Blithe spirits: Discover London’s high-end drink emporiums

Words by
Chloe Scott-Moncrieff

5th June 2020

With blending houses, tasting rooms and even the city’s first whisky hotel, we present the drink destinations we can’t wait to visit once their doors are open again

Next to London’s Huguenot quarter opposite Spitalfields stands an unassuming townhouse. Inside, however, it is a whisky afficionado’s paradise. At the top of the four-storied building is a member’s club and cigar terrace; the ground floor has a panoply of 1,000 whiskies to try or buy; in the basement, meanwhile, is a bar, The Proofing Room. Most compelling is level two’s tasting room where, over a grandiose boardroom table, visitors can try anything from a £500 glass of 1964 Glenfarclas, to a coveted own label single cask edition, a powerful nine-year-old Ardmore.

This is Milroy’s Spitalfields a new outpost from Milroy’s Soho, the capital’s oldest whisky specialist. Obsessive about the dram, yes, but it’s also one of multiple openings reflecting a new style of drinking den hitting London. These spaces, often high-end craft distilleries, blending and tasting rooms reclaiming centuries-old traditions, are flourishing across the capital.

Blithe spirits: Discover London’s high-end drink emporiums
Milroy’s Spitalfields is a whisky afficionado’s paradise, offering 1,000 whiskies to try or buy

Among the walls of whisky, Milroy’s CEO Simo Simpson, who with tattoos and a healthy motorbiking habit breaks all stereotypes of the fusty whisky connoisseur, believes there’s an increasing demand for such establishments. “Two years ago at Milroy’s Soho it got insanely busy,” he says. “We realised it then.” As with all these operations, breadth of offerings and experiences are key. In the tasting room, “there are no menus and no two tastings are the same”, Simpson explains. Single malt buffs and the whisky-curious alike are invited to the wood-panelled tasting room for 60- to 90-minute sessions. There are tiers available: £35 for the introductory level trying five drinks to a luxurious price on application one, Dream drams. The new member’s club, The Dram House, is equally egalitarian. Packages include  £250 a year for 12 free tastings to £1000 at the top end, which involves having your own cage to squirrel the best bottles away.  

Blithe spirits: Discover London’s high-end drink emporiums
Budding master blenders try their skills at one of Black Rock’s blending sessions

Over at Black Rock, the award-winning whisky bar under the aegis of Tom Aske and Tristan Stephenson, what was once a single basement bar nestled behind Liverpool Street is now a five-storey whisky hotel — London’s first. “It’s already sold out for the first two weeks,” says bar manager Matt Hastings.

Also distinctive are the whisky blending classes, where budding master blenders can embark on two-hour sessions in a private blending room. Bucking conventional trends of categorising whisky by region, Hastings explains that “whiskies are discussed by flavour — let’s face it, not all Islay whiskies taste alike. So there’s fragranced, fruity, spicy, smoky — in these sessions, we’re looking for balance.” Happily, he’s witnessed some outstanding creations by guests, who are a medley of malt aficionados. If visitors would like to order more, the bar keeps everyone’s recipes on file.

Blithe spirits: Discover London’s high-end drink emporiums
The Whisky Exchange is moving into tastings

Another brand that has become aware of London’s ever-evolving scene is The Whisky Exchange best known for its online retail and shops. For its third site opening at London Bridge, the store is to offer a cornucopia of activities for visitors to enjoy. There will, of course, be rows of interesting whiskies to navigate, but there will also be barrel-top tastings, with a new distillation and education space opening downstairs in the coming months, accessed through a secret entrance.

Whiskies are discussed by flavour — let’s face it, not all Islay whiskies taste alike. So there’s fragranced, fruity, spicy, smoky — in these sessions, we’re looking for balance

As James Hayman, founder of newly opened Merser & Co — London’s first rum blending house in 100 years — points out: “Why not bring these lost crafts back to the city?” Certainly at Merser & Co, the Hayman family have done exactly that. Inside a restored merchant’s house in Temple, imbibers get to sample venerable cocktails such as Palmetto, with Merser aged rum, vermouth and orange bitters. The basement is spellbinding — “a bit like a museum showing how cask ageing works”, says Hayman. But the pièce de résistance is watching the blending of the rums — from Jamaica, Barbados, Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Panama — in action. Merser & Co’s first product is a double-barrelled rum, a recreation of the classic 17th-century spirit, barrelled once in the Caribbean and a second time here. 

Blithe spirits: Discover London’s high-end drink emporiums
Thanks to Crowdfunder, Thameside Rum has been able to complete its first batch

Although these concepts might carry the label of being “destination” places, these innovators are often independent smaller businesses. Thameside Rum is one such example, blending rum in Battersea. Part of the investment for its “cane-to-cask” rum production is through Crowdfunder, which has been enough to kick-start the first blend: “We’ve completed our first batch, which includes tropical fruit nuances from a Jamaican rum, while a Guyanan part imparts a natural sweetness,” says founder Matt Perkins, who hopes to open a tasting room soon.  

The capital will no doubt see more such openings, according to Black Rock’s Hastings. “We’ve all been pushing ‘drink less and enjoy nicer stuff’ — now it’s happening.”