Experiential new ways of buying fine wine and spirits

Fine wine and spirits retailers are bringing to life the stories behind their precious bottles in intriguing new ways. Alice Lascelles reports. Portrait by Rob Lawson

From far left: wines, spirits and cigars buying manager Ed Gerard, writer Alice Lascelles and head spirits buyer Nick Fleming in Harrods’ new Fine Wines & Spirits Rooms
From far left: wines, spirits and cigars buying manager Ed Gerard, writer Alice Lascelles and head spirits buyer Nick Fleming in Harrods’ new Fine Wines & Spirits Rooms | Image: Rob Lawson

They’ve got a mouse in the wines and spirits hall at Harrods. Not a live one, you understand. A cute model one, nestled in a heap of blackberries. But as I lean in to take a sniff from the scent installation it inhabits, it does give me a bit of a start. Further on round the Aroma Table, past large bell jars full of pencil shavings, tomatoes and cherry blossoms – all chosen to represent key notes in classic wines – I spot a caterpillar crawling over a mound of golden apricots. It’s clear that the person who created these exhibits had a bit of fun while they were doing it. 

And that spirit of playfulness is apparent throughout Harrods’ new Fine Wines & Spirits Rooms, which were recently unveiled following an 18-month, multimillion-pound revamp. Kitted out by Martin Brudnizki with oak panelling, black and white tiles and mirrored plinths, the shop might look art deco from a distance, but if you go exploring among the climate-controlled cabinets of Gaja, Margaux and Penfolds Grange, you’ll discover it’s decidedly 21st century. 

Diners at restaurant Hide can order any wine from its parent Hedonism’s Mayfair store
Diners at restaurant Hide can order any wine from its parent Hedonism’s Mayfair store

In one corner, I pick up a bottle of Moët et Chandon champagne, triggering a film (in English or Mandarin) about the joys of chalky terroir. In another, a gizmo gives me the lowdown on the vintage of Dom Pérignon I’ve just chosen. Back at the Aroma Table, I nose peaches, butter and mangoes – chosen for their supposed likeness to Chardonnay – before having a play with a slightly recalcitrant programme that diagnoses the perfect whisky for me. There are hidden panels concealing rare Ornellaias, a tasting room wired for live vineyard link-ups and a private consultation lounge where you can commission a bespoke cellar. Most of the wines on sale are ready to drink and many of them are ex-cellar – you’ll pay a premium for this, of course, but when you’re forking out for a 1989 Mouton Rothschild it’s probably worth the extra few quid for that peace of mind. “We wanted to create a destination that is accessible to connoisseurs and novices alike, which is fun and inviting and tells the stories behind these wines and spirits in interesting ways,” says Ed Gerard, buying manager for wines, spirits and cigars at Harrods. “We’re seeing a real thirst for knowledge among consumers now – increasingly, people want it to be integral to the shopping experience.” 

In the spirits room, whiskies from Scotland, Ireland, England and Japan are grouped by style rather than region – “fresh fruit”, “oak spice”, “smoke” – to encourage experimentation. “Re-categorising whisky like this helps to strip away the jargon and put the focus back on flavour,” says head spirits buyer Nick Fleming.

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Harrods isn’t the only retailer that’s given its drinks offering a major revamp. Wine merchants, department stores and online shops feeling the heat from the likes of Amazon – which has lately upped its presence in the top-end drinks market – are now enhancing their luxury services in a bid to attract ever more savvy customers. The wine merchant of the past could rely on accounts being passed from father to son, perhaps, but the retailer of today is having to prove itself not just as a seller of drinks, but as an entertainer, educator, travel agent and concierge too. “You can buy so many things these days just sitting at home on the couch, so we differentiate ourselves from online by focusing on the experience,” says Terry Threlfall, wine and spirits buyer at Selfridges. “We’re all about creating events that are fun and unique.” 

One of the ways that Selfridges does that is with extraordinary pop-ups: in the past year it has created an East End pub staffed by a leading drag ensemble; a summer roof terrace serving rosé Veuve Clicquot and screening the World Cup; and a multisensory exhibit featuring top bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana, fashion designer Gareth Pugh and luxury brands Byredo and Louis Vuitton. This Christmas will also have the artist Sixmik (Mickaël Bouali) handpainting skull-shaped carafes of Crystal Head vodka. 

The wine is delivered to the table at Hide within 10 minutes by Hedonism’s van
The wine is delivered to the table at Hide within 10 minutes by Hedonism’s van

The Whisky Exchange might not be hiring drag acts, exactly, but the UK’s leading whisky specialist has been investing in the experiential side of things: this year the company launched two live events, as well as a smart new bricks-and-mortar store near Oxford Circus. “Buying online is great if you know what you want, but if you don’t, the choice, particularly in a category like whisky, can be overwhelming,” says Whisky Exchange founder Sukhinder Singh. “Even for our more knowledgeable customers, that experience of actually going to a shop and getting to touch the bottles, taste things and have recommendations from the staff is all part of the pleasure of buying whisky.”

Spread over two floors on Great Portland Street, the new Whisky Exchange store is an Aladdin’s cave of exciting liquor. On the ground floor, under a chandelier made from coloured-glass bottles, customers can browse more than 200 gins, vintage armagnacs going back to the 1950s, as well as craft beers and an excellent selection of vermouths and aperitifs. 

Pressoir club members can attend dinners and learn about wines in a convivial atmosphere
Pressoir club members can attend dinners and learn about wines in a convivial atmosphere

Down in the basement, past a wall clad in Scotch-soaked barrel staves, the walls are lined six shelves high with single malts, blends and grain whiskies from Islay to Taiwan (plus a few surprise exclusives that you won’t find anywhere online). Independent bottlings – the equivalent of rare vinyl for serious whisky collectors – are a big focus here, so the expertise of the staff is invaluable. If you want to find a dram for the whisky lover who has everything, this is the place to come. Shoppers can bottle their own single cask whisky, or book a private tasting for up to eight in the little “whisky snug”. Looking ahead, there are even plans for shoppers to blend their own gin. The store also hosts visits from distillers and blenders from some of the world’s top distilleries. 

The Whisky Exchange may be known for hard stuff, but under the direction of head buyer and former sommelier Dawn Davies MW, the new shop has amassed a fine selection of grower champagnes, including Veuve Fourny & Fils, AR Lenoble and Eric Rodez. On November 2 the company launched The Champagne Show – a one-day tasting event at Oxo Tower Wharf featuring more than 100 houses. This joins a portfolio of live events including The Cognac Show, which made its debut this year; The Old & Rare Show for whisky collectors; and The Whisky Show, a three-day event at Old Billingsgate that’s long been a fixture for enthusiasts and pros. 

Pop-up events at Selfridges have included a “pub” experience staffed by a drag ensemble
Pop-up events at Selfridges have included a “pub” experience staffed by a drag ensemble

A lot of these retailers probably wouldn’t be being half so creative if it wasn’t for Hedonism, the Mayfair wine and spirits shop that broke the mould when it opened in 2012. Contemporary, stylish and unapologetically extravagant, Hedonism made the experience of buying fine wines and spirits feel more like visiting an art gallery or a designer boutique. 

And Hedonism made a splash again, earlier this year, when it opened Hide, an opulent, three-storey restaurant in Piccadilly, with menus by Ollie Dabbous. There’s a lot that’s attention-grabbing about Hide – the sweeping spiral staircase, the exquisite food, the prime location bang opposite Green Park. But what really makes this place unique is the fact that guests can order any bottle of wine from Hedonism’s 7,000-strong wine list, and have it delivered to their table in 10 minutes, for the retail price plus £30 corkage. If you think that the average mark-up on a bottle of wine in a restaurant is around 300 per cent, this represents a pretty good deal. “We wanted people to be able to afford wine that is on a par with the food,” says Hedonism CEO Tatiana Fokina. “And seeing our little van going back and forth to the shop adds a bit of theatre. I think people really like the idea of having a bottle delivered especially for them.” 

Among the perks available to the 250 members of the Melchior Club is exclusive access to tastings at wineries not usually open to the public
Among the perks available to the 250 members of the Melchior Club is exclusive access to tastings at wineries not usually open to the public

For some fine wine lovers, simply buying and drinking the stuff is not enough. And for those demanding oenophiles, a new generation of clubs is now springing up that offer a more 360-degree experience: access to amazing wines, vineyard visits, advice on building a cellar and much more besides. One of those is the Melchior Club’s new, invitation-only wines and spirits concierge service from Wine Source, one of the most well-connected drinks suppliers in the business. To become a member, individuals must stump up an annual membership fee of €10,000 and spend at least €100,000 a year on wines and spirits. But for that the club’s 250 members enjoy first dibs on allocations from the likes of Le Pin, Prieuré Roch, Olivier Bernstein and Domaine de la Côte, as well as invitations to La Paulée-style wine dinners, cellaring and investment advice, tailormade wine courses and Michelin-trained sommeliers primed to pour at their next dinner party. Can’t get a table at a hot new restaurant in Shanghai? Then the Melchior Club concierge will sort that, too. 

Perhaps the biggest perk of all, though, is the access the club can provide to wineries that aren’t usually open to the public. A recent jaunt to Bordeaux included a dinner at Château Cheval Blanc, brunch at Château d’Yquem and a tasting at Château Smith Haut Lafitte. “It’s easy to imagine a not-so-distant future when everyone will be able to ‘visit’ any winery from their living room, over the internet, perhaps joining a masterclass about pruning or blending, or taking part in a tutored tasting,” says Wine Source general manager Mathieu Jullien. “This is great news for wine lovers around the world. But our role, with the Melchior Club, is to offer the kind of visit that would have actually been much more the norm 20 years ago – knocking on the door of the domaine, being greeted by the winemaker, going for a walk around the vineyard, and having a tasting in the cellar. The rise of oenotourism means there are more and more requests for winery visits and less and less time and incentive for small domaines to welcome guests – who also often end up disappointed because the wine they want to buy is made in such small quantities that it’s already sold out. What Melchior Club members get is the elite experience.” 

Head spirits buyer Nick Fleming in the Aroma Lab in Harrods’ Fine Wines & Spirits Rooms where the perfect whisky is devised by a special programme
Head spirits buyer Nick Fleming in the Aroma Lab in Harrods’ Fine Wines & Spirits Rooms where the perfect whisky is devised by a special programme | Image: Rob Lawson

A shade more affordable is Pressoir, the new venture from Daniel Johnnes, the sommelier behind New York’s and San Francisco’s legendary La Paulée, a $8,750-a-head week of bacchic feasting that attracts hundreds of well-heeled burgundy lovers each year. Pressoir club members can tap into a menu of services including cellar consultations, tailor-made trips and the chance to buy allocations of seriously exciting wines. But the backbone of the club is a programme of more relaxed Pressoir dinners where novices and aficionados can taste, learn and explore in a convivial environment. “I felt that through my large-scale events, La Paulée and La Fête du Champagne, we had developed strong bonds with winemakers, chefs, sommeliers and consumers and I wanted to develop a platform to give voice to them on a more regular basis and on a smaller scale. Personally, I enjoy the closer, more intimate setting of these dinners compared to the bigger events like La Paulée,” Johnnes tells me. 

The dinners may be intimate, but they cast their net wide: topics so far have included a deep dive into wine terminology, a survey of the Savoie and tasting hard-to-find wines including Coche-Dury, Rousseau and DRC. Prices range from under $100 to over $1,000 a head for events at Michelin-starred restaurants including Bâtard and L’Atelier Joël Robuchon. The host for the evening is different every time – it might be a winemaker or a sommelier – in addition to Johnnes himself.  

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Of course, you could just buy that bottle of Dom Pérignon 1990 from Amazon for £799.95 including free delivery. But when you’ve got so many more fun ways to do your shopping, why on earth would you want to do that?

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