Inside Lord Byron’s Favourite Wine Shop
Berry Bros. & Rudd in London is Europe’s oldest wine merchants. Opened in 1698, the shop was frequented by Beau Brummell and Lord Byron, and once became political hide-out for Napoleon III.
Photo courtesy Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Sometimes, London is better than fiction.
Take Berry Bros. & Rudd wine merchants: it's like Ollivanders magic wand shop on Diagon Alley. The windows are made from tiny panes of glass, the floor slopes at a significant angle, and behind the huge wooden counter are some of the country's most expert wine salesmen.
But, for all that it wouldn't be out of place in a Dickens novel, this place is real. In fact, it's possible that Dickens knew and even visited Berry Bros. himself.
You see, Berry Bros. & Rudd is the oldest wine merchant in Europe, and their shop has been open on the same spot on the same London street, with the same slanted floor since 1698—decades before Dickens was even a twinkle in the eye of his father.
"Whitehall Palace burnt down in the year we were founded," says one of the shop's Masters of Wine and sales director Demetri Walters. "It had been the largest palace in Europe. William of Orange had to stuff his entourage into that little tiny palace over there."
Walters gestures over at St. James' Palace, less than 200 metres away.
"It was entirely unsatisfactory for him but it was great for us because look how close we are," he adds. "A little fledgling business suddenly had the King and all his entourage buying tea, coffee, spices snuff, tobacco, cocoa, plus wine plus spirits here. We were the cornershop!"
It's not like any cornershop I've ever been in. For starters, a massive set of old school weighing scales stands in the middle of the room on one of the flatter bits of floor, looking significantly more swanky than my local off licence ever has.
"To get people to hang around the shop, we used to weigh them so we could sell them more wine," Walters explains.
Before the days of the National Health Service, you couldn't just pop to your local surgery for a check up on your general health.
"In the 18th, 19th, and even the early 20th century, if you were losing weight and you didn't know why, you were dying," Walters says with aplomb. "People wanted to be weighed to know they were in stasis. Nowadays, if you put on five pounds you're like, 'Oh God.' In those days, it meant you were going to live."
Taking me to a safe tucked away in a corner, Walters opens it to reveal a pile of ledgers: the handwritten records of everyone who came to be weighed while they bought their wine. William Pitt, a former Prime Minister and members of the royal family are among those listed with the date, weight, and their "excuses"—like the fact that they were wearing their shoes. It's comforting to know that people hundreds of years ago were using the same reasons I do for being a little heftier than they ought to be.
"Lord Byron took this to the nth degree having gained almost five stone three years apart," says Walters. "He attributed his weight gain to mud on his coat. Beau Brummell, the ultra dandy of the late 18th century, made sure his weight was accurate and was weighed with the shutters up in the nude upstairs."
Weigh-ins may seem like an extreme length to go to to sell more wine but they proved to be a great success. Number 3 St. James' Street became a hub for the stellar names of the day and, of course, like attracts like and their business thrived.
Leading me downstairs to the cellars, Walters tells me about another famous visitor to the shop.
"This was our barrel cellar," he says. "In the corner over there was a coal bunker where a friend of George Berry lived for a while. His name was Louis Napoleon."
Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew and the future Napoleon III lived behind a piece of sailcloth to escape rioters for a full two years between 1846 and 1848. Though I'm sure it wasn't too much of a hardship to live in a wine cellar for a while.
We pass shelves holding some of the family's reserves, with some notable gaps.
"The family has around 10,000 bottles in reserve, some of which we keep here, dating from 1834 to the present day," Walters says. "We don't sell them. There's always somebody who can afford any price tag, but it's just not for sale. We drink these with guests and clients."
I point to a two bottle-sized gap and ask what happened to this particular wine.
"Yes, the gap," replies Walters. "That was yesterday and very nice it was too." He looks a little sheepish. "We've been rinsing them lately."
The tunnels and rooms and cellars seem to go on and on—a labyrinth of wine tasting rooms, cellars, and shelves of wine and spirits, providing a taster of the size of Berry Bros. & Rudd's modern day operation.
"We're in retail, wholesale; we sell to restaurants, livery companies, clubs, airlines, and even supermarkets," explains Walters. "There's a lot more than just this shop. We sell to places where the public wouldn't see that it's actually from us."
Berry Bros. may sound like a secret society but there's nothing sinister about it. When you're in business for over three centuries, it seems you can do a lot of networking. Which just leaves one last question: what's the secret to their longevity?
"There's a lot to be said for being a family business because it gives you a long view on the business: they want to have something to pass on," Walters shrugs. "We aim to be a world authority on wine. If you have a small, catholic, conventional list, then you can't do that, but if you've only got weird and wacky wines, then you're not offering something that's good to drink. We have 5000 different wines and a thousand different spirits from all over the world. They're wines that keep us solvent, wines that represent our authority and open-mindedness, and last of all, wines that people want."
Give the people what they want and they'll keep coming back for more, whether that's their weight in a ledger, a place to hide from would-be political rioters, or just a damned good bottle of Merlot to drink with dinner.
No wonder Berry Bros. & Rudd has stood the test of time.