When Isabel Graham-Yooll says she has a golden rule never to start tasting whisky before 8.30am she isn't joking.
Tasting is what she does - and she's very good at it. But great as her job obviously sounds, it requires a large amount of skill and a considerable amount of hard work. Every day she is faced with scores of whisky samples and one of her roles is to seek out that special one in a 1000 cask which when bottled will play its part in ensuring the enduring legacy of Milroy's of Soho, one of the world's most famous whisky shops.
"We have a range of single cask bottlings and much of my time is spent searching for ones which are suitable," she says."
We do get offered hundreds of casks and in truth most are passable, some are good, and occasionally we spot something which we think has got just the right balance and that's when we decide to bottle it.
"I buy whiskies for Milroy's of Soho and also make a selection for (parent company) Jeroboams. We don't stock every whisky ever made so I work with the sales team to make a group decision as to what we want to sell. We hold some great whisky tastings down in our cellar.
"We also have a website and so some of the rest of my time is spent trying to add content to it.
“It’s still a hidden gem. It’s time we became a little less shy”
"If ever there was an example of how the traditional world of whisky is embracing the future, Isabel and Milroy's of Soho is it. A shop steeped in history and tradition and with the potential to intimidate the modern customer because of its potentially staid and formal reputation, Milroys could have become an anachronism. But it hasn't, partly due to Isabel's influence. The 35 year old is impressively experienced in the professional world of drinks retailing. She started out selling wine, working part time for Oddbins. She managed a Jeroboams shop for a while, ran the wine and spirit department at Selfridges, and then finally rejoined Jeroboams when it bought Milroys of Soho as part of its purchase of La Reserve.
But Isabel's love of whisky was already well developed.
"I've been enjoying drams for years," she says. "It's the perfect drink for theatre intervals. During my time at Oddbins there was a promotion on the Classic Malts Distillers' Editions - it was not so long after they were launched. I used to take the remains from tasting bottles back to my landlord by way of payment towards the rent. We'd end up finishing the bottle together. It was a revelation for us both as we'd grown accustomed to cheap blends and pub house spirit doubles. Then I got to taste some great whiskies from independent distillers and that was that..."
Milroy's has been selling whisky since 1964 and in that time the industry has changed massively, and probably most significantly in the last 10 years.
Isabel says Milroy's has built up a loyal and regular clientele and it remains unchanged. But that doesn't mean that there hasn't been progress.
"Our business is growing in all demographics," she says. "Our clientele may not have changed but its knowledge levels have. I think it's inevitable that as whisky consumers become more educated there will be greater interest in production methods.Enthusiasts will seek out 'natural' whiskies. The big brand owners will mimic the selection processes of independent bottlers. There will continue to be no agreement on what can be put on the label of a whisky made from malted barley from more than one distillery!"
The next challenge is to ensure Milroy's takes its rightful place in the industry's future. "While Milroy's has a charming reputation among those in the know, it's still a hidden gem," Isabel says. "It's time we became a little less shy."
35Where do you live?
Kilchoman Summer ReleaseFavourite whiskies?
Milroy’s of Soho Badger and Milroy’s of Soho Amrut (both long gone I’m afraid)Favourite distilleries
I haven’t been to them all so it wouldn’t be fair to choose yet