“Well show me the way to the next whiskey bar.” Jim Morrison said that sometime before suffering a massive heart attack and breaking through to the other side, somewhere in the squalid bowels of Paris, 1971. Dark days indeed for anyone with ears on their head, but had The Lizard King lived long enough to sell out and start doing butter adverts, then maybe he’d have had the time and inclination to explore Hanoi’s newest whisky bar. And yes, whisky without an “e”.
“It’s not a big business, it’s my hobby bar – that’s how I see it,” chuckles Lee Kirby, owner and founder of The 371 Bar on 42B Bát Đàn. Boasting a boner-inducing range of over 125 bottles of whiskies, most of which would do to my salary what firebombing did to Dresden back in 1945, minus the shrieking, screaming civilians.
That being said, Kirby has gone to lengths to ensure that his whisky is accessible. “It’s a cosy bar and while it’s probably not going to attract much in the way of backpackers, I’m not chasing the money – our prices range from VND140,000 to VND2,500,000 per shot. To be fair though, those pricier bottles usually go by the bottle rather than one shot at a time, so I’m not too worried about shifting them quickly.” Even the most cursory glance over the menu is enough to see that the prices range extensively and with the ever-present expertise of Kirby on hand, it’s obvious that you don’t need to be from Eaton to drink here – in fact, if you were, you’d probably stick out.
Over the course of my visit to The 371 Bar, it becomes apparent that one of the key reasons for visiting is in fact Kirby himself. Having traded in his construction life back in England some three years, ago Kirby has been enjoying the fruits of Hanoi ever since and is at once candid, courteous and entertaining, with the epitome of British landlord hospitality at the forefront of his passion project. “For me it’s all about giving the customers the best experience I can give them, you know – if you look around, we’ve got custom-made furniture, the bar – even the toilet – spotless, I want to create a friendly atmosphere where you can come in, sit at the bar and have a laugh or if you want some more discretion, we’ve got upstairs as well for a bit more privacy.”
A lifetime in construction has bestowed upon Kirby the skills necessary to build the entire bar himself and there is an indelible touch of his personality shining through in every minute detail – from the artwork, to the bottle display behind the bar and even the plush stools at the bar. “What I like about the location is it’s relaxed, out there it’s all carnage every day, but you come in here and it’s like being in a fish bowl. You can sit and watch the chaos, but you’re not a part of it.”
Afraid of resting on his laurels, Kirby is already planning some major extensions to his project though – just three months after opening the doors to the whisky-swilling public of Hanoi. “I still want more high-end whisky in here, so what I’m thinking is to edge the bar back by another metre, hide the fridge-freezer somewhere under the stairs and that ought to leave me with enough space to just about double the number of bottles I can fit in here.” Ever self-critical, Kirby goes on to list a great deal of ostensibly tiny details that he intends to tinker with or remove entirely and as he does, I start to understand why he calls this his hobby bar. Later this year, he explains, he’s going to start hoarding a supply of Japanese whisky to add to the intimidating collection of bottled beauty that rests behind his bar.
There’s a level of dedication that shines through in his work and his words that make me realise why the only hobbies that have ever stuck for me are punishing my liver and curdling my lungs into charred black bellows. Lee Kirby is a one-man-band. “I’ve still got no staff, I’m the only one here to steer the ship,” he grins. “When things take off, then yeah – it’ll be necessary, but for now I can treat every customer with care, dedication and we can have a chat.”
At this juncture I asked a question that scarcely needed asking, why whisky? “I’ve always been into it, my old man was into it when I was growing up and I’ve always had a taste for it – I really liked the concept of a whisky bar, but Hanoi hasn’t had one till now.” Before this conjures up images of pretentious monocle-sporting toffs supping the nectar of the gods from the skulls of the poor, both Kirby’s attitude and intentions eschew the idea of this being a black-tie haunt. “This is more old-school, it’s a little bit discreet – I don’t want to cheapen my work by going online and asking people to come and see it, I just wanted a nice bar that focused on whisky.”
Kirby has an enjoyable tendency to speak anecdotally and as such, there is of course a story behind the name too. “Ahh yeah, lots of folks ask about that, well I guess it started three years ago, before I even set foot in Vietnam – I was flying over here from China and I got seated next to my now-fiancé. We were on flight CZ371, now I mean I know it’s not the catchiest of names, but it’s got a story.”