If you want to know what possessed Grant Ashton to change career from highly successful hedgefund manager to hospitality impresario, the answer is both short and somewhat bittersweet. “Essentially, I got fed up of being mugged by punitive London mark-ups on fine wine,” says the founder and CEO of 67 Pall Mall.
“Like a lot of people, I’d stopped drinking seriously good wine in restaurants,” he continues. “It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford to, but simply because I was no longer prepared to pay the egregious, nonsensical prices that were being asked. What stuck in my throat was that I knew exactly what these wines had cost to buy. In the end, I just ended up drinking wine at home and at friends’ dinner parties.”
Most people would mutter and merely leave it there. But Ashton (pictured centre) and 39 like-minded collectors (who all became backers) decided to take matters into their own hands. “At first we thought about opening a wine bar.” Then they raised their sights to a restaurant. Finally, they decided to create a wine club. “We felt there had to be a better way to serve serious wine lovers like ourselves,” says Ashton. “That’s really the cornerstone of what we’re trying to do.”
As soon as he stepped inside 67 Pall Mall’s impressive portal, he knew it was the perfect place. That was in 2010. Since then he’s devoted himself to obtaining permission for the change of use, securing the lease and turning Edwin Lutyens’ Grade II-listed bank into what he hopes will be the best private members’ wine club in the world – bar none.
He is a rather unlikely person to set up and run such an establishment – until recently he’d had no experience of the hospitality industry, apart from being on the receiving end of it. However, Ashton is a fast learner, extremely single-minded and beguilingly persuasive. Just ask the 950 or so founder members of 67 Pall Mall who had already signed on the dotted line by the start of this month, before a cork had even been pulled or a glass poured.
One of them is Paul White, who runs Frogmore, a UK real‑estate fund manager. “A collector friend recommended it to me at a dinner party and put me in touch with Grant. I’m a member of the RAC, Mark’s Club, George and Harry’s Bar, so I didn’t need to join another club. But I’m passionate about wine and Grant’s vision of making this a genuine home for oenophiles was irresistible.”
Ashton clearly intends to spoil his members rotten with a mouthwatering combination of stellar wines at jaw-droppingly good prices. To do this, 67 Pall Mall will operate a small cash mark-up on all its wines, compared to the 70 per cent gross profit industry standard. What does that mean in practice? Ashton quotes an example of the glorious 100-point 1989 Haut‑Brion, which will cost around £1,200 a bottle on his premises. In contrast, you could pay between £2,900 and £3,750 in two leading London restaurants for the self-same wine. No wonder wine lovers are quietly amassing on his membership list.
“And that’s just one example,” says 67 Pall Mall’s head of wines Ronan Sayburn (pictured near right). “There will be up to 3,000 bottles on offer in our centrepiece Wine Library from all around the world.” Bottle prices will begin at just £40 and hundreds will be available by the glass thanks to the new “game‑changing” Coravin device, which can access wine without removing the cork or spoiling the remaining liquid. “So if you want to do a vertical of Sassicaia or Montrose vintages by the glass, or compare the ’82 Lafite and Latour side by side at the sampling bar, there’s nothing to stop you. Least of all the price.”
By the same token, members can take advantage of an internal market to buy wine at wholesale prices. They can also store their own wine in the club’s large and state-of-the-art bespoke cellars, which have the capacity for 2,600 cases. Members can keep 36 bottles there at any one time and have them brought up to share with friends. Again, corkage is generous to a fault, at just £20 a bottle. “Years ago, a gentleman would have drunk his own wine at a club,” Ashton points out, delighted to be reviving an old St James’s tradition.
But there’s plenty more that’s new. Detailed information on all the club’s wines can be accessed via mobiles or specially provided tablets. Members who are so inclined can find out about the producer, winemaking and blends, together with price information and critics’ scores. “We’ll even have comments from other members, so it will be a sort of TripAdvisor for the list,” says Sayburn. Alternatively, they could just ask one of his talented team of sommeliers.
Another intoxicating feature will be 67 Pall Mall’s magnificent custom-made champagne bucket, replete with no fewer than eight house champagnes at any one time. Remarkably, these will exclusively comprise vintage prestige cuvées – served by the glass at typically uncommercial prices. Members can also expect a full events calendar, with fine-wine tastings, winemaker dinners and masterclasses to put into their diaries.
The building is a huge draw and asset. Ashton feels blessed to have found such a beautiful and perfectly positioned home in the heart of clubland, opposite St James’s Palace and between two royal parks. The property was Hambros Bank’s West End branch for 65 years and is a grand old lady with perfect pedigree. It even came with the original Chatwood “Invincible” strongroom (pictured on previous page), which will surely provide the most secure fine-wine storage in London. “My heart just soared when I saw it,” admits Ashton.
The remodelled layout flows advantageously, while the three-and-a-half storey ensemble benefits from high ceilings, spacious rooms and a delightful mezzanine. Vast west-facing windows flood the Members’ Lounge with natural light. Ashton is keen to preserve many of the magnificent art-deco features, including its parquet floor and strikingly original Austrian wainscot panelling. But members can also expect something more modish. Interior designer Simone McEwan, who worked with Ilse Crawford on Cecconi’s, has been brought in to give the traditional St James’s design a comfortable, contemporary twist. “There will be oak and leather, but lots of other fabrics and finishes that are less masculine and more intimate,” says 67 Pall Mall’s general manager Niels Sherry (pictured on previous page).
Food, wine’s natural partner, will also play an integral part. “A chef hasn’t yet been announced, but exceptional modern British cuisine will be the order of the day,” says Sherry. “We’ll provide a combination of substantial dishes, lighter ones and salads and sharing plates for more relaxed meals. But we don’t see ourselves as a formal restaurant, and there will be a number of places where you can sit to eat or drink. For set-piece occasions, there’s a small private dining room and a larger one for up to 60 people.”
Although Ashton has provided much of the vision for 67 Pall Mall, he stresses that the club will really be run by a membership committee, which will include founder members, backers and a number of wine-trade grandees. “That’s important because this place is run by and for the members, which will manifest itself in all sorts of ways,” adds Sherry. For instance, he cites the intention for 67 Pall Mall’s sommeliers to have no imperative to up-sell wine as they would in a restaurant. Instead, they will only recommend the right bottle for the right occasion.
More than anything, Ashton wants his members to have a great time whenever they set foot in the club. “We have a lot of serious wine here, but it’s essential that people have fun if we’re going to succeed. There has to be a buzz.” And that, of course, is partly down to the members.
So who are they going to be? Two are the wine producer Nicole Rolet and her husband Xavier, CEO of the London Stock Exchange. Perhaps surprisingly (and significantly), this is the first social club that either has joined. “We heard about it on the grapevine and were immediately intrigued by Grant’s concept. He took us round and showed us how it will work and look and we both thought it was genuinely exciting and innovative,” comments Rolet. “I think the idea of going to a place where everyone shares this passion is energising and inspiring. I’m looking forward to informally chatting with someone at the next-door table and exchanging glasses of what we’re drinking. I love that spontaneous and convivial horse trading among wine lovers. The other differentiator for me is that Grant is postively looking for a wide demographic rather than a narrow, pinstriped definition of what constitutes fine wine. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t have joined.”
According to Ashton, “I want our members to be as diverse and eclectic as our wine list. The only criterion is that they be passionate and curious about wine. So it’s not about age, knowledge, wealth or how much wine you have in your cellar. Of course, there will be forty- and fiftysomething male hedgefund managers like me who own far too much claret. But I really don’t want this place to be Hedgistan central. Instead, I’m looking for a very dynamic mix across age, professions and social backgrounds. Ideally, I’d like to have as many women as men.” Younger members are also encouraged thanks to a half-price annual fee of £500 for anyone under 27.
So far, 67 Pall Mall has only been promoted by word of mouth, within fine-wine circles. (Indeed, this is the first and only article about the club.) For example, as soon as Frogmore’s White heard about it, he mentioned it to “at least 20” of his aficionado friends, many of whom have since signed up. This has meant that Ashton hasn’t had to actively market the club. More importantly, he has also been able to control, vet and secure exactly the type of membership base he was after.
Despite the club’s growing popularity, Ashton is extremely mindful of not overpopulating it, and will open with numbers that are way off its maximum capacity. He is determined that “this will never be a big club. I don’t ever want it to be as crowded as some I could mention, where it’s impossible to get a seat or a table. Our view is that a club where you can’t always get a seat is no more than a restaurant that you forgot to book.”
Interestingly, the other audience that has naturally gravitated to 67 Pall Mall is the upper echelons of the fine-wine trade. Already it numbers among its members players from major London merchants, as well as restaurateurs, wine writers, winemakers and châteaux owners. The latter include such well-known vintners as Jonathan Maltus from Bordeaux, Nigel Greening from New Zealand and Peter Michael from California. “It’s a combination of business and pleasure,” one trader told me. “If you want to put on a tasting or dinner, this will be the place to do it. London has been crying out for a club like this. I’m not really sure why nobody thought of it sooner.”
Ashton is delighted that his concept has struck a chord. Not least because he has put his heart and soul into bringing this project to reality. “Yes, I’m looking forward to it opening sometime this summer and to welcoming all our new members.” For now, he still has places left – but only until he reaches his limit. “As soon as we hit 1,200, we’re closing the list.” That won’t take long; in January alone, 131 people signed up. So those who think 67 Pall Mall might be their kind of club, too, probably ought to get on the phone to the nice Mr Ashton – and sooner rather than later.