The Last Bite

The Last Bite: London's Oldest Whisky Shop Won't Let Soho Die

Welcome back to The Last Bite, our column on the survival of traditional food establishments. Today, we visit Milroy’s, a whisky shop that has operated in Soho since 1964—and intends to do so for many years to come.

by Johanna Derry
25 January 2017, 10:53am

Welcome back to The Last Bite, our column documenting the survival of traditional food establishments in a ramen-slurping, matcha latte-sipping, novelty cafe-obsessed world. As cities develop and dining habits change, can the dive bars and defiantly untrendy restaurants keep up?

Today, we meet the team—both human and canine—behind Milroy's, a whisky shop in London's Soho.

If the ominous news reports are to be believed, Soho is dying. Some say its businesses are being strangled by impossible rents and tight legislation that has already forced iconic clubs like Madame Jojo's to close. Others put it down to a sinister plot to "clean up" the area's seedy reputation, one that seeks to push out the gay bars and sex shops and drinking dens that give Soho its character. Or maybe Crossrail is to blame.

There are lots of theories, some more conspiratorial than others.

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Milroy's on Greek Street in London's Soho. Photo courtesy Milroy's.

But Martyn Simpson, current owner of Milroy's, the oldest whisky shop in London, located on Soho's Greek Street, doesn't have complete sympathy for that point of view. Yes, he agrees, the taxes are extortionate and seem to rise by massive amounts for no apparent reason, but it's not all doom and disaster.

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"People complain—'Oh this place is closing'—well do something about it," says Simpson, who is known in true Soho style by everyone simply as "Simo." "I didn't have loads of money and I don't come from money, but I had a good idea, I put together a plan, and there are people out there with money who want to invest. Do something about it."

Simo speaks from experience. Two years ago, he noticed that Milroy's was gradually turning into a generic posh wine shop.

"It was breaking my heart a little bit that we were going to lose another bit of the history of Soho," he says. "These guys, the Milroy brothers, I loved them. They'd got me into whisky."

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Photo courtesy Milroy's.

Jack and Wallace Milroy arguably got us all into drinking single malts.

"Before the 60s, everyone drank blends, like Johnnie Walker Red Label," explains Simo. "The Milroys would go up to Scotland and started to ask the distilleries for their single malts. Back then, there were only three or four distilleries even doing them. The brothers would van them down to London and sell them in this shop where we are now."

The Milroys opened their shop in 1964.

"They were the driving force behind getting distilleries to make single malts. Glenfiddich were the first to release a commercially sold single malt in 1967," he adds. "Before that the only ones you could buy were really old and very expensive."

Both the shop and the brothers are legendary, but in the 90s, things began to go awry.

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Milroy's owner Martyn "Simo" Simpson and shop dog Chester. Photo by the author.

"Rumour has it that Jack didn't want his wife to get the shop as part of their divorce settlement, so he sold it to a friend dirt cheap. When his friend realised how much he'd been making, he didn't want to sell it back to him."

A few years after that, Milroy's had been sold to wine merchants Jeroboams and gradually, a piece of whisky history began to fade from view. Until Simo came along, with his "do something about it" philosophy.

"Over a decade ago, I was looking for a bottle of whisky for a friend's dad or something and a mate of mine told me to check this place out," he remembers. "I popped my head in and bought my first bottle, Bruichladdich Classic Laddie."

Although it wasn't the full-blown original whisky shop experience, Simo was a convert.

"Whisky became pretty much the only thing I'd drink. I'm like a Victorian gent but trapped in a hipster's body," he laughs.

Under Jeroboam's ownership, the shop's focus swung towards wine. Simo noticed that they had a licence for a large room downstairs that they were only using for occasional wine tastings.

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Bartender Chris Tanner in The Vault, the downstairs bar at Milroy's. Photo courtesy Milroy's.

"Licences are historical in Soho and like gold dust," says Simo. "I couldn't believe they weren't using it. So I started trying to persuade them to let me open a bar down there."

The campaign to open a bar became a plan to buy the whole shop. True to his words, Simo put together a plan, found investors, bought it, and set about restoring Milroy's to its former glory.

"The stuff we sell here is stuff you can't get, except from a whisky specialist," he says. "There's only a handful of shops in London that do this. We have a lot of single cask whiskies, unusual bottlings, and young and unknown distilleries. If we don't like it, it doesn't go on the shelf."

In spite of the fact that Simo wasn't even a twinkle in his father's eye when Milroy's first opened, he's worked hard to capture the character of the original and to make it relevant for the 21st century. For Burns Night, the shop is hosting a big party with haggis cocktails and a new whisky from R&B Distillers in Edinburgh, a nod to the effort they go to to offer the new and different, as well as staying true to the old.

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"Everything changes," declares Simo. "The idea is not to lose everything, but to keep hold of the good and get rid of the shit bits. I like to think that we kept the spirit of what this place was and have brought our youth and freshness to it."

Looking around Milroy's at the end of a working Thursday, there is a good mix of people calling by: what you might think of as your stereotypical old "whisky connoisseur," but also younger guys with tattoos, women in business suits, and others calling in for a dram and a chat, pausing as they do to pat Chester, the shop dog. Later on in the evening, people will start arriving for cocktails in The Vault, the room downstairs Simo was originally eyeing up, now overseen by ex-Milk and Honey bartender Chris Tanner.

"The way we come across is old Soho," says Simo. "Back in the day, Soho was a very locals place, where you could get everything you wanted in this square mile and everyone knew each other. I wanted to bring that back. My staff know everybody and everybody knows my staff. It's a very personal experience."

It feels like the liberality of sharing whisky is also something being brought forward from the past.

"It doesn't have to be just about making money," he says. "But I believe you can still make money without having to sell shit. We've got passion here. That's what gives it longevity."

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And it's true. Everyone who comes into Milroy's will find it's almost obligatory to enjoy their hospitality with a generous dram of whisky, whether or not they buy a bottle. Though of course, they make it their commitment to make sure you find the perfect bottle.

"We've got the name, we've got the bottlings, we hand pick everything, and so for us this is a long-term game," says Simo. "We bring 50-odd years of history, thousands of bottles tasted, and people get to have whisky chosen for them by experts. That's why it works."

It really does—the attention to detail and the warmth of characters makes Milroy's feel like the true old Soho. And Simo has shown that far from being at death's door, his little bit of it is still very much alive and kicking.