Any whisky lover who has ever found themselves in London’s Soho will have no doubt felt themselves drawn to Milroy’s of Soho – a Mecca of single malts, single cask bottlings and general deliciousness comprising London’s oldest dedicated whisky shop, a brilliantly appointed dram bar and a hidden, subterranean cocktail den. This September saw the launch of a second site in the bustling City-meets-East border of Spitalfields. We pop on down to Milroys of Spitalfields to catch up with owner Martyn “Simo” Simpson and see how things have been going since the opening.
It’s a few weeks on from the launch party, which saw the four-storey townhouse filled to the rafters with revellers. Since then, by all accounts, things have been going well (apart from a technical hiccup from BT delaying proceedings a tad and other excepted new venue chores such as doing the initial stock take on 1,200 different whiskies).
We walk up to the Milroys of Spitalfields façade on Commercial Street – one familiar to us through past incarnations as Blessing’s Bar and Himalayan restaurant, Madame D. Simo is leaning casually against the door frame, leg cocked and cigarette languishing between two fingers. He greets us and leads us through the main ground floor bar with its chequered floor and cages containing over 1,000 whiskies, to the cosy The Dram House Members’ Bar on the first floor. The room is a tactile fusion of rugged charred wood panel walls, coquettish pink feather pendant lights and snaking velvet banquettes. Custom designed cages frame the doorway and face a bar boasting some truly exceptional drams.
We take our seats and begin chatting about the launch party. “Everyone loved the event”, says Simo. “We were the talk of The Whisky Show the next day, which was great!” The night was the perfect way to introduce friends, family, suppliers and the odd journo to Milroys of Spitalfields diverse offerings, from The Proofing Room basement cocktail bar modelled on The Vault Soho and street level bar both open to the public, to The Dram House members’ bar with its adjoining cigar terrace and top floor tasting room for private parties and events.
So, for a short period of time at least, you are the owner of London’s oldest whisky shop and its newest whisky bar & members’ club. How does that feel? How’s the launch been?
Ha! Yeah, I guess! It’s great. It’s a very stressful life but luckily I’ve got an incredibly girlfriend. I couldn’t have done it without her in any shape or form. She’s been really supportive about this. She’s been looking after the dog, helping me, then she’s working and has her own life to be getting on with. I’m 8am-midnight, come home, quick cuddle, pass out, get up and do it all again. She’s been great and my staff have all been utterly incredible! So, this has been as stressful as it has to be – all launches are – but it’s gone a lot smoother than my last launch and the feedback has been fantastic.
What makes you different from other venues out there?
It’s the uniqueness of the space and what we provide from the cocktail bar in the basement and the whisky shop. They have polar differences but the same attitude, which is really good drinks, good service and a good atmosphere. It’s the key difference we look to create. You can have the best drink of your life, but if the atmosphere is terrible, it’s not worth it.
We recognise a load of your staff here who have previously worked at the Milroy’s of Soho. Have you brought the whole team over?
I’m a big believer that you promote from within. You don’t hire from the top; you train people and everyone builds up their skillset over time. What I’ve done with the original managers – Chris and Eddie – is made Eddie the one overseeing the whisky bars and Chris, with Jack as his main man back-of-house, in charge of the cocktail bars across both sites. Andrea and Paul are new to the team and both fantastic. Paul used to work with me way back when and then left to go to Hawksmoor where his menu just got voted “Best Menu for a Restaurant Bar” at Tales of the Cocktail. He wanted to come back and I said he could when I had something for him. He was the first on the list when we had the new site.
It’s been a year-and-a-half in the making. I did a lot of market research…which was basically me getting pissed in different sites around London. We have quite a different offering so we needed to find a building that could support that and an area that would make sense. We need somewhere like Soho where you have both the cocktail and whisky crowds, so we settled on Spitalfields because if you go too far West, you kill the cocktail side of things, of you go too far East, you kill the whisky side. This is a great melting pot like the one we have in Soho.
Tell us a little bit about the design
We did a complete redesign. Mark Rees who carried out the work did the bars for SUSHISAMBA and a load of other industry spots. We got together and designed it and then he turned it around the complete four-floor refurb in six-weeks! This burnt timber wall is the only one of its kind in the world. It’s European oak that we sent to a guy who puts it into panels and chars it for us before sending it back. You can get char wood walls but not with this panelling. It has a purpose here.
Throughout the building there’s a lot of masculine feminine themes. I like the way everything interacts. You’ve got these real harsh walls and then these feather cloud lights. I think there’s synergy involved in it that reflects what we have in Soho where there’s a mix of male & female and 20-year-olds & 60-year-olds all drinking together quite nicely, which is fantastic! In the design here, we’ve pulled these odd things together, but it worked!
That’s great! So let’s go back in time a bit…How did you first get into bars?
I first got into hospitality doing illegal bars. I was renting this big four-storey warehouse up the road but it was a bit much on the rent so we started renting it out to film and photography shoots. I started to do pop-up restaurants and things there and started getting really into the food and booze scene. That turned into me doing illegal bars there for people who lived in Shoreditch. It was about eight or nine years ago when Shoreditch was turning. It was a really cool locals’ place and it went really well, so I thought I should probably start doing it for real.
I got a restaurant in Soho, because it’s very hard to get bars there, and it went really well. It got voted “Best New Restaurant Opening”, which was fantastic but I found out that I had zero palate for food! I started getting really into the cocktails and it was actually Milroy’s that got me into the whisky as they supplied it for us.
So you were a fan of Milroy’s before you became an owner! How did you come to take it on?
The current owners of Milroy’s were turning it into a wine shop. I realised that the only palate I had in life was for harsh alcohol, I sold my restaurant, bought Milroy’s and brought it back to life. We actually still get letters from John Milroy who is the only surviving brother. The pictures on the stairs are from his memoirs that he sent us. We write letters to each other and we’re going to go down and see him soon.
The Milroy brothers were the guys who started this all in London. The guys from Berry Bros & Rudd trained under the Milroys, Sukhinder from The Whisky Exchange trained at Milroy’s, Colin Dunn started there… All the big guys in the industry are connected to Milroy’s. The brothers were the first guys to bring single malt to London. What they’ve done for this industry is amazing, so it’s nice to have someone who comes from that saying “you’ve done well with our baby”.
What was your plan when taking over Milroy’s?
I remember John told me, “Whisky is made from a bunch of farms in Scotland. It’s a peoples’ drink.” It lost its way a bit in the 90s and became for guys in smoking jackets and lost what it really was. I used to hate going to whisky bars. They used to look down on me because I’m just a tatty hipster with a dog and a motorbike. I just wanted to go in and enjoy whisky.
When I bought Milroy’s, I wanted to emulate what the Milroy brothers did. Whisky is for everybody. We do an Only Women in Whisky Night where I’m not even allowed in and it’s run by my female members of staff, who get women in the industry to come in and talk about whisky and their experiences and do tastings. It’s packed out every month we do it. We get all these new and independent bottlings in. We sort of do now what they were pioneering back then.
It was also so important for me that we just talk to customers. You should be able to come in, see 300 whiskies and still not feel daunted. Just come in and there should be a good atmosphere in there for you to relax and drink in.
Members’ Clubs are a new venture for Milroy’s. Can you tell us about your model?
It’s the first members’ club we’ve done and we’re not in it to sell 1,000 memberships at a time and make a load of money. It’s more about the customer experience and nailing that as we did at the Soho branch. Everyone loves drinking there. We want to replicate that here.
We have two types of membership here: a standard one for £250 and then the £1,000 per year premium one. We’re capping the standard membership at 250 because we don’t want to pack this place out, so the experience for the drinker is still good. We’re only doing 20 of the premium.
What’s the difference between the membership types?
If you’re charging someone £1000, my philosophy is that you should get that money back somehow. You can’t charge someone £1000 to walk into a building. That annoys the hell out of me as it just doesn’t make sense in my head. So you should be able to almost get it back. So that’s what we did here.
The tastings we hold are usually £25-30 a head. So, 12 of those, you make your money back on the £250 membership. With the premium membership, you basically get to buy whisky from the shop in Soho at a discount, store it here and drink it on site. So you’re buying at retail price and drinking at retail, rather than buying at bar price. It’s for the drinkers that spend about £15-£20 a dram. So, if you buy three bottles at £120 a bottle, and you drink those throughout the year, you make your money back just on the difference from buying it at the bar and buying it from the shop. We’ve sold a load of them already.
I’m never going to charge someone to walk into a room. I don’t like that. I hate going to clubs where they charge you entrance fees. I hate New Years where suddenly you have to pay to get in somewhere. That’s what’s cool about the membership structure – you will get your money back essentially but we are also offering something unique with the incredible stock, our beautiful cigar terrace, the tasting room and the food.
Tell us a bit about the new food offering
There’s food on all the floors: lighter finger food options and more lunchtime dishes on the top floors. The members’ club is open 12pm to 2am and have some gorgeous dishes like a Camembert infused with Bunnahabhain, that actually needs to carry an ABV! There’s also some lovely pork dishes, sausage rolls and these incredible Salmon Macaroons that are unlike anything I’ve ever had before.
Milroys OF Spitalfields is still very new. What is the most important thing to you at the moment with the new venue?
For me, it’s all about the whisky and making sure you get something for your money. I hate ripping people off. I can’t stand it. My dad taught me something good. He said “Do something you love. Do it well and the money will come eventually.” I’m just focusing on getting this bit right. That’s all I’ve done throughout my business life. We’ve done it in Soho and we’re doing it here. This place will do very well in the next few years but right now, I’m just focusing on people having a good time.
Membership applications to Milroys of Spitalfields is now open:
For membership applications, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Dram House Membership – £250 per year standard membership
- 12 free tastings supported by brands at the Spitalfields site
- 10% discount on Milroy’s bottlings
- Entry for the member with up to two guests
The Dram House Premium Membership – £1000 per year, limited membership
- Access to all tastings at the Spitalfields and Soho site
- 10% discount off all stock in the shop
- Entry for the member with up to three guests
- Storage cage within the bar to hold a limited number of bottles of their whisky bought the through Milroy’s Shop
- These bottles can be consumed on the premises
Corporate Memberships – £1500 per year
All the above and…
- Access for staff and up to six guests (advanced warning for larger groups)
- Unique space in East London to hold product training for the on-trade within the tasting room on the 2nd floor
- Complementary tea and coffee for meetings
Milroys of Spitalfields, 76 Commercial Street, London, E1 6LY
Milroys of Spitalfields is open Monday-Saturday. The whisky bar is walk-in only (6pm-12am), or you can make a reservation at the basement cocktail bar The Proofing Room (Mon-Thu 6pm-12am; Fri-Sat 6pm-1am) here.