Men behaving well (Jack and Wallace Milroy)

Men behaving well (Jack and Wallace Milroy)

Joanna Simon meets Jack and Wallace Milroy, single malt whisky pioneers, and finds them refusing ot live up to their reputations

People | 04 Aug 1999 | Issue 5 | By Joanna Simon

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I have seen the Milroy brothers as few others have. Now before you get excited, remember that Whisky Magazine is not one of those mags confined to newsagents’ top shelves. All I mean is that I have seen the Milroys on their best behaviour. They turned up for our interview at the appointed times: John first, then Wallace. They wore suits. They spoke one at a time and without contradicting one another (so far as I know – John’s deep gravelly-voiced Scottish accent can sometimes be a tad hard to catch). And, though it was well after breakfast and we were in the lounge of the London’s Athenaeum Hotel – renowned for its range of malt whiskies – they drank coffee and orange juice. They are better known for long nights over many drams.Perhaps I should have led the way by knocking back a dram or two of Lagavulin. I had heard that this was Wallace’s desert island malt. But could I get him to say this, or even to commit himself to naming an all-time favourite or even a much loved everyday brand? I could not. He and John, or Jack as he is usually known, have their own whisky business to bear in mind. The current one, now that they no longer own the famous whisky emporium Milroys of Soho, involves sourcing and bottling old and rare malts for corporate anniversaries under The Milroy Brothers label, and, according to Jack’s business card, sourcing casks ‘for “fun” investment’. Jack is visibly excited at the mention of some hogsheads he has recently bought of Banff, an East Highlands distillery demolished in 1983. ‘So soon we’ll be selling a malt from a distillery of the last century. Well, you’ve got to put your salesman’s hat on some time,’ he says. And it becomes clear that the Milroys, though passionate about their subject, have been wearing their salesmen’s hats for the last 30-plus years.But back to the mythical desert island. Wallace finally commits himself to saying that ‘Islay malts would come top of the tree’. He also confesses to a liking for gin-and-tonic, rum and sake. Jack, who says that he is more of a wine man and drinks wine, but not whisky, every day, decides he’ll have a bottle of Corton-Charlemagne, a bottle of Château La Mission-Haut-Brion and, clearly not one to do things by halves, ‘a nice bottle of Islay for after dinner’. Although more than happy to name the wines, there’s not a chance that he’s going to name names where whisky is concerned. I am beginning to wonder whether I should have interviewed them separately, but, then, the story that emerges – on best behaviour – is a good one.It starts in 1931 (Wallace) and 1934 (Jack) in Scotland, where their parents ran a pub in Dumfries. The brothers’ introduction to whisky came in their teens when it was their job to take the empties down to the cellar. ‘You’d be surprised what you could get out of an empty bottle,’ says Wallace. ‘Mind you, you’d be surprised what was in some of the bottles. It was after the War and it was very difficult getting hold of any blends. There were all sorts of weird and wonderful things – grain whisky with a teaspoon of malt, labelled Glen-anything, Danish whisky made from rye or wheat or God-only-knows. They were real firewater – in the local dialect “spiel the waul”, meaning after a couple of glasses you’d climb the wall.’ Neither brother appears to have been put off whisky by these experiences, although Wallace did escape to Africa for 17 years after his national service. But it was Dumfries, not the whisky, he couldn’t take. ‘I’m not saying anything against it, but I’d seen the world and Dumfries was not for me.’ (Both brothers and parents have long since lived in London – not all together, I hasten to add.) Fortunately for Wallace, ‘the South African government was throwing scholarships around at the time. I got one in mining, but if it’d had been road sweeping in Timbuctoo I’d have jumped at it.’ And Africa, with its clubs, turned out to be a good place for whisky, provided you liked blends and whisky as a long drink – which Wallace did. When Jack left school, he didn’t know what he wanted to do, ‘but I liked the idea of completing my education behind the bar’, so he helped in the pub for a year or two. After national service, he joined the wine and spirit wholesaler John G. Sandeman and was soon posted to the six Trump’s shops in Devon (one Pat Sandeman had married a Miss Trump). This was where he got his initiation into wine. ‘Trump’s was the Fortnum & Masons of Devon and the cellars were full of wonderful old bottles – Krug champagne, vintage port. I learnt with a corkscrew in one hand, a textbook in the other.’ The next step was London – and thus the arrival of the first Milroy in Soho. For six years Jack bought wine for, and managed, a shop in Old Compton Street. Then he took a lease on a shop in Greek Street, conveniently situated next to the legendary L’Escargot restaurant, where, he says, ‘the staff were so old and doddery you got tanked up waiting for them and then fell asleep over your snails’.
Wallace now reappears – or rather, his money, made prospecting copper, gold and diamonds in Africa, appears. ‘I needed £1,000, which was quite a lot in those days,’ says Jack. Wallace obliged and Jack built up The Soho Wine Market into quite a nice little earner, acquiring another business in nearby Beak Street and supplying, among other things, own-label Muscadets to archetypal Sixties restaurants Wheelers, Bill Bentleys and Langans. When the own-label business began to fade around 1970, he went into broking fine wines. ‘You could make a lot of money broking in those days,’ he says, before I ask the question. Meanwhile Wallace had returned to the UK – to put his children into school, but without any clear idea what he was going to do. It was but a short step to Soho: ‘We discussed it and he joined the business,’ says Jack. And the Milroys’ pioneering career in single malt whiskies began. ‘Wallace looked around and there were only four malts on the shelves – Glenfiddich, Glen Grant, Tomatin and The Glenlivet. That was the norm then. There was some Laphroaig about, but they didn’t want to sell it. Blends were the thing. Wallace decided we were going to have more malts. So he scouted around.’But it wasn’t easy. The old Distillers Company Ltd, which owned most of the major brands and distilleries, simply didn’t want single malts to be known. ‘Blends were the bread and butter,’ explains Wallace. ‘Volume was all that counted. But Willie Grant [from the fiercely independent family firm of William Grant] took the bull by the horns, or the cask by the hoops, and said “we’re going to promote Glenfiddich”. And hats off to Grants, they led the charge.’Even so, the Milroys had to fight. ‘We used to ask the reps from DCL for single malts and they’d say, “we don’t do them”. So then we decided on a bit of blackmail. We’d say we’ll buy x cases of your blend if you put five cases of the malts in. If they declined, they didn’t get the order for the blends. At that point they’d usually reveal that there was some bottled for the directors’ boardroom.’ And gradually these started to find their way to Milroys’ (the Soho shop became John Milroy Ltd in the Seventies).‘When we got to ten single malts,’ says Jack, ‘we thought we were doing really well. When we got to 25 we had a big party at Searcy’s – with Sunday Express editor John Junor – and when we pulled out of the shop in 1993 we had about 500 malts.’ (Happily it continues , with about 700 today.)So why pull out of a business which is thriving and which you love? Best to be brief here: the words Jack, messy divorce and his own phrase, ‘very sad and all very silly’, will do. Jack went into what he calls retirement for a year or two and then ‘came back with a vengeance selling and exporting’. Or as one source put it, ‘he lost one fortune, but by all accounts he’s building up another’.Wallace, meanwhile, had already broken away from the business in the Eighties. He’d started lecturing, especially in Japan, and writing, ‘and it just snowballed’. Not that the business suffered – quite the contrary – and nor was Jack left behind: ‘I went along to collect the business cards afterwards. Well, someone has to do it.’ Certainly, if you’re going to turn audiences into customers, someone does.Wallace was also commissioned to write his Malt Whisky Almanac (Neil Wilson Publishing) which, now in its seventh edition, has sold 350,000 copies: not bad for a book whose author, when asked to write it, said ‘why write yet another book on whisky?’ But Neil Wilson wanted a pocket book that told people how the different malts tasted – sounds familiar now, but in 1986 no-one had done that – and Wallace had always kept tasting notes. ‘I threw them in a drawer and said “I’ll do something about them eventually”’. And he did – supremely well. What else can I tell you? Both Milroys seem to be universally liked and admired (an ex-wife excepted). Michael Jackson and Jim Murray use words such as ‘inspirational, wonderful ambassadors for Scotch, generous, infectious enthusiasm, great company’. For their part, Wallace and Jack say there is another 50 years in them – so, no, no memoirs yet.
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