fireplace, with a long timber-fronted bar stretching behind them. An ornate Turkish rug lies on an oak floor. To one side of the bar, and partly screened from the lounge, is a snug bar for smokers.

It’s all downright cosy. However, apart from the sash windows of the Victorian building shell, the interior is impeccably contemporary.

The seating is furnished by modern bucket chairs in olive green and two rectangular Le Corbusier sofas in maroon-coloured leather in the centre of the room. The fire surround is in plain polished limestone. The bar is fronted by simple tongue-and-groove boarding, with a flat slab of polished limestone serving as the counter.

The main decoration is fittingly provided by the society’s one and only commodity – 114 bottles of whisky lined up in two rows behind the bar. Each contains a distinct, single variety of malt whisky, but all bear labels of identical design.

Oak has a special affinity to whisky: oak casks that have previously contained either American bourbon or Spanish sherry are used to store maturing single malts, imparting distinctive flavours from their earlier lives. So, it is appropriate that solid, naturally finished oak is prominent in the interiors. American white oak veneer has been used for the tables in the lounge, with more durable English oak used in thick strips for the flooring and in hefty planks for the front door and open treads of the staircase up to the lounge and second storey. Plain chunks of dense Spanish oak form a small reception table on the first landing.

It is the natural oak, with its rich graining, golden colour and coarse texture, that gives the interiors their warmth and natural ambience. The tactile qualities of the materials are epitomised in the one component in the building that everyone has to touch: the handles on the front door. On the outer face of the door, a simple stainless steel bar has been set within an asymmetrically curved hollow scooped out of the door – while on the inside, a stainless-steel D-handle is wrapped in maroon-coloured leather.

Other subtleties in the design relate more to architectural integrity than to whisky mythology. Although modern interiors may have become de rigueur in recent years, Allies and Morrison’s project director, Paul Appleton, recognises that they can still present a culture shock if grafted on to a historic building. Accordingly, Appleton says: “We have placed the new insertions like a piece of furniture that has simply been dropped into the Victorian building shell.“

This “detachable furniture” approach is evident in the new bar, which is separated from the building walls by door openings and from the ceiling by a shadow gap. It is even more evident in the modern staircase, in which the solid oak treads have been held away from the supporting walls on either side. Instead, they sit delicately on exposed steel bolts bored cleanly into the walls.

A final touch of subtle cabinetwork comes with the pair of doors leading off the first-floor landing and into the lounge. The doors have been faced in beech veneer and are entirely flush, with an inconspicuous recessed magnetic catch rather than projecting handles. When they are fastened open, the doors disappear to form facing panels to the closet and toilet on either side.

Club director Anne Cooper is more than satisfied with the result. “Members have been taken aback by how warm and relaxing the modern interior is,” she says. “There are a lot of subtle Scottish touches, but I am pleased to say there is not a hint of tartan.”