I’m a big fan of nostalgia. While I’m not one to live in the past, I do like thinking back fondly on times gone and being able to unearth lovely memories to ponder.
And so I found myself doing just this as I recently stood in the basement of Milroy’s of Soho, a most wonderful whisky shop on Greek Street in London – and the oldest in the city – that I have mentioned often on this site. Staring at the completely refurbished surroundings I could, simultaneously, think back to the winter of 2008 and remember the first whisky tasting I went to in that exact same space, the tasting that got me hooked on this delicious spirit. I looked back happily on that time, realising there has been so much change personally and professionally since then.
And much as there has been change for me, there has been change for Milroy’s as well. The shop was opened in 1964 by the Milroy brothers: John and Wallace. The first shop of its kind specialising in Scotch whisky in London, Milroy’s became known for helping to guide many a Londoner’s palate to this fine product. It went on to be owned by La Reserve under Mark Reynier of Bruichladdich fame’s watch, and then Jerobaoms. In 2014, it was bought out by an independent team of eager folks, keen to bring something new to the famous venue. After a refurbishment in early 2015, the shop is looking fantastic, with a large bar upstairs for tasting alongside the numerous bottles for sale, and a secret cocktail bar called The Vault of Soho, hidden down a set of stairs behind a bookcase at the back of the shop.
The team now includes owner Martyn ‘Simo’ Simpson who, at only 28, has already run a construction company, and opened bars and restaurants in London, alongside purchasing and GM Lee Tomlinson and retail manager and online coordinator Angus Martin. Together they have put a youthful edge back into the place, and are making it a destination spot for not just whisky lovers, but cocktail and bar lovers too.
My most recent visit came about because the team are putting on some fantastic whisky tastings as part of the revamped space. I was attending the Feis Ile event, which included a try of six distillery bottlings from the recent Islay Whisky Festival in May. Having not had the chance (STILL) to visit Islay during the festival, I was eager to see what was on offer and my tasting notes follow at the bottom of this piece.
What I think is most impressive about the regeneration of Milroy’s is that the management team truly reflect the changing attitudes towards whisky. When the Milroy brothers opened it and made it famous for Scotch in London back in the ’60s, they may not have been able to picture a time when 20- and early 30-somethings would flock to the space to taste whisky and imbibe cocktails til the early hours. But that’s what I love about the whisky industry: it’s ever changing and full of surprise.
Little did I know seven years ago that I, too, would get so fascinated by this world. As the tasting commenced that night in Milroy’s, I couldn’t help but think how fortunate I was to happen upon Milroy’s and how fortunate I was to experience it again in the early days of its regeneration.
And here’s what I tasted most recently…
Bunnahabhain Feis Ile 2015: 57.4%:
11 years in Manzanilla casks
(n): Hugely dark, big bold sherry notes at first alongside a bit of sulphur. Needed time in the glass to relax as was very intense when first nosed. As it opened, notes of orange sweeties, blackberries, brambles and humbugs emerged alongside a slight saltiness, thyme and chocolate.
(p): Interestingly sharp at first on the palate – acidic and lemony, with a slight bitter pith note. Quite dark and a bit too sulphury for my liking (but I find I’m quite sensitive to it – other people there loved this release). Nutty and drying at the back of the palate.
With water: Nuttier on the nose and quite pleasant, but didn’t love the palate.
In conclusion: Needs time in the glass for it to air out. Not the usual sherried fruitcake note – you can tell it’s had a different type of sherry treatment than more standard Oloroso.
Caol Ila Feis Ile Release 2015: 56.4%:
(n): Really rounded, with marzipan and a nice bit of sweetness that underlies the peat smoke. Slightly dusty, alongside notes of lemon peel, liquorice, pears, pink peppercorns and fresh apples.
(p): Campfire smoke: like being hugged by someone wearing a campfire-smoke infused hoodie. Drying and flinty, along with dark chocolate and roast coffee before a nuttiness like peanuts or peanut butter. Bold but comforting.
In conclusion: I really loved this one. I kept going back to nose it. There was a great split between the fruitiness on the nose and the warming smoke and earthiness on the palate.
Bowmore: Virgin Oak Cask: 55.7%:
(n): Christmas wrapping paper, lemon pepper, cask, pine/balsalm tree, candles/crayons, fresh wood shavings, PlayDoh, waxy cherries from the jar, tinned pineapple and smoked meat. A fascinating and beguiling nose.
(p): Bizarre progression on the palate: starts quite meaty, before going into a waxy, honeyed, apply territory. A burst of really aged yellow/orange fruit followed led to a drying finish.
In conclusion: I loved this when I first nosed it: the fresh oak gave it a great richness. But as it aired out, more of the alcohol came through and it was quite sharp.
A marriage of three fresh bourbon barrels, at seven years of age
(n): Oaty, cereal box notes were immediately present, before a gentle earthiness, alongside lemon and vanilla sugar. It became more fruity as it aired: pineapple, banana, apple, sherbet and sweet peat.
(p): Spice, warming and quite forward on the front of the palate. More smoke than I was expecting, but a lovely honey and vanilla note balanced it out.
With water: Became a lot smokier. Suddenly the smoke I wasn’t getting on the nose leapt out. As it aired out, it really came into its own and was wonderfully balanced.
In conclusion: This is the oldest release from Islay’s newest distillery and was a favourite of many on the night, including my partner Herman – a fellow whisky lover and whisky ambassador.
Laphroaig Cairdeas 2015: 51.5%:
(n): Nutty with a lovely bit of heat. Caramelised nuts, toffee, butter, a slight savouriness, burnt toast and wood planks: all added up to a rich, delightful, balanced nose with less smokiness than you might expect.
(p): Chocolate covered coconut balls, warm melting toffee, apples, a good whack of peat and a real grainy note. It was as if I was stood right back on the floor maltings at Laphroaig: it really captured the essence of the distillery.
In conclusion: A real corker of a whisky: classic, rounded, rich and smoky without being too intense. Created for the distillery’s 200th anniversary, it’s one the team should be very proud of.
Lagavulin: 24 year old: 59.9%:
(n): A mash up of fruit roll-ups, leather, sea water, strawberries, vanilla butter and corn cakes – it became sweeter as it aired out and was a delight on the nose. I’d never have guessed the strength.
(p): Very savoury, but then a burst of fruit before drying back out at the back of the palate – an excellent rollercoaster on the tongue. Sweet popcorn, ashy branches, sap and pancakes all combined together.
In conclusion: One of the oldest of this year’s Feis Ile releases, this is something special from Lagavulin. I couldn’t get enough of the nose.
With thanks to Milroy’s of Soho for the invitation to the tasting.
For further details on the shop and its upcoming events, visit: http://shop.milroys.co.uk/tasting-events