The importance of legacy

The importance of legacy

Can London’s famous Milroy’s of Soho still cut it?

Interview 18 Oct 2019 | Interviews | By Mark Jennings

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London’s original whisky specialist is doing something for the first time in its 55-year history: opening another venue. Can this world famous spirits seller and bar recreate the magic that has delighted punters for so long?

Milroy’s of Soho. Now there’s a name. Even if you haven’t heard of it, doesn’t it just conjure up the kind of refinement, decadence, and top-shelf whisky galore that one of the country’s first whisky specialists should?   

Well, you’d be right – though these adjectives suggest perhaps a stuffiness that Milroy’s, in the heart of London’s adland (or smut land, if you’re of a certain age), doesn’t deserve. Distiller Toby Sims summed it up just so: “Milroy’s, you’ve either been or just seen it packed with people and wondered what the secret is.” Nestled next to the fabulously titled (but sadly closed) Gay Hussar, this whisky doyen’s staff are approachable and as happy to mix whisky into cocktails as they are to tell you yarns about the dram, its makers and more.  

Milroy’s isn’t huge, but has two distinctly different personalities. Upstairs is a whisky shop, with a wonderful bar. The whiskies are decently priced, and, especially for London, the markups are honest and inoffensive. The staff are almost psychic – you can wander in, tell them you’ve seen a black cat three days ago and generally like liquorice, and they’ll find a dram for you that will make your day.

“Going into Milroy’s was always like walking into a different world,” recalled customer and fan Felix Hemsley, “The aged floors trod by so many before me, the elegant yet substantial bar, all brought together by staff with a true passion for what they sell and love.”

This institution has been open for more than 50 years and visitors from around the world have been directed to its hallowed chambers by fellow travellers, themselves caught by its spell, to buy a bottle or three or sip a dram. “I’ve been going there for decades. Milroy’s were always my first and/or last stop out of town,” says Steve Beal, an industry-recognised spirits writer and brand ambassador based in
San Francisco.

“Early on they were one of very few places those in the know would always recommend to visit.” 

More recently the draw has been augmented by its cocktails, at their ‘secret’ bar, The Vault; a little bit of a ‘well if you know, you know’ sort of gig. Despite its hidden nature it’s all about making whisky accessible to anyone, and the drinks are both tasty and inclusive. Spirit sales ambassador Philip David goes further, “The true delight is the bookshelf at the back of the room which swings back to reveal a stairway to debauchery with a sultry selection of sumptuous drinks.” 

Sure, it’s had its ups and downs over its lifetime (haven’t we all) but you only hear good things since 2014, when Martyn Simpson (Simo to you and me) took it over and firmly built on the reputation (or rejuvenated it, many would say). He and his team’s no BS attitude helped extinguish a lot of the unnecessary stuffiness surrounding whisky – just as the original founders, John and Wallace Milroy did. This legacy was important to Simo and from personal experience I can say it’s being well handled. 

So, what’s the issue then? 

“There is a lot more competition now,” remarks distiller Stuart Nickerson, who frequented Milroy’s for years, and he’s not wrong. There is no lack of places to glug great whisky around the compass points of London and, with its central location, that’s just a little too far to meander if you’re east. Stuart is positive though, “Milroy’s obviously work hard to stay ahead, still the place to go to and be in.”

Simo agrees; not resting on laurels, he and his team have been daring, launching Milroy’s of Spitalfields, on Commercial Street. It’s near enough customers from trendy Shoreditch and the all-powerful City of London; the unholy trinity of hipsters, tech geeks and bankers all passing their door with money to spend.

That said, having thirsty customers is one thing but the team still have some pretty big shoes to fill. Can they repeat their own success, or does it just weigh them down?  

In fairness to them they haven’t done this by half measures. Four floors of whisky shenanigans await: from an almost disgustingly large 1000 dram selection, to a cocktail bar to rival their current offering back in Soho, entitled ‘The Proofing Room’. Not to forget the tasting room and a private members club with a plant-filled cigar terrace (but of course). If you’re hungry, and I suppose I should suggest lining your stomach if you’re gunning to dive deep into that huge range, Milroy’s have appointed Ricky Evans – founder and executive chef at ‘The Ingredientist’ – look out for bespoke food pairings.

Simo is understandably in a state of nervous excitement as the final touches are put in place, but he’s not forgotten the important things, “Honouring an ethos that the Milroy brothers so heartily brought to the whisky industry, Milroy’s is about people. Our team is so passionate about whisky and the age old art of hospitality. Opening a new venue is a further extension of that, bringing the Milroy’s energy to another corner of London.”

From my own experience I feel Spitalfields is going to have that same vibe as Soho – and as Simo says it’s all down to the team, whose passion for whisky are infectious. There are no terrible markups, no mucking around with drams - it’s ‘palette progression’, educating the customer but not at the expense of enjoyment.

As Stuart put it, “Milroy’s was an oasis in a desert, somewhere you always wanted your products to be listed.” That’s the past, and this new venue is the future. Big shoes to fill, but if the team’s work to date is anything to go by then whisky lovers in London, and around the world, are in very good hands indeed.
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