In the heart of London, between Pall Mall and Piccadilly, sits a wine and spirit store at No.3 St James’s Street which has been occupied and operated by the same family and associates since 1698. A store which under the swinging sign of the coffee mill, was there at the start of the Gin Craze, survived two World Wars, harbored the Emperor of France, helped established the state of Texas, supplied the Titanic, smuggled Scotch during prohibition and kept Kings, Queens, Princes, Kahns and Lords lubricated for over 300 years.
Today the store known as Berry Bros. & Rudd holds status as the oldest continually operated wine and spirits merchant in the world. Just stepping through the front door is a veritable feast for the senses with ancient oak floor boards, French mahogany dado wall paneling and antique furniture all redolent of something between fortified wine and old books. Which is fitting since they have ample of both. Look a little closer and you’ll see portraits of past Royal family members who were regular customers and a framed letter from the White Star Line informing Berry Brothers of the loss of 69 cases of wine and spirits in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.
In short, the Berry Bros. & Rudd store is a historians wet dream. And with over three centuries trading out of the heart of London, the tale of No.3 St James’s Street is the tale of modern London…with a somewhat boozy twist.
Tennis, Coffee, Gin and Fatties
First opened in 1698 by a lady remembered only as Widow Bourne, the store at “the sign of the coffee mill” began its life trading as a luxury grocer and dispenser of fine coffee. Which was a good choice since the London of the late 17th century was one obsessed with two chief commodities, coffee and genever (early gin).
Located near the bottom of St James’s Street, between Green Park and Piccadilly Circus, No.3 holds neighbour with arguably the greatest key to its success, the Royal St James’s Palace. While not as well known as Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace remains the official residence of the sovereign and most senior Royal palace in the British Kingdom despite not hosting a Royal family member since King George III (1836).
Built in 1531 for Henry VIII on the site of an old leper hospital, St James’s Palace was initially dedicated to his second wife Anne Boleyn who lived there from her coronation (1533) until giving birth to her only child and the future Queen Elizabeth. Two and a half years after her royal marriage however, the King had Anne beheaded for not supplying him with a male heir and moved swiftly onto wife number three (of six), Jane Seymour.
Located directly opposite the palace on the corner of Pall Mall and St James’s Street, a long barn like structure was built for use as a Royal indoor tennis court, a pursuit which Henry VIII was a huge fan. Fast forward to 1676 and King Charles II is the resident Monarch at St James’s Palace and, as no great lover of tennis, sold off the courts and land into private development from which the store at No.3 was later built. Anyone visiting Berry Bros. & Rudd today can walk down the passage between St James’s Street and Pickering Place to see a remaining supporting wall from the old Tudor tennis court of Henry VIII.
For Widow Bourne and her shop of luxury groceries however, it was in coffee that real money was made. Since the opening of the first ever western coffee house in Oxford in 1651, the general public took to the bitter black brew with vigor beginning a period of sober intellectual stimulation regarded by historians as the Age of Enlightenment. By the end of the century coffee houses were everywhere with St James’s Street holding some of the finest. The Cocoa Tree, The Smyrna, Thatched House Tavern and the aptly named St James’s Coffee House all appeared within five years of the opening of No.3 and all aimed at the trading or dispensing coffee and hot cocoa to the aristocratic elite of central London. As for everyone else, well if you couldn’t afford the coffee you could definitely afford the gin.
By 1721, English Excise and Revenue accounts noted that approximately one-quarter of London’s residents were employed in the production of gin, equating for almost 2 million gallons (9.1 million litres) of tax-free product a year. Over the following decade, that number would double again. By the time England began to return from the depths of what was referred to as “gin ruin”, it was 1740 and No.3 St James’s Street had passed from Window Bourne to her grandchildren under the name of Pickering, redeveloping the shop and establishing Pickering Square behind the present day store.
Post gin ruin London saw an economic boom driven largely by the wealth made from colonial holdings in the East and West Indies. Moving with the times, No.3 evolved into specialists of spice, tea, snuff, tobacco and of course coffee, installing a set of large scales in the middle of the store which ended up writing a history of its very own.
By the middle of the 18th century, the practice of being weighed at the sign of the coffee mill became extremely fashionable.
Every customer who partook of the giant scales, had their associated weights meticulously recorded by the shop clerks in ledgers dating back more than 200 years including records of Counts, Lords, Ladies and Royal family members. Names like Lawrence Olivier, the French Rothschild’s, Aga Kahn and Napoleon III all had their weights measured at No.3. Even a 135kg Sumo Wrestler. Anyone visiting the store today is free to browse the recorded weights and sidenotes of some of London’s most elite historic patrons. One story even tells of a lady demanding that her partner should marry her after revealing she was pregnant. In cunning the husband-to-be repeatedly brought his fiancée to the scales at No.3 revealing she was not gaining any weight and in turn, declined his responsibility to marriage.
Texans, Revolutions and Emperors
By 1783, No.3 St James’s had passed by marriage through the Pickering and Clark families and onto the Berry’s after an Exeter wine merchant named John Berry married into the family. With a new name now on the shop front, Berry Brothers began establishing a reputation synonymous with quality and professionalism still identified today.
In 1842 the Berry’s kindly opened their doors to Ambassadors of the Republic of Texas at their request to establish a legation (diplomatic office) in the upstairs parlor room of the store. Three years later they were still there accruing quite the tab yet achieving their application to fully integrate as a constituent state of the United States of America. In celebration of the sesquicentennial (150 years) anniversary of the state of Texas, 26 wide-brimmed, buckskin clad, mustache toting natives arrived at No.3 to present a commemorative plaque from the State Governor to the Berry’s and in good humour, settle an outstanding tab of USD$160. In 2013, the store was visited once again by the Governor of Texas in celebration of his state’s bicentennial, dedicating a new updated plaque which can be clearly seen on the shop wall at the entrance to Pickering Place.
It’s needless to say that the Berry’s had a knack for developing many friends in many high places. Despite frequent custom by Counts, Lords, Ladies and Royal family members, few would be as well placed as Napoleon III, Emperor of the Second Empire of France.
During a two year stint living in England, exiled from his native France for an attempted coup, the then Prince Napoleon III used the cellars under the Berry Brothers store at No.3 to meet with political allies and formulate a score of proclamations and correspondence in preparation for his grand return to France and to power.
Residing in a townhouse on King Street (just three minutes walk away), with a taste for the finer stuff and a family inheritance to afford it, Napoleon was quick to establish a relationship with the Berry’s entrusting in both their confidentiality and vast cellars beneath the store which he used for secret meetings (albeit with a bottle of champagne or three). Writing in memory of one such rendezvous, the Editor of the London Standard Newspaper wrote,
“Napoleon arranges that I should meet him at the Coffee Mill, a wine-room kept by a Mr Berry at the bottom of St James’s Street. ‘We shall be quiet there’ said Napoleon.”
– In Search of Wine by Walter Berry, 1935.
By 1848 France had descended into another revolution (Révolution de Février) giving Napoleon the opportunity he needed to return to his native homeland unhindered. Thanks to the groundwork done largely in the cellars at the sign of the coffee mill, Napoleon was elected President of the Second Republic of France and went on to become Emperor of the Second Empire of France and retain a lasting friendship with Britain.
Regents, Automobiles and One Seriously Awesome Dolls House
By 1896, Berry Brothers ceased all sales of luxury grocery items and fully dedicated themselves to the procurement and retail of quality wine and spirits from around the world.
In 1903, the Royal Physician to King Edward VII of England wished to supply His Majesty with a beverage to combat the cold during his early morning jollies in anyone of his collection of four horseless carriages (Daimler Mail Phaeton locomotives). As specialists in fine wines and spirits, the physician visited the Berry’s for advice. After much experimentation with different syrups, liqueurs and spirits, the Berry’s presented a rich cognac maceration of root ginger and lemon oil which became aptly called the Kings Ginger Liqueur, a full flavoured 41% ABV spirit which is still widely sold today (and makes for a mean mulled cider). In response to their efforts, Berry Brothers were granted their first Royal Warrant despite almost two centuries of Royal association at that time – and it wouldn’t be the last. Eighteen years later the Royal family called on the expertise of the Berry’s once again but this time for something…a little different.
In 1921, leading British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens was commissioned by the Royal family to build a doll’s house for Queen Mary (wife to King George V) who was an avid collector of miniature pieces. Never afraid to spend good money on good results, Queen Mary’s final dolls house remains today the most famous and detailed example ever created.
Covering four floors including a garden and underground parking garage, the house is fully rigged with electricity, working lifts and running hot and cold water. Set to a scale of 1 inch:1 meter, there are shotguns that cock and load, a garage with cars whose engines actually turn over, light fittings that can be changed and even flushing toilets. Over 1500 artists, craftsman and manufacturers were conscripted to complete their relevant areas of expertise. Painters were hired to create bespoke paintings for the walls and even famous writers of the period were asked to contribute by writing books which were then printed and bound in scale by a central London book makers. For the Berry’s own part, it meant a fully stocked cellar with 1,200 individually selected wines, spirits and champagnes and each accurately labelled and filled with the real liquid. As a collection representing some of the finest wines and spirits of the day, the doll’s house included (amongst others) two cases of Gordon’s gin, tapped barrel of 1910 Glenlivet Scotch, 1854 Grande Fine Champagne Cognac, 1906c, 1875 Chateau Lafitte and 1888 Château Haut-Brion.
In 1955 Berry Bros. & Rudd were awarded their second Royal Warrant for contributions to the Crown and this time by Queen Elizabeth II. In recognition of their relationship and celebration of the Queens Coronation Festival last year, Berry Bros. & Rudd released an exclusive mixed case of twelve wines and spirits named The Doll’s House Collection. Representing the finest of those stored in the miniature cellar, the collection – in full scale – was made available for purchase at limited release for £30,000 a case.
Prohibition, Rum Runners and the Real McCoy
On January 17th, 1920, nationwide prohibition was implemented across the United States closing the North American liquor business over night…or so many thought. Having sporadically traded with the US prior to 1920, the Berry’s identified early on a potential for supplying qualitative liquor into a market largely limited to heady American whiskey and cheaply produced moonshine.
While Americans were learning the passwords to their favourite speakeasies, for England the year 1920 represented a post war all time low with widespread recession and the value of the British pound falling by 61.2%. In effect, many domestic markets were forced to close due to the economic impact from a World War which had ended just two years prior. In response, Berry Brothers welcomed in a new junior partner with an extensive knowledge of German wines and viticulture. Returning from war to find his families wine business in Norwich was no longer viable, Hugh Rudd joined Berry Brothers offering an expertise in wine and liqueur which would help establish new and lasting markets around the world. Yet it would be the market of the newly teetotal nation which would catapult the Berry’s into global acclaim and establish a brand to influence an entire nations palate.
In 1923, Hugh Rudd and Francis Berry set about creating a blended Scotch whisky to compliment the softer palate of a cognac drinker yet with only natural colouring and based on some of the finest Speyside single malts available. The final product was named Cutty Sark after a famous 20th century British tea clipper and an old Scottish expression for a pretty lady in scantily clad undergarments.
For a newly “dry” America now three years into prohibition, the procurement of illicit liquor was based on the role of any one of three major suppliers; the shiners (distillers), the bootleggers (moving liquor over land) and the rum runners (moving liquor over water). At the very heart of the business of rum running was an invisible but very real line just three miles off the American coast known as rum row. A border which once crossed outside of, the American law no longer held provenance. The role of the ‘runner’ was to get the liquor to this line and wait just outside for the ‘rowers’ to come to them before sneaking back to shore, easily avoiding a then ill-equipped US Coast Guard. In the year prior to prohibition, national imports of Scotch totaled a handsome 914 gallons. Within the first two years of national temperance those same imports rose to a staggering 386,000 gallons per annum – an increase of over 400 times. It was in this very market that Hugh Rudd and Francis Berry saw potential. Prohibition was a big business and business was good.
The British Bahamian port of Nassau 26 miles due east of Miami (ironically the historic pirate capital of the old world), quickly became a merchant hub where runners and suppliers could meet and negotiate purchases in liquor before heading for the rum row. With Cutty Sark now in ample stock, Francis Berry visited the Nassau in search of new agents and runners whom would be interested in traded his Scotch into the US in large volumes. It was here he reputedly met a gentleman smuggler named Bill “The Real” McCoy. A man widely regarded as the greatest rum runner that ever lived [For more on this see: Smuggling with the “Real McCoy”]
By the time prohibition was repealed in 1933, Cutty Sark had become the best-selling Scotch whisky in the US moving more than 1 million cases per year. As a direct influence of the great volumes of scotch imported into the US during this period, many drink historians believe that the American palate shifted away from the sharp, spicy whiskies of old turning towards smoother styles largely thanks to the influence of prohibition power brands like Cutty Sark and Canadian Club.
Today Cutty Sark remains one of the top-selling Scotch brands in the United States.
Despite surviving one World War and emerging out of America’s prohibition with a number one selling Scotch brand, 1939 saw the outbreak of the Second World War and all of the challenges that came with it. Unlike the Great War of 1914-18, London was near crippled early on by a 37 week bombing blitz which would see around 60% of the city’s central buildings either damaged or completely destroyed. Regardless of the odds, the store at No.3 managed to escape major damage despite an incendiary setting fire to the top half of the building and the store front being moved in by two inches by a near by percussion bomb. A remarkably resilient stand for a little store of its age.
Despite the nightly raids, rationing, embargoes and conscription, Berry Brother & Rudd remained open throughout the war supplying patrons with what few liquid luxuries they could offer. One such customer was Prime Minister and hero-of-the-moment Winston Churchill who relied on the Berry’s to keep him in full supply with what he referred to as his “elephants” (Jeroboams of cognac).
Seven decades later and today Berry Bros. & Rudd is a global enterprise with offices in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan employing more industry qualified wine experts than any other merchant in the world. Boasting a portfolio of more than 4000 different wines advised by eight fulltime Masters of Wine, Berry Bros. & Rudd also specialise in a vast and rare collection of fine spirits from cognac and armagnac to gin, tequila, single cask rums and a vast array of world whiskies [click here to see spirit portfolio]. The real prizes however are held in the shops vast cellars beneath the street where – if you ask especially nicely – you can view their collection of pre-phylloxera spirits including cognac, Chartreuse and orange curacao. In short, a veritable candy store for any spirit collector. And yet despite a host of awards to their name including ‘Best Wine Shop in the World’ by Forbes Magazine, the little store under the swinging sign of the coffee mill remains, what must surely be, one of the most understated and humble spirits and wine stores in existence.
So next time you’re in London, take a stroll out of Green Park and onto Piccadilly. Walk past The Ritz, turn right at The Wolseley and onto St James’s Street. Pick yourself up a pair of handmade shoes at the oldest cobbler in England (John Lobb), buy yourself a bespoke Bowler hat from the store that invented it (Lock & Co.) and then pop next door to No.3 for quite literally, a taste of history.
Oh, and don’t forget to weigh yourself.
- Berry Bros. & Rudd: Official Website
- Berry Bros. & Rudd: Online Blog
- British History Online: Survey of London. St. James’s Street, East Side – Website
- Official Website of the British Monarchy: St James’s Palace, History – Website
- Wiley Online Library: The Wine Merchant as Weight Watcher by Stephan Rossner, 1996 – Article
- Biography.com: Napoleon III – Website
- In Search of Wine by Charles Walter Berry – 1935
- Gin Epidemic: Madam Geneva Bring Madness to England – Drinking Cup Article
- The Kings Ginger – Official Website
- The Royal Collection: Queen Mary’s Dolls House – Website
- The Telegraph: From Jaffa Cakes to Wine, How Royal Warrants Reflect Our Changing Tastes – Online Paper
- Smuggling with the “Real McCoy” – Drinking Cup Article
- Cutty Sark: Official Website
- Royal Transport: An Inside Look at the History of Royal Travel by Peter Pigott – 2005
- The Dolls House Collection of Wines and Spirits: BB&R – PDF