A Requiem For A Whiskey Bar

The story of an American whiskey collection, built up over 20 years at a rock 'n' whiskey bar in Soho, London.

A Requiem For A Whiskey Bar

I didn’t even notice when the rock ‘n’ whiskey bar The Crobar closed its doors for the last time. The whiskey bar had always been there, but I hadn’t been in Soho for a while. Then one evening in early 2023 I turned onto Mannette Street, in Soho, London, expecting the familiar sights, sounds (and odours) but everything was different and The Crobar was gone.

The hospitality sector in the UK has faced extraordinary challenges over the past three years. The latest figures from the Hospitality Market Monitor show that in the three years since the pandemic there has been a massive 15.6% decline in licensed premises (including whiskey bars) in London city centre alone. In that time, a total of 13,793 bars and restaurants have been lost across Britain.

The Crobar was just one of the casualties. Now, owner Richard Thomas, is selling his private collection of American whiskeys so I wanted to find out how he become an owner of a legendary whiskey ‘n’ rock bar in Soho. His story had me gripped…

The Crobar Whiskey

Tell me the origin story of The Crobar.

I was the general manager of The Borderline, on Manette Street, from 1992 to early 2001 – best job I ever had, so much fun. I got to see an awful lot of brilliant bands and got paid for it!

When I left The Borderline in early 2001 I went to work at The Garage up in Islington. It was a shithole back then. I had pigeons in the loft of my office, there was a hole in the roof above the stage, water came in when it rained.

I knew Dennis who had The Crobar (which was then called The Acoustic Café). I don’t know what he was doing there in the first place, he’d been there for six years. When he took over he was a 55 year old retired insurance salesman who’d got it into his head that he wanted to run a music venue in Soho – even though he didn’t live in London.

He phoned me up and said ‘I’ve had enough. Do you know anyone who might want to take the lease off me?’ and I said ‘Yes! Me!’

I got in touch with a couple of mates and we managed to scrape enough money together to buy the lease off him and we took over on the 1 July 2001. We had a week to raise a grand and a half [£1,500] in takings to pay a thousand pounds rent for the second week and to buy beer. We limped along, it was kind of hairy. I didn’t eat a lot.

Eventually things began to work. We knew a lot of people in the music crowd and we had the old Astoria around the corner. We had a Happy Hour late in the evening, between midnight and 3am, because obviously the Astoria staff worked during normal happy hour. Then they started bringing the bands down.

I didn’t understand why there wasn’t a good rock bar in Soho. The Royal George tolerated the rock crowd because they’d go there before the gigs at the Astoria. The 12 Bar Club was more rockabilly punk, but it wasn’t rock and metal. The demand was there so it didn’t take long before people sussed that we were there. It took off.

I put a jukebox in. I always loved jukeboxes from when I first started drinking and working in pubs in the 1980s. Then in the 1990s a lot of pubs took their jukeboxes out and started putting in CD players and let their staff decide what music they should have. It was a shambles!

The rock metal crowd loved our jukebox because they got to choose their own music. From there on, it just got busier and busier. We survived 20 years and would still be there now if Covid hadn’t come along.

More whiskey at The CrobarHow did it evolve into a whiskey bar?

Whiskey. Obviously it’s a rock bar! So it’s also a rock ‘n’ whiskey bar.

We started off selling Jack Daniel’s but within a couple of years we went from Jack to Bulleit because Jack had reduced its alcohol strength, it wasn’t the 45% ABV Jack I remembered from the 1980s. It wasn’t as nice. It had become mass produced. I had Bulleit one day and I thought ‘woah! this is good!’ We bought it through Speciality Drinks and we managed to do a deal with Diageo so for every six cases we bought we’d get a case for free. So in the early days, Monday to Thursday we were able to offer Bulleit and coke for £1.50 (it was £3.50 by the time we got to the end), which meant we were always busy. We didn’t make a lot per shot of Bulleit but we were selling 90 bottles per week.

It meant we were loved by the rock crowd because you could walk in with a tenner [£10] and have at least a few drinks. We shovelled out whiskey and coke. The nice thing about the rock crowd is that they are big drinkers and very little trouble; they’re not a fighty, argumentative crowd. They drank like fish, and I like rock music, so it was kind of perfect.

Can you explain rock music to me?

Oh, I’ve always had an interest in music. No talent whatsoever. My mother was a very good singer and pianist, but it was my father who taught me a love of music. There was always music in the house: swing, big-band, classical, that sort of stuff. I was about 13 and I heard Led Zeppelin and it was like ‘Finally! Someone’s playing the guitar loud and heavy!’

These days. It’s gotten ridiculous. Back in the 1980s when I started bartending it was just ‘heavy metal’ but now the subgenres are all over the shop. During the 2011 census, myself and a couple of the lads from Metal Hammer magazine were chatting and I said ‘let’s see if we can get 100,000 people to put ‘Heavy Metal’ down as their religion, then the government would have to recognise it as an official religion’, turns out they don’t, but anyway, we failed because people put ‘Thrash Metal’, ‘Doom’, ‘Speed Metal’, ‘Grunge’, ‘Swedish Doom’, ‘Southern Rock’… so we couldn’t get enough numbers.

The Spotify Generation has more varied musical tastes and doesn’t affiliate so much. When we were growing up to had to buy an album, so you could only really afford to be into one genre.

People used to walk into The Crobar from all over the world and they could get into a conversation because they were into metal and all barriers were down.

Rock and Metal is in decline because let’s face it, all the big bands are ancient. Even the crowd is ancient. You see the odd kid with his Iron Maiden jacket but mainly it’s baby grows and bibs. Someone came into the bar once and demanded we sell baby grows because she said it was my fault she’d had a baby! I said ‘oh all right fair enough’ and they were brilliant bibs. My daughter had them when she was born.

Whisky Rock

Can you explain rock’n’whiskey to me?

My mum went to the States in 1980 and she brought back a bottle of Jack for me and my dad and I thought it was delicious, I’d never tasted anything like it. Then in the mid 1980s they dropped the strength down from 45% to 43%. I remember being in a pub and accusing them of watering it down. It was only a few months later when I was talking to another pub landlord that he told me that Jack Daniels had reduced the alcohol. Or in other words, they had watered it down.

It just stopped being the product it had once upon a time been.

The clincher, bizarrely enough, is that Bulleit and coke and Jack and coke taste exactly the same. Don’t ask me why. Their ingredients are not the same, Bulleit has a lot more rye than Jack Daniels [Jack Daniels is made up of 80% corn, 12% barley, and 8% rye. Bulleit Bourbon is made from 68% corn, 28% rye and 4% barley], but I did blind taste tests with punters and they couldn’t tell the difference.

Crobar American Whiskeys on a shelfSurely coke has a such an overwhelming flavour profile that if you put coke in anything you’re not going to tell the difference?

Indeed. A lot of people would come into The Crobar and order a whiskey and coke and they would have no idea which whiskey they were drinking.

Others asked for Jack Daniels but I’d give them a free taste of Bulleit and they’d see it was more alcoholic for the same price, sexy bottle, sexy name, and they’d go OK.

But it’s not that simple: Jim Beam, Makers Mark, Buffalo Trace… I had every rep on the planet trying to get their bourbon to be my house bourbon… but they don’t have that Bulleit taste. They don’t have that rock ‘n’ roll whiskey ‘n’ coke taste.

The Crobar barThat was your house pour at your whiskey bar but what about your own whiskey collection.

It was serendipitous for us. We started buying bourbons from my business partner’s local 24 hour corner shop up in Finsbury Park. In 2001 you had Makers Mark, Jim Beam, Jack Daniels and that was about it, there wasn’t much else. We found out he got his whiskey from Speciality Drinks. So we phoned them up and that started a lovely relationship. They’d only just started out and they were looking for customers. And in those days their range was still only 10 or 12 bourbons, but as they grew they were able to supply more and more and I was able to stock more and more. By 2005 or 2006 I had a back shelf of 40 to 50 bourbons in the whiskey bar. Rather than stick to one thing I had this nice turn over of American whiskeys.

People found it fascinating. They’d see things they’d never tried before and would ask ‘what have you got new in this month?’

Around the mid noughties it all became about cocktails so we started to get a lot of bartenders in because ours was a great whiskey bar for them to try new things. That, and we were open until three in the morning so they could come after work and have a good time.Yet more bottles at the Crobar

Any favourite whiskeys from your own collection?

The first bottle I bought for the collection was a Jim Beam Gus Gay. It’s a very plain looking bottle with a white label on it. It wasn’t in particularly good nick when it turned up. It hasn’t deteriorated much in the 15 years I’ve had it. That was the state it was in. It wasn’t particularly expensive.

Then in the USA they changed the law about trading whiskey. Suddenly you had to have this license to be able to buy and sell whiskeys, so a lot of people in America just dumped their collections and the boys started buying a lot more.

I bought half a dozen bottles and had a little shelf put up, then it became a dozen, then a couple of dozen and my maintenance man was adding shelves to the office here and there and everywhere so I could put the bottles up.

They were just nice things to have, it was curiosity, I was never tempted to drink any of them. There was one, Waterfill & Frazier, I think I got three or four of them. I found those fascinating because it’s American whiskey made in bond in Mexico. I just thought ‘that’s mental!’ In the early days it was still hard to find much information about whiskeys even online. Some you could find plenty about but I remember it took me ages to find out why companies were making whiskey in Mexico. Turns out it was some tax thing. They could make more money making whiskey in Mexico and importing it than they could by making it in America at the time.

The whiskey laws in USA have changed regularly and constantly over the years. They had prohibition. My 10 year old thinks that’s mad. I explained to her that they banned alcohol but not guns, ‘but daddy that doesn’t make any sense at all!’

There’s a couple of prohibition whiskeys in the collection, including a Bond & Lillard 1916 100 Proof bottled in 1926. They were official ones because they still bottled whiskey for ‘medical’ reasons, with the little pink slip and all of that, it’s great history.

The Pappy Van Winkles, we used to sell them back in the noughties, then suddenly, in about 2008 you could not get Pappy Van Winkle in this country for love nor money. So when I got offered some at face value I bought them.

The Japanese whiskies I mainly bought because my rep said ‘buy the Japanese whiskies!’

I never really thought about what I’d do with them but when Covid happened I didn’t want to leave them lying around in an empty bar so I crated them up and brought them home. Since then my amazing collection has languished in cupboards in my house, where nobody got to see them or enjoy them. As such, I have decided it’s time to put them up for sale so that they can be seen and enjoyed by others.

What are you going to do with the whiskey money?

I need the money to pay the mortgage! Also my daughter wants me to take her to Italy.

The people

What do you miss most about your whiskey bar?

The people.

I had thousands of acquaintances. Literally thousands. I had people I had known for the best part of thirty years. There was a guy, Andy, I’d known him from my early Borderline days. He used to pop in to the bar, less and less as he got older, but he was somebody who had been around Soho, we’d stand around and have beer and a have chat. He was a person I considered to be a friend. But ‘Andy’ is all I know about him. No telephone number, no email address, no idea what his surname is, and I never really asked him what he did, because anyone who flits around Soho at night like that, it’s probably best if I don’t ask them what they do for a living. Him, along with hundreds of other people like him are just gone from my life, overnight. I was there on the 16th of March. Never reopened. Yeah, it’s the people.

Soho will always be Soho.

I opened the whiskey bar that I wished someone had opened for me, but nobody did.

I really miss it. It doesn’t happen in Winchester.

Richard Thomas’ Crobar collection is in the current auction ending Tuesday 4 July.

Richard Thomas at the Crobar