Imagine entering a whisky shop, perusing at the many bottles of your favourite spirit on the shelves, admiring the old bookcase at the back of the shop and suddenly disappearing from the other customers’ view to end up in a place of wondrous potions (aka cocktails). No, this is not the synopsis of Harry Potter and the Vanishing Liqueur Cabinet (sorry!). It is however what you can expect for real if you wander in London in search of The Vault at Milroy’s of Soho…
When I arrived in London for the Christmas holiday, I had a whole list of bars I wanted to visit and my Google Maps where they were all saved at the ready. For my first night out, I thought I’d take it easy, have dinner in Chinatown and improvise my bar visits from there. My feet and curiosity led me to Greek Street in search of The Vault.
In true speakeasy fashion, The Vault is hidden from passers-by view. You will find it beneath Milroy’s, a whisky shop that will thrill all Scotch, Bourbon and other Rye and Irish whiskey lovers. The entrance to The Vault is through the bookcase at the back of the shop. I found it quite amusing to sneak through the shop’s customers and suddenly disappear from view. A staircase will then lead you towards the bar and what a sight it is!
The instant you see the room, you know you’re in for a good night. The bar is super cozy, intimate and welcoming with its low ceiling, brick and wooden walls, low light provided by candles and big bubble bulbs. The bar has a tiny backroom – a nook almost – for small groups.
The guests were all in their 30’s making for a younger crowd than the customers in the upstairs shop.
When I arrived I waited to be seated (diligently following the instruction on the sign at the entrance). A waitress led me to a corner table from where I had a perfect view over the bar, telling me she’d give me a seat there as soon as one would become available.
After careful examination of the cocktail menu, I opted for a Coat Hook, a mix of aquavit, yellow Charteuse, almond syrup and cucumber. Sometimes, from a drink’s ingredients, I try to guess the type of glass it will be served in. I didn’t expect this one to come in a highball glass. Other surprise: it was fizzy! Because of the Chartreuse, the first taste is herbaceous. The almond then brings a note of sweetness. It was a very good drink to start the evening smoothly.
While sitting at my table, I enjoyed the bar’s woodsy smell which added to the warm atmosphere. It’s then I noticed my table was actually made from a barrel’s top!
A seat went free at the bar and the second waiter took me there. He introduced himself and then asked for my name before introducing me to the bartenders. I thought the gesture was really nice. It made me feel really looked after. I mentionned it later to Chris, the bar manager. He explained it was one of the policies he’d established when he took his position a little over a year ago. If any guest comes alone, the waitstaff will introduce themselves, ask for the guest’s name and then introduce him or her to the bartenders. A simple attention that I don’t see often and that already distinguished the Vault from other bars in my mind.
While I finished my Coat Hook, Chris and Joe, the other bartender working that night, regularly checked up on me, ensuring everything was fine and I didn’t need anything. After perusing the cocktail menu a second time, I realized that, for a bar hidden beneath a whisky shop, The Vault didn’t have many whisky cocktails on its menu. Of course, it’s possible to ask for one though.
I decided on a Free Fall for my second drink. Served in a Nick and Nora glass, it was another light and very good drink with a strong apricot taste and hints of smokiness from the mezcal.
Before calling it a night, I let Chris suggest me a final drink. He made me his favourite: the classic Bobby Burns. While preparing it, he entertained me and the guests sitting next to me with a story about the cocktail’s name. Apparently, while it’s long been thought that the cocktail had been named after the Scottish poet Robert Burns, it may in fact be a nod to a cigar shop called Robert Burns Cigars located close to the bar where the cocktail has been invented. (Read the post on Difford’s Guide website for more explanations about the cocktails origins.)
I left the bar with a content, satisfied feeling, like when you enjoy a nice evening by the fireplace snuggled into the cushions with a hot chocolate.
I returned the following evening for a nightcap before the bar closed for the holidays. The Vault was busier but still as cozy as the night before. I was pleasantly surprised when Paul, the waiter, greeted me by my name, showing yet again how attentive they were at The Vault. For my final cocktail there (that is: until my next visit to London), I chose a Kingston Cocktail (Jamaican rum, Kummel, allspice, lemon oil, orange and nutmeg. Light and aromatic, it was another excellent drink!
The Vault really made a strong impression on me. Whenever I think of it, I feel the same sense of comfort I felt there. Obviously I’ll make sure to return to The Vault next time I’m in London! Sooner rather than later, I hope!