Flew into London and after dropping my bags at the hotel I headed straight for Berry Brothers and Rudd’s (hereafter BBR) London offices and shop. The business is in in the heart of London at No. 3 St. James Street, and is both the oldest wine merchant in Great Britain and the oldest store front in London. The business hasn’t moved in over 300 years.
Hosting my Thursday visit were Mike Harrison and Doug McIvor, Sales Manager and BBR Whisky Maker, who didn’t waste any time putting a glass of whisky in my hand. We sampled a range of tasty single malts from the Berry Brother’s and Rudd including:
- Aberlour 1992 – BBR Cask 3919 – 55.7% – Very fruity; lots of ginger honey and fruits.
- Tormore 1992 – BBR Ref 100154 – Figs, raisins, candied fruits, leather and tobacco.
- Glenlivet 1973 – BBR – Old, perfumed and fruity!
We also sampled the 6th release of Berry’s Blue Hanger. The Blue Hanger is a legendary proprietary blend from BBR, now in its 6th release. The Blend, technically it is now a Blended Malt (formerly referred to a Vatted or Pure Malt –thank you Diageo), is put together by Doug McIvor, who doesn’t try to simply reproduce the same thing from batch to batch. Rather Doug tries to create something a little unique with each batch. Kensington Wine Market will be getting the 5th release as an exclusive in the next few weeks. We will hopefully see the 6th, a more peated expression sometime next year!
After the whisky tasting we retired to the Duke’s Hotel, just across the street but tucked into a quiet close called St. James Place. The hotel is one of the most well known in London, especially for its martinis. Ian Fleming frequented the hotel and it is said his vodka martini, shaken not stirred, originated here. The hotel’s bar, tight as it is, is one of “the places” to visit while in London, and you wouldn’t be getting the full experience unless you have a martini made by in maestro …. We didn’t have a vodka martini, ours we’re made from Gin, specifically Berry’s No.3 Gin. Called number 3 for the company’s spiritual home at No. 3 St. James place, and because its botanicals include 3 fruits and 3 spices. The martini also wasn’t shaken, but served chilled in chilled glasses with chilled vermouth and lemon rinds.
We had a lovely dinner at Rowley’s on Jermyn Street, where there’s been a restaurant in its place for more than 100 years. We finished the day with a show “One Man Two Guvnor’s”. I haven’t been to the theatre in London for a long time, and it was quite a treat. The show was hysterically funny, the main lead made the experience, and the funniest moment of all was when my two hosts got pulled up on stage to become part of the show.
The next morning I returned to the BBR shop to have a tour of the shop and cellars. There is a lot of history tied up in the place. The shop was founded by the widow Bourne in 1698. Not much is known about her, except that she founded the shop where it is because of its proximity to the St. James palace (built by Henry the 8th) and the gentlemen’s clubs across the street. George Berry married into the family and a short while later Mr. Rudd joined the business rounding off the business name. The business didn’t begin selling wine and spirits but rather coffee, hence the coffee grinder sign out front of the store. Wine and spirits became the core of the business over time and today have grown to such an extent that they own all of and occupy most of the block. At one point, between 1842 and 1845, before it was brought into Union with the rest of the United States, the embassy of the Texas Republic was also located here.
In the rear, though accessible from the street by way of a narrow alley, is the smallest town square in all of London. Pickering square is more discreet and much smaller than most of the others in the city, and was a favourite place for duels as they could take place away from prying eyes. The cellars under 3 St James Street are also impressive, sitting on two levels. They both have beautiful stone vaulted ceilings and are popular venues for wine classes and corporate events. One of the lower cellars is called the Napoleon cellar, as he apparently spent time here; it seems he was friends with the obviously well connected George Berry.
After finishing my first visit to BBR the next stop was the London suburb of Chiswick to see John Glaser at Compass Box. In just over 10 years John has gone from being a senior blender with Johnnie Walker for Diageo (the world’s biggest whisky and liquor company) to owning a well-respected and growing boutique whisky blending firm. John approached executives at Diageo with the idea for establishing an arm of their company which would craft small batch boutique blends and have the flexibility to experiment. They weren’t interested, it would just be a distraction in a company which already owned a lot of brands, including more than 28 active single malt distilleries, and their only real concern was growing the sales of their Johnnie Walker blends. John left with their blessing and some contracts guaranteeing his new concern access to some of their mature stocks.
The last 10 years have been good to Compass Box, the company is still growing and their future is looking bright. But there are challenges on the horizon. Diageo has stopped sales of it matured single malts to all other firms with the sole exception of Compass Box, but even they (hereafter CB) can’t get everything they used to, especially Caol Ila. Long Diageo’s 2nd Islay distillery behind Lagavulin, the growth of Caol Ila as a single malt has caught everyone including Diageo of guard at the same time that its Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 Year has taken off again. The Black Label relies heavily on Caol Ila, meaning that these stocks are under a lot of pressure. But this isn’t all bad news, because John has been slowly increasing the phenolic (peat) level of his flagship Blended Malt (formerly vatted or pure malt) Peat Monster. When first released 10 years ago it was one of the peatiest whiskies available on the market, but since then Kilchoman, Port Charlotte, Octomore and Supernova have raised the bar. I noticed this instantly when I nosed a recent batch of Peat Monster in his Chiswick studio, “you’ve made this peatier!” I said. John and the team at CB has been quietly raising its phenolic level over the last few years by increasing the contribution of malts like Laphroaig. “It would be hard to keep calling it Peat Monster” if we didn’t!”
Compass Box’s offices serve three purposes: office space, blending lab, and a space for entertaining visitors. It’s an interesting facility, and one which they’ve outgrown. They are in the process of looking for new digs. I sampled a few interesting whiskies while there:
- Compass Box Great King Street Barrel Sample – 50% malt /50% grain – Nose: honeyed and waxy, ginger spice, apple crisp and very floral with soft grain notes; Palate: sweet, toasty, floral and creamy; elegant spice and even more grassy floral tones than were present on the nose Finish: light, honeyed and sweet with more grain.
- Compass Box Peat Monster – 46% – The recipe has evolved to show more peat and less Caol Ila. – 60% Laphroaig/20% Ledaig/20%Ardmore – Nose: very much dominated by Laphroaigh: sweet, medicinal, honey, toffee and caramel with soft smoke, chewy malt and salted fish; Palate: surprisingly malty, medicinal notes still there but creamy and sweet; the palate has wonderful depth with firm earthy peat and Panda brand licorice; Finish: creamy and sweet with soft peat and chewy malt.