Earlier this year, I became rather enamoured with what is arguably the drinks world’s most prestigious address – No. 3 St James’s – home to the wine and spirits merchant, Berry Brothers and Rudd (known henceforth variously as BBR or Berry’s).
This springtime love affair all started with a ‘three martini lunch’ on a surprisingly balmy day in February. I arrived fashionably late at No. 3 and climbed a steep wooden staircase through a locked door at the back of the shop to meet a group of familiar faces from spirits retail. The event’s hosts were BBR’s charming spirits man, Doug McIvor, and Glenrothes’ brand ambassador and gifted raconteur, Ronnie Cox.
We were each presented with a dry martini made with a thin sliver of grapefruit peel and No. 3 Gin (and the word “vermouth” whispered in its general direction) before being ushered into the historic Chairman’s Room for a delicious four-course meal. Each dish was made in-house, and paired with both a wine from the company’s generous stocks, and a martini.
It was all rather jovial and jolly nice, but I hadn’t the foggiest idea why I was there, let alone how I’d do a write-up. More martinis, then finally some phenomenal whiskies were brought out, and before I knew it we’d had our coffee and were at the local boozer. My notebook was all but blank. I think I’d written something along the lines of “grapefruit peel + No. 3 Gin = good”, but it was hardly a scoop. I soldiered on and drank a few draft ales, followed by Penny Blue rum in a highball glass.
Weeks later, I was back at No.3 with BBR brandsm’n Luigi Barzini for a tasting which began, interestingly enough, with a grain whisky. It seemed appropriate in light of William Grant’s Girvan which was released around the time and hailed as a new genre in the world of whisky, with a price-tag to match.
It’s perfectly possible that traditionally inexpensive grain whisky will one day be seen as a luxury, which will be something of a sting in the tail for grain aficionados currently able to buy very old single-cask whiskies for fractions of the price of their malt counterparts. For the moment, however, bottlers like BBR are releasing single cask grains of their own without the fanfare.
Luigi poured out a 1988 ex-bourbon cask Invergordon from Berry’s Own Selection, selected by Doug McIvor who chooses every whisky the company bottles. Occasionally, as in this case, he’ll lower the ABV to 46% before bottling, based on his own preference. Apart from a little water, the whisky is left pure and unadulterated – you won’t find chill-filtration, and you certainly won’t see even a drop of caramel colouring.
Nose: Very fruity, with bourbon cask notes of vanilla and almond oil. Quite a curious grape-like aroma, and then a touch of raspberry and white chocolate. Some classic grain flavours so far, but with real finesse. It’s highly expressive; there’s nothing subdued about this.
Palate: Creamy, rich entry with more vanilla, which takes the form of Crema Catalana. Mint develops, with a good dose of berry fruits. Raspberries return, but this time it’s raspberry jam in a Victoria Sandwich.
Finish: Light lemon curd and buttery toffee. A lovely salty flavour lingers.
Overall: Very enjoyable. A notably rich grain whisky. Luigi describes whiskies as falling into one of three categories: Uplifting, Conversational or Relaxing. This is definitely the former.
A rich mouthfeel is quite a common theme in Berry’s Own Selection; Doug McIvor won’t bottle anything without one, and things got very rich indeed with the follow-up – a cask-strength 1973 Glenlossie. The light colour from the refill sherry hogshead maturation rendered the incredibly punchy nose rather surprising.
Nose: Big sherry – far more than the colour would suggest. Plenty of cocoa, apple peel and all sorts of fragrant wood. There’s also a hint of porcini mushrooms, which brings real richness.
Palate: Very sweet… another surprise! The initial rush of honey-like sweetness gives way to tangy dried apricot and a curious dusting of masala spice. Maybe a hint of anise.
Finish: It ends on those lovely spices, but retains a lasting pine needle note.
Overall: This is certainly a “conversational” dram; there’s a surprise at every turn, from that hugely aromatic nose, to the astonishing burst of sweetness on the palate.
Despite these glorious drams, whisky is a comparatively new venture for the company. In fact, BBR started life as a grocer’s, when it was established in 1698 by ‘The Widow Bourne’ – a lady of whom very little is known. When her daughter married into the Pickering Family a few years later, the grocer’s became a coffee merchant, and its fortunes took off from there.
After nearby St James’s Palace became the official royal residence, No.3 benefitted from its fortuitous location and London’s great and good came in droves. The ‘Sign of the Coffee Mill’ hanging outside the shop is a relic from the era.
With the Pickering family in control, No.3 was renovated, and remains much the same today. Through the windows at the back of the shop, you can also see Stroud’s Court – now known as Pickering Place – which was done-up at the time, and is notable for being the smallest public square in London. During the more forgiving times of yesteryear, the square – surrounded by marvellous houses built between 1700 and 1734 – had a gaming house at one side, ladies of “somewhat dubious virtue” at t’other, and Berry Bros & Rudd at the far end. One Japanese guidebook even speaks of supposed bloodstains on the paving stones – the remains, it says, of London’s last ever duel fought with swords.
By the mid-18th century, William Pickering Jr. – grandson of The Widow Bourne – was in control of the shop, and it was at this time that the now-famous grocer’s scales were first used to weigh the shop’s customers whilst they awaited their purchases.
The tradition continues to this day, and BBR still keeps its ancient records – dating back to 1765 – of the weights (masses for all you pedants) of its customers, which included such luminaries as William Pitt the Younger, the Aga Khan, and Lord Byron. Luigi showed me one of the weighty books. If a patron’s weight had increased, the shopkeepers had generously noted down possible causes: “greatcoat and hat” or “heavy linens” being examples. This eccentric and glorious practice even helped settle a 19th-century court case.
In part two, the firm loses spirit on the Titanic and I taste a Cognac distilled almost a century ago.