Code changes: Modern members clubs
You can tell a lot about the modern breed of private members’ clubs by their drinks list. Gabriel Savage takes a peek at this prime target for luxury brands
Despite Groucho Marx’s views on the subject, human nature attracts huge numbers of us, moth-like, to the exclusive inclusivity of a club. Whether artistic, sporting or purely hedonistic in focus, these groups exist across all social strata and among all ethnic groups, but it’s the most discreet, luxurious examples that tend to provoke the strongest curiosity among outsiders.
While the doorways of St James’s in London continue to conceal a host of private members’ clubs, most of which cling tenaciously to their centuries-old stereotype, it is hardly surprising that a new breed has evolved in recent years to cater for a rather more modern clientele. Housing everything from spas to nightclubs and restaurants to rival the best in town, each retains its own distinctive atmosphere and, crucially, that reassuring sense for members that they are part of something special. Given the strong social element at the beating heart of these venues, their drinks offer provides perhaps the most illuminating glimpse of what we’re all missing out on.
Among the trailblazers of this contemporary breed of private members’ clubs is Home House, a rabbit warren spread across three townhouses overlooking London’s Portman Square. Launched 15 years ago, its 4,000-strong membership can choose from six bar or restaurant options, not to mention nightclub The Vaults, which has its own 5am licence and entrance.
“There’s no dress code, it’s not pretentious and we’re not snobbish about anything,” sums up operations director Joel Williams. While the “eclectic” membership base may use Home House for its gym facilities, meeting rooms or futuristic Zaha Hadid-designed bar, Williams says: “We like fun people.” It therefore comes as no surprise to hear that across the estate it is Champagne that accounts for the largest share of drinks consumption. “It’s a party drink, very social, very opulent and sets the right tone for the club,” says Williams. On the spirits side, the theme is continued by a current trend for espresso Martinis, and later it is Cîroc – the luxury vodka brand linked to US rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs – that flies in the late-night bars and club.
Despite offering an exclusive enclave from the outside world, Home House prides itself on staying up to date with current London trends. “We compare ourselves to the best restaurants and the latest bars in town, but with a few signatures that are just for us,”outlines Williams, adding: “The spirits team is always testing a few things to make sure we stay current.”
Unsurprisingly, Home House members present a prime target audience for many drinks brands and the club leverages this interest to its advantage. The exclusivity deal on the Tanqueray Bar may recently have come to an end, but there’s still the Moët & Chandon Champagne Bar in the walled garden, the Martini chandelier and, more subtly, the Martell house pour in the smoking lounge. Home House members can also take advantage of masterclasses, such as cigar and Cognac tastings. Highlighting the mutual benefit of such arrangements, Williams remarks: “Brands want to come in and get access to our membership, some powerful people, but it works well for us – we can offer these products for next to nothing and make sure that members get to taste something really special.” Fine wine dinners are also an evolving part of the Home House offer, while members can also take advantage of deals secured by the club with its suppliers, who will deliver directly to their homes.
Such has been the success of the Home House model that the club is on the verge of expanding. “We’re very close to getting another base in the City,” reveals Williams. If the deal goes through, it’s not difficult to imagine the uptake among those looking for a dose of the Home House party vibe as an alternative to the dusty City wine bar scene.
5 HERTFORD ST
Forget a branded Champagne bar, you won’t even find a branded glass inside one of London’s newest, yet already most talked about, private members’ clubs. Notoriously discreet – even members are banned from taking photographs inside – Robin Birley’s Mayfair venue opened in June 2013. In a route similar to that taken by many of its members, the club’s wine buyer Tim Parkinson came across from former Birley stronghold Annabel’s, which was bought by Caprice Holdings in 2007. This knowledge of his clientele provided a handy template for compiling the drinks list, although lack of cellar space called for a degree of creativity. “We had deliveries coming in every day when we first opened and the cellar was an air- conditioned store room,” he recalls.
While the club’s wine cellar is now a more formalised affair, its size continues to impose limitations on the list – and not only because magnums are so popular here, especially in the downstairs club Loulou’s. “We have a massive selection and we sell a lot of them,” remarks Parkinson. Fortunately, 5 Hertford Street members are fairly focused in their taste, with Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne dominating the 500 bins on offer in the club and 120 bins in the ground-floor restaurant. “Even though the ground-floor restaurant has more New World wines, it doesn’t shift a lot,” admits Parkinson. Neither is there much movement for the £27 entry-level offering on the list – the club’s own-label house wine collection is deliberately positioned a notch up the price spectrum in the form of a £38 red Bordeaux, as well as a white and red Burgundy. Meanwhile, on the Champagne front, Pol Roger sets the tone as the house pour. Admitting that “many of our members have bigger cellars than we do,” Parkinson finds little demand for Bordeaux’s petits châteaux, remarking: “it’s more the familiar names that they drink at home and we try to make sure, especially on the Bordeaux front, that there are the mature vintages they expect to see.”
Despite the conservative wine tastes of the 5 Hertford Street clientele, Australian- born Parkinson likes to shake up the list with a few left-field options. “We play around at the mid-level prices with small producers who are really interesting,” he says. While the exclusively Italian sommelier team might try to guide the more trusting members towards “the least funky” of Frank Cornelissen’s Sicilian wines, Parkinson likes to show a different side to his own homeland from its big- brand image. “It’s the stuff I grew up with: these little producers who are really amazing but there’s not much of it, so if a member likes it, it vanishes off the list,” he explains.
Other special touches include a “specials” page, which features a vertical selection of vintages from a single domaine. Meanwhile, Loulou’s offers a “Best of the World” page, usually of single bottles from rare vintages of the biggest names in the Old World. These may be expensive, but it’s certainly not about milking the high spenders. “Our members are quite savvy, they know what DRC is worth, so if they see it here at a brokers’ list price then they appreciate it,” comments Parkinson.
Brand tie-ins may be very firmly out, but the spirits list is highly reactive to members’ preferences, even the more obscure ones. “Monkey 47 got a real following suddenly but there was no endorsement behind it,” remarks Parkinson of the craze for this cranberry- influenced German gin. Quirks such as this aside, the spirits tone in the main club is set by the upstairs martini and whisky bars, with the latter proving particularly complementary to the club’s cigar shop. Here again, members can prove unpredictable in their taste. “Japanese whisky is really popular,” reveals Parkinson. “We can’t get out hands on enough Hibiki 30 Year Old.” Not bad for a blend with a £900 price tag.
Just seven months old and with a distinct point of difference, Grace Belgravia turns the old-fashioned gentleman’s club concept on its head with a female-only membership. Describing the typical member as a “spirited, yet caring, health- conscious businesswoman,” co-founder & CEO Katie Percival takes personal responsibility for compiling a drinks list to reflect this ethos. Within the exclusively Italian and French range she notes that biodynamic wines play a particularly dominant role as part of the “natural goodness” theme that permeates the club. “When talking to suppliers, we try to find wines that are unique and have a story – a bit like Grace,” explains Percival.
It’s the same with the spirits selection, where “small boutique brands” dominate: think Fairtrade quinoa vodka brand FAIR. In a nod to the current UK bar trend for home-infused spirits, Grace adds its own tamarind twist to the Tequila, while there’s a vanilla option for the vodka.
Given the gender bias, white wines prove predictably popular at Grace. Likewise, it comes as no surprise to hear that big name Champagne brands sell well by the bottle, though this must be one of the few places where your Billecart- Salmon comes with a calorie counter (60 calories for the extra-brut NV). This feminine focus extends into the events line-up, which is due to feature a tasting with Virginie Taittinger of her new Champagne brand, Virginie T. Also in the pipeline is a partnership with Nicole Rolet of upmarket, biodynamically-inspired Rhône brand Chêne Bleu. “We would love to discover more top-end wines and spirits produced by independent women with a great story to tell,” says Percival of her plans for developing the list.
Meanwhile, plans to launch a series of literary lunches and a supper club offer further opportunities for tempting its health-conscious members into some feel-good indulgence.
It may have started in London, but since 1995 Soho House has expanded to cover 11 sites in Europe and North America. Adapting to fit the very different feel of east and west London while maintaining your identity is challenging enough, but Soho House manages this feat in locations as diverse as Berlin, Miami, Hollywood and New York. From a drinks perspective, the key is to combine local trends with a core selection found across every branch. Chris Ojeda, Soho House creative bar director, outlines the balancing act. “Winter time in New York is very cold and we’ll have a menu of hot drinks or dark spirits to satisfy that need, but in LA the weather is still pretty warm, so citrus and refreshing drinks are on the menu,” he explains. To create a unifying element across the drinks offering, three years ago the group introduced its House Tonic initiative. Each venue features the same four core cocktails – “they just happen to be the four most popular cocktails, so all our members – no matter which House they are in – will have their favourite drink,” says Ojeda. From this base, bartenders are free to use the rest of the list to reflect local classics or to show off their own creations. In Los Angeles, the club is located just across the street from the original site of the Cock ‘n’ Bull pub, which claims to have invented the Moscow Mule, As a result, says Ojeda, “our Soho Mule is one of our signature cocktails that we feature there.”
Although summing up the mood of the cocktail list as more classic than trend driven, Ojeda highlights barrel-aged Negronis, bottled cocktails and serving the Soho Mule on tap as useful trends, especially when the bar gets busy.
Again, it comes as no surprise that a many drinks brands jump at the chance to form partnerships with this international group of high fliers. In return, says Ojeda, “we are very keen to work with brands that share our same interest and goals.” Indeed, he notes the importance of such tie-ins for the group in developing a cohesive global drinks programme.
While the membership base of Soho House is as diverse as its locations, Ojeda notes: “One of the underlying similarities you will find is that our members are somehow tied to a creative arts field.” Above all, he insists: “Our club is not about status or money but having that home away from home for our members so they use the space as an office or write or just have a good time.”