One drink that is very much in fashion in the bars around London is whisky, but that is nothing new. Londoners have been drinking the spirit since the middle of the eighteenth century. As a Blue Badge Tourist Guide, I have taken one for the team in researching and exploring London’s whisky scene.
Historically, London has been a gin town. Production started in the 1700s and within a few years became the scourge of the lower classes. The artist William Hogarth portrayed London at the height of the gin craze with scenes of debauchery, scandal, and poverty.
Whisky bar in London. Photo Credit: © Jonathan Cohen.
In 1782, James Stein Kilbagie of the Kilbagie Distillery flooded the London spirits market with whisky, which the poet Robert Burns referred to as “the most rascally liquor and, in consequence, only drunk by the most rascally part of the inhabitants” in his 1785 poem “The Jolly Beggars.”
During the late 1800s, Justerini & Brooks Wine and Spirits Merchants, still trading to this day from St James Street, saw the potential of blended whisky and became one of the first London merchants to buy stocks of mature malt whisky to develop and market as a ‘house’ blend.
In the early 1930s, J&B Rare was developed, designed specifically to appeal to the American palate and as a chief rival to another new-style blended Scotch – Cutty Sark produced further down at 3, Saint James Street, Berry Bros & Rudd, the oldest wine and spirit merchants in the country. They decided it should be pale in colour so that in Prohibition America, its pale colour convinced suspicious eyes that tea – or at any rate a weaker dram – was being consumed. Cutty Sark was a huge success. In the 1970s it was the biggest selling brand in the largest spirits market the world has ever known:
A bottle of Cutty Sark Scots Whisky. Photo Credit: © Brian Adler via Wikimedia Commons.
For most visitors to the city, the provenance is not the important issue. The question on everyone’s lips is where are the best places to taste the amber nectar in London. And this is where the fun starts. Fortunately, London has a large array of outlets from local distilleries to basement bars. If drinking the night away is what you are looking for, then here are a couple of my favourite places that fit nicely into a succinct group of geographic areas, lending themselves perfectly to a walking tour.
The pick of the crop is Milroy’s of Soho. Head to the back of this famous whisky shop and look out for the fake bookcase. If you push hard enough, it will open to reveal a set of stairs leading down to the Vault – a brooding, underground, candlelit cocktail bar. Round the corner is the Soho Whisky Club, above a whisky shop. It is a private members club, but well worth joining for the regular tasting sessions.
Milroy’s of Soho – London’s Oldest Whisky Specialist. Photo Credit: © Jonathan Cohen.
Shoreditch and Spitalfields are known for their cool demeanour, and that makes them a perfect home for two of the best whisky joints in town. Bull in a China Shop is one of them. A high-end Asian restaurant with an enviable selection of over 100 whiskies from Japan and around the world. The other is Black Rock, an institution and mecca for whisky aficionados.
Thanks to Anistatia Miller & Jared Brown, owners of Mixellany, and two of the most knowledgeable historians of beverages, who have provided me with much of the information for this piece.
Bottles of Chivas Regal Whisky. Photo Credit: © Jonathan Cohen.