Well set in Soho

Well set in Soho

An extended tasting area and showroom at London's Vintage House reflect how malt whisky is evolving as customers demand more choice. Dominic Roskrow reports

Places | 25 Sep 2003 | Issue 33 | By Dominic Roskrow

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If you ever need proof that the whisky market is evolving fast, look no further than The Vintage House in London’s fashionable West End.It was featured in the very first issue of Whisky Magazine some five years ago – and the differences between then and now couldn’t be more marked.In 1998 owner Malcolm Mullin could boast that he stocked 700 whiskies, the largest shop range in England. Today that figure stands at a shade under 2000 – putting it up with the world heavyweights. The number of whiskies actually displayed to the customer has risen from 300 to about 1000.Back then the most expensive whisky cost £4,000. Today several comfortably surpass that, and the top priced bottle – a 1926 Macallan from the Fine and Rare range – weighs in at a cool £20,000. Glance along the shelves today and you’re struck by the sheer diversity of the whisky.Rare expressions, cask strength bottles and unusual finishes all help to add a fresh dimension to the traditional range of malts.When you consider The Vintage House only started promoting whisky seriously 15 years ago and that since 1998 it has tripled the number of bottles it stocks from the total it had built up in the first 10 years, then it’s clear that whisky has a momentum right now.There are less immediately obvious changes, too. More people now want to experiment with different whiskies, and while malt seems to be going from strength to strength (no pun intended) Malcolm says there has been a significant decline in cognac sales. These two trends are not unrelated.“In a sense cognac is a blend,” says Malcolm. Like blended whisky its makers try to produce the same product every year. But people want something different each year, as with fine wine.“They say that the French buy more whisky in a week than they buy cognac in a month. Customers come in and often don’t want what they had last time. Research shows that the more people know about malt whisky the less loyal they are to a particular distillery. They like to experiment.”The Vintage House has been in Old Compton Street, Soho, for some 60 years, and has seen the area change beyond recognition. These days the area is a fashion magnet, particularly for London’s gay community.Indeed it might seem incongruous that a shop specialising in what is often seen as a traditional drink is thriving in such surrounds...Not necessarily so. According to Malcolm, these days customers might be predominantly male, but they cover all age groups.“They basically fall in to two types,” he says. “Those who know about whisky and know precisely what they are looking for and those who are buying presents.“In the latter case we help them find something through price points and styles of whisky. But that’s still a hard thing to do because at the end of the day it is what they prefer.”To help the process the shop has about 40 whiskies available for tastings for those who are interested enough.The new showroom area, converted from a storeroom, gives Malcolm and his staff a bit more room and privacy to introduce interested customers to new whiskies.Its newness also gives the shop a relaxed and less formal feel, something that one suspects is deliberate on the part of the shop. For there’s nothing snooty or elitist about the operation. While Scottish malt remains the driving force, a recent window display gave a massive platform to an extensive range of bourbons.Certainly Malcolm’s not precious about the topic of whisky, but he is optimistic that the next five years can be even more successful.“There is so much choice now,” he says. “The independent bottlers and the new expressions from the distilleries make it all very interesting. It is such a good time to be in whisky because there is a lot going on.”
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