In an age when trends come and go at the whim of an Instagram influencer, it is sobering to be reminded that London merchant Berry Bros & Rudd has traded from the same shop at 3 St James’s Street since 1698. Founded by a widow (known only by her surname, another B – Bourne), the original shop was a grocer’s, trading in spices, coffee and teas. The business continued along its merry way as a family concern, as it does to this day, and by 1810 the first member of the Berry family, George, was involved. With him came a clearer focus on wines and spirits, and today this stalwart of London’s blue-blooded St James’s scene is the holder of two royal warrants, from both HM the Queen and HRH the Prince of Wales, having supplied the royal family with libations since 1760.
It is for its wines that the merchant has long been primarily known, however. Yet as Lizzy Rudd – chairman of Berrys and another descendant of the family dynasty – points out, its spirits heritage is arguably stronger. ‘It was in our second century that we went into the wine and spirits trade, and we did so by importing Cognacs and rums, and ageing and bottling them in the UK. This was very much the Berry family legacy.’
Ronnie Cox, the brand’s heritage director, goes deeper: ‘The first records we have of selling brandy date from 1795, and by the beginning of the 1800s there were plenty of casks of various spirits being stored in the cellars under these parts of London,’ he says. ‘But the real change came with the Single Bottle Act, in 1861, when wine and spirits merchants were able to sell individual bottles. Previous to this, it was the domain of the bigger houses and wealthier households who could afford to buy and store casks.’ This change in law opened the door for Berrys to become the independent bottler that it remains today. ‘We think we are the oldest independent bottler of spirits still in existence,’ notes Rudd.
Today, Berrys is focusing on its own range of independently bottled, hand-selected, aged spirits
‘It was when Lizzy’s grandfather came into the business in 1920 that the whisky side started to shape up,’ says Cox. ‘Before that, it was all about customers coming in and selecting a spirit to be bottled. That’s when we took on the role of curating the spirit in-bottle.’ In 1923, Berrys saw an opportunity in the Prohibition-hit United States, where the demand for illicit Scotch whisky had rocketed. To quench the thirst that had developed, the merchant came up with a new concept: a light and drinkable blended Scotch, Cutty Sark. Bottles would be shipped to the Bahamas, and the rest of the work would be done by the now famous runners. This foothold into the all-important American market gave Cutty Sark – and Berrys – a significant advantage, and by the middle of the 20th century, after the repeal of Prohibition, Cutty Sark was selling more than a million cases a year in Manhattan alone.
The platform allowed the business to build strong relationships with distilleries across Scotland, building up stocks of Scotch of its own. Through these relationships, Berrys acquired the rights to The Glenrothes single malt, the first single malt to release only vintages as core expressions, further bolstering the business’s whisky credentials.
Today, after selling both Cutty Sark (2010) and The Glenrothes (2017), Berrys is focusing on its own range of independently bottled, hand-selected, aged spirits. ‘We found ourselves without a big brand in whisky,’ notes Cox. ‘And that’s when we said to ourselves, “Hang on – we do have a brand.” So we decided to focus more fully on our Own Selection range.’
This freedom brought about a wider vision for the merchant’s own-label offerings, made up of purchased spirits, as outlined by reserve spirits manager Doug McIvor. ‘We are now focusing on what independent bottling is all about, which is diversity,’ he tells me. ‘It’s not just about Scotch whisky these days; I’m looking at the wider whisky world, as well as rum, too. It’s about investing in the right thing for future generations, looking at how tastes change over the years and choosing the best from around the world.’
With more than 35 years’ experience in wine and spirits, McIvor is about to complete his second decade at Berry Bros & Rudd, and his love of spirits is wide. Herein lies the key to Berrys’ Own Selection range of spirits. Rooted in whisky (McIvor is a Scotsman, after all), it has grown to encompass a wider range of spirits – from Cognac to rum, Armagnac to Calvados – selected purely on their ability to delight. ‘The best possible products for their price’, as McIvor puts it. It is his job to deliver this.
‘I’m like the head gardener at an estate,’ he says. ‘I’ve got a seed bank of casks, and I watch over them, always ensuring there is a mix of fruit, flowers and vegetables for the big house.’
This is evidenced in the 2021 autumn batch of releases, which encompasses not just benchmark Scottish single malts but also whiskey from Chicago and rum from Barbados. The previous summer batch included Tasmanian single malt, a first for the firm, taking its place alongside traditional spirits from Scotland. And for such special spirits, Berrys has gone one further, working with top design house Stranger & Stranger to develop a bespoke bottle for its Own Selection, the first time the merchant has taken this route for 323 years.
Berry Bros & Rudd is a business that has always been fleet of foot; it has had to be in order to survive for more than three centuries. Yet it is fleet of foot in classic leather brogues, competing in the Olympics on a penny farthing – and winning. ‘We talk about having one foot in the past and one in the future,’ says Rudd. ‘We learn from the past, but we’re always looking ahead. People come back to us generation after generation. When someone buys a bottle with our name on it, we want it to be a stamp of approval, to be the best in its class.’
Through its own-label spirits range, Berrys finds itself in the same bracket as its counterparts across Mayfair on Savile Row – tailors who don’t make the cloth but cut it and style it with extreme care, knowledge and expertise. For those dealing in great taste, it’s the place to go if you’re looking for something smart, stylish and always in fashion.
The best of Berrys’ Own Selection autumn releases
1. Teaninich Small-Batch Single-Malt Scotch Whisky
Year of distilling/bottling: 2009 / 2021
Fluffy white marshmallows and heather honey provide a base for white peaches, crepe suzette and Lily of the Valley, with a hint of parma violets and notes of flinty blanc de blanc. Instantly quaffable.
2. FEW American Whisky
Year of distilling/bottling: 2017 / 2021
Ageing: Sauternes finish Barrel
Toasted marshmallows and fresh rye bread, this is autumn in a glass. Strawberries drizzled with sweet, sticky balsamic glaze. Rose petals and ginger cake. The right balance of subtle complexity with just enough power to do justice to the flavours.
3. Foursquare Rum
Year of distilling/bottling: 2010/2021
Ageing: Sauternes barrel
Maple syrup, cherry cola and pine forest in spring, backed by toffee and fig leaf, with a hint of quince jelly. Vintage leather and palo santo combine with fresh red cherries, butterscotch and blood orange, for a rum that demands your time and doesn’t waste a moment of it.
4. Caol Ila
Year of distilling/bottling: 2009/ 2021
A vintage stream train pulls into the station, puffing aromatic coal smoke into the air, as a nearby shoe-shine stall prepares fresh chamois leathers to polish the vintage leather brogues of a businessman with recently lacquered hair and a smoking pipe laden with vanilla tobacco. A timeless scene; a timeless whisky.
Year of distilling/bottling: 1993/2021
A complex whisky that has rich vanilla cream and swathes of oak-aged chardonnay combine with vine tomato leaf that gives way to passion fruit and chargrilled pineapple. Thick cut marmalade and freeze-dried raspberries dipped in white chocolate prevail on this fruity-yet-robust offering.
Year of distilling/bottling: 2008/2021
Like walking through the streets of Marrakesh, this gives sun baked earth, leather, Moroccan spices, dates dipped in rich chocolate and nutty overtones of freshly chopped hazelnuts drizzled with honey. Who needs travel with whisky this evocative?