Interview: George Keeble, Soho Whisky Club

Gone are the days when Private Members’ Bars were reserved for society’s elite, privileged and frankly quite annoying. Sated catches up with Soho Whisky Club’s inimitable General Manager, George Keeble, to find out what sets this venue apart from the plethora of other tipple houses around London.

First things first, let’s talk numbers: how much is membership and what does this include?

Membership to Soho Whisky Club is £250 per year and includes access to the club (with up to three guests) and invitation to many free tastings throughout the year. We held over 50 free tastings last year, so a new member only needs to turn up to six or seven in a year to drink back their membership fee!

What makes SWC different from other clubs out there?

The free tastings make membership to Soho Whisky Club an absolute bargain. It’s also safe to say we’re the least pretentious private members’ club in London.

Can you tell us a little about the tastings you have on offer?

They’re free! We get them all brand-sponsored so a whisky company will send an Ambassador along for the night and everyone will try a line-up of five, six or seven whiskies, either from a particular distillery or from a range of distilleries owned or bottled by a single company. For example, we had a Glenfarclas tasting a while ago that was exceptional! We tried the 10 Year Old, 15 Year Old, 21 Year Old, 25 Year Old, 30 Year Old and 40 Year Old – a great night!

We’re also an Ardbeg Embassy, meaning we get limited releases before other whisky shops and bars do.

Which other whisky clubs do you rate highly?

I enjoy the SMWS (Scotch Malt Whisky Society) for their take on whisky – everything is single cask, cask strength and exclusively bottled by them. I’ve been fortunate enough to try many of their excellent bottlings over the years.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Whisky Squad – a meet-up whisky club without its own premise. They call themselves “London’s friendliest whisky club” and they aren’t wrong. Their gatherings are very relaxed and exist because the managers of them all share an avid passion of the liquid gold.

If someone is new to whisky, what do you think is a good introductory dram?

There are many different types and styles of whisky, from bourbon to rye to single malt, not to mention all the types and styles and countries. My preferred category is single malt scotch. For a whisky newbie, I wouldn’t recommend anything heavily peated: a few safe bets would be Balvenie, Glen Moray, Glenmorangie or Aberlour, perhaps.

Who introduced you to whisky and can you remember your first dram?

My first dram wasn’t too shabby at all – Glenfiddich 12 Year Old. In my mid-teens, my rapscallion chums and I chipped in a fiver each and send my eldest brother off to the local Spar, and that’s what he came back with, although I didn’t start fully appreciating whisky till I was about 19.

When I was working as a waiter in a local restaurant, I’d spend some of my weekly tips on a new bottle of single malt, with the guidance of the fine proprietors of my local whisky shop – The Wee Dram in my hometown of Bakewell in the Peak District. I still pick up the odd bottle from there when I go back to visit.

Right, the tricky question: name your top whiskies and why they are your favourite (at least at the moment)

Naming my favourite whisky or whiskies is a question that a lot of people in the industry are asked and I’ve never heard anyone give a straight answer. Two whiskies that I’m recently loving are:

Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie – this sub £50 bottle is a batch-released expression from my favourite distillery. It is a marrying of 80 or so casks, a mix of 1st fill bourbon barrels and French wine casks. It’s crisp, refreshing and bottled without artificial colouring, unchill-filtered and at a respectable 50%ABV. That’s been my regular dram for several months and as long as Bruichladdich keep making it, I’ll keep drinking it!

Glenfarclas 1968 – Now, this is by no means a reasonably priced dram but, going purely by taste, it’s to die for. Aged for 38 year in a first fill sherry cask, it’s virtually opaque in colour and as sherried as sherried whisky can be. It’s like licking the inside of a sherry cask –  strangely, I speak from experience…

You’re well-known in the industry and anyone who has a chat with you knows that your truly passionate about it. What do in the world of whisky you outside of SWC?

Aside from managing Soho Whisky Club, I also give private and corporate whisky tastings under the rather self-explanatory guise “Whisky With George”. I’m also a judge at the annual World Whisky Awards and am currently partaking in the Battle of the Blends whisky blending challenge, organised by Whisky Magazine, for which I’ve also had several articles published.

I don’t do any distilling myself but I do own a growing number of casks of single malt scotch, all presently ageing across a number of bonded warehouses in Scotland. So, at some point I could have them bottled and sell them – not as a serious business venture, just a bit of fun. To take the mickey, I’ll probably end up slapping a big photo of me pulling a daft face across the label.

What other projects are you involved in and are there going to be any new developments at SWC soon?

Well I guess my long-term goal is to open up my own whisky club. There are a number of places in the UK that are lacking a decent place. Regarding SWC, it’s business as usual. My hands are already full with organising over 70 events throughout the year!

Read more about SWC here.