BY ROYAL APPOINTMENT
With two royal warrants – from Her Majesty the Queen and the Prince of Wales – Berry Bros. & Rudd is known for its extraordinary collection of wine and spirits, much of it still in historic cellars in Mayfair. Here, 18,000 bottles are stored under lock and key (and a thick layer of dust). They include imperial pints of Champagne, favoured by Churchill and discontinued when metric measures were introduced. “Churchill believed a 750 ml bottle was too large and a half bottle was ‘insufficient to tease my brains’,” says Geordie Willis, the brand’s Creative Director. “The four glasses you get in a pint is just right.”
Among the cigar shops and gentlemen’s clubs of St James’s Street, the original premises at No. 3 looks like something out of Harry Potter, with its dark, immaculately preserved Georgian facade. The business has been family run since 1698, and today employs no less than six members of staff who are designated “Masters of Wine”. Its outlook is anything but fusty, though. “You have to keep evolving,” says
Geordie, who is the eighth generation of the Berry family to work for the business. “I’d be extremely disappointed if anyone said we are resting on our laurels. We are constantly challenging ourselves to move forward.”
Indeed, change has been a constant over more than three centuries. The shop opened in 1698 as a grocers, specializing in coffee – indeed, there is still a coffee mill on the sign. In the 18th century, it became a fashionable place for people in high society to be weighed – everyone from Lord Byron to the Aga Khan sat on its giant scales for weighing coffee and tea sacks.
The shop started selling wine in the 18th century, but in the 19th century the company – then known as G. Berry – began to specialize in wine and spirits, earning its first royal warrant from Edward VII in 1903 for The King’s Ginger, a liqueur that’s still produced today (the King, apparently, liked to drink it when driving). In the 1940s the Berrys joined forces with employee Hugh Rudd, an expert in German wine, to become Berry Bros. & Rudd, and in 1967 they were the first independent wine merchants to build temperature-controlled wine cellars, in Basingstoke, Hampshire. Nowadays, these state-of-the-art warehouses store almost 10 million bottles, with half the stock owned by customers.
In 2000, the business began to use its historic London cellars to host events; the two-and-a-half-acre underground labyrinth is now alive with tastings, dinners and a wine school, which anyone can sign up for. In 2017, the company opened a bright new retail space on Pall Mall, keeping the original premises on St James’s Street as consulting rooms and the main reception. In 2018, Berry Bros. & Rudd reported a turnover of £187 million, a seven-year high. “That’s a year-on-year growth of nearly 10 per cent,” says Geordie. “In this current economic climate, it’s almost unheard of.”
Geordie’s maternal grandfather was Anthony Berry, who was chairman of the firm between 1964 and 1984. Geordie grew up in Scotland – his mother, Victoria, was a teacher – but became interested in the shop when he was a teenager. “I remember coming down and all the staff flying into a mad panic because I wasn’t wearing a tie,” he recalls. “Someone was dispatched to buy one for me, so I could have lunch with my grandfather in the dining room. That’s when I realized what a special place this is.”
Family members are by no means guaranteed jobs, though, and after university Geordie apprenticed as a Saturday boy, while working at Harper’s Bazaar. When a vacancy came up in the cellars, he took it and was kept on for two years, before being thrown out of the business altogether. “There’s a rule that if you are in the family, you have to do at least two years’ sabbatical,” he says. “So I went to work for a design agency in Chelsea and didn’t come back for five years.”
He returned in 1999 and led the expansion into Asia; the brand became one of the first European wine specialists to establish itself in Hong Kong, now an international wine centre. Another 21st-century success was the launch of its No. 3 London Dry Gin, created to be the perfect base for a dry martini. “We got into gin before everyone else did,” Geordie says. “Nowadays there’s a lot of competition and some great gins out there, so the trend will continue to grow.” No. 3 has won gold at the International Spirits Challenge four times.
The first wine merchant to sell on the internet (the website launched in 1994, before Google and Amazon), Berry Bros. & Rudd has strong online sales and its Instagram feed offers some fascinating insights into the daily workings of the company as well as some spectacular photography. “If we can use technology to be more human, then we’ve got it right,” says Geordie. “We want to replicate the retail experience online, with that level of detail and exceptional customer interaction.”
For decades, the bestselling bottle has been Berry Bros & Rudd Good Ordinary Claret, which costs less than £10. For the past three years a limited number of bottles have been released with a specially designed label: the menswear designer Paul Smith designed one in 2016; artist and designer Luke Edward Hall followed in 2017; while painter and printmaker Kate Boxer designed the 2018 label. “It really punches above its weight,” says Geordie. “It should be a lot more expensive than it is. Plus it’s a little piece of art for under a tenner.”
At the opposite end of the scale is an 1834 Hungarian Tokay on display in the shop – a bottle sold at auction in 2008 for £5,000. “My great-grandfather Francis Berry brought back a selection of these sweet wines from Budapest in the early 1920s,” says Geordie. “It’s known as a ‘unicorn wine’ for its mythical reputation. It’s one of those that people have heard of, but few have tasted. And it gets better with age.” Exactly like Berry Bros. & Rudd.