Interview: Allen Daly, Gerry’s

Interview: Allen Daly, Gerry’s

Gerry’s is a gem in the heart of Soho – a sort of drinks Tardis, if you will. A tiny shop crammed with an extraordinary range of spirits - and an awful lot more besides – it’s something of a London institution with an international reputation. Sacred is proud to be Gerry’s best-selling gin for the past three years, so our founder Hilary went to interview Gerry’s manager, Allen Daly.

Who is Gerry – and what is he to you?

Gerry’s was started in 1984 by two guys, Michael Kyprianou and Gerry Cohen. The shop was originally going to be called ‘Michael and Gerry’s’ or ‘Gerry and Michael’s’ but it didn’t quite roll off the tongue and Michael, being very unassuming and never wanting to take the limelight, was quite happy for the shop to be called Gerry’s. However Gerry only stayed about a year, maybe two, after they opened and for the 30-odd years ever since, everyone has called Michael, Gerry -  and since he retired about 10 years ago, a lot of people now call me Gerry.  I couldn’t care less - you can call me that all day long if you like.

I say Michael has retired but he still comes in three days a week to help us. I worked for Michael for so many years that we became very good friends, so he’s always around to help out and to be honest, I don’t know what we’d do without him.  Typically, when a big delivery comes in, all my guys will be out and about doing deliveries, I’ll be serving in the shop, Vince will be in the office doing the paperwork and Michael will be downstairs in the cellar. Two, three, maybe four hours later, the cellar will be spotless – everything in the right place.  He’s brilliant.

And in addition to Michael, you have a very loyal, consistent team.

Well, Vince has only been here 27 years - I’ve been here just over 30 years. Vince is a very interesting character, he’s a multi-instrumentalist and he’s worked with all sorts of bands, Status Quo, Slade, Climax Blues Band – but you should talk to him about that.  Andy has been here for 10 years, as has Hairy Marcus. Tall Marcus and Matt have both been here on and off for about six or seven years, so everybody’s been here a while. Graeme who’s the newbie, he started about a year ago.

So how did you end up at Gerry’s?

One of my first jobs when I left school was working in a clothes shop called Hugo Morelli’s in Marylebone High Street. I was bored senseless because I was stuck in this shop all day with an old Jewish fella called Harry, who was lovely, but he was about 85 and I was 17, 18 years old and we never had any customers. Across the road there was a branch of Victoria Wines and one of the women who worked there was the mother of one of my mates from school. I often used to chat to her and moan about how bored I was and she said I ought to think about working for Victoria Wines, so that’s what I did.  I started off in Kensington, then South Audley Street and ended up in the Berwick Street branch where I was basically the manager. That wasn’t my title but I was the one in charge. I was also the one with the keys which meant I had a lot of freedom and I was seriously led astray by the guys in the market.

I spent most of my day in the pub or in one of the drinking clubs such as the New Hogarth, which was a really nice little club in D’Arblay Street - you had to go through a gay strip joint and up a flight of stairs to get there.  We also used to go to the New Piccadilly in Denman Street. Actually, we went to loads of them because in those days – which I’m sure you’ll remember as you’re the same vintage as me – pubs used to close in the afternoon, so there were lots of drinking clubs, legal and illegal, around here. I used to know most of them and occasionally I’d even go to Ronnie Knight’s club, The A&R Club – when I broke my nose I looked like a bit of a villain so I fitted in with everyone else.  

Eventually I decided to leave Victoria Wines because I was very young and I wasn’t handling the responsibility very well. I was drinking every night and never went home – I was having a great time but I realised I needed a bit more structure in my life.  I’d become friends with Michael and Gerry because a friend of mine from Victoria Wines was working here. So I came to Gerry’s to work as a trolley boy, doing deliveries. Thirty years later, I’m still here.

I was blinded by all the bottles here because, even in those days, we had a massive selection.  I mean obviously not as big as today but even then our gin selection - our rum selection! - everything was so much bigger than everybody else’s.  I always say – tongue in cheek - that we launched the gin revolution. I mean, I know it was Hendricks, but we launched the product for them. It was made in Scotland but at first you couldn’t buy it in Scotland.  For a whole year, the only place you could get Hendricks was Gerry’s in Old Compton Street. We had it as our window display for a year, we had it on tasting for a whole year. No one else could get it.

At that time we were starting to get a few more unusual gins came in and then one day this fella called Ian came in – fresh-faced Ian! – with his bottle of Sacred Gin. He didn’t seem to know much about the drinks trade but I hit it off with him straight away.  We had a very interesting conversation about pricing and where his gin should be and after that meeting we always felt that Sacred was “our” gin.

We had our old label then, didn’t we?

You did! I had many an argument with Ian telling him to change the label and he came in one day and said, “We’ve changed the label” and it just worked so much better the original one.

Ian designed it himself.

Yes – and like I said, we argued constantly about it.

And now for at least the past three years we’ve been your best-selling gin! Sorry – just had to say that again! So how did Gerry’s get such a reputation for spirits because it’s called Gerry’s Wines and Spirits but you have more of a reputation for spirits than wine these days?

When I originally came to Gerry’s, even though we were just a little shop, we had a wine buyer and we imported all our own wine from Hungary, Bulgaria, from France – from all over the place. In those days, most of the wines were £1.59. The only Italian I ever remember is una settanta nove which is one seventy nine – because lots of the Italian wines were £1.79.  We had spirits too, but Michael had worked for Del Monico’s [the legendary wine store], which was only a few doors down, so he knows a huge amount about wine.  We still sell a fair bit of wine but obviously we don’t do the same volume as we used to do because so nowadays most people buy their wine from a supermarket.

So Michael worked at Del Monico’s before he started Gerry’s?

Gerry and Michael ran Del Monico’s for years.  The original owners sold it and Michael and Gerry continued to work for the new people for a long time but after a while they decided it wasn’t really working for them so they decided to open their own shop. They got backing from a guy called Frank whose other businesses included massage parlours, video shops and similar ventures - I mean, this was his only legitimate business – and for the first four or five years, none of the big companies would deal with us. No one would give us credit.  When I first came here, once I’d learnt to drive, they used to send me off to the Cash and Carry every week to buy stuff which we sold for virtually no profit because none of the suppliers would work with us.

That’s amazing!  And now, this is the place everyone wants their brand to be!

You see Del Monico’s had a really good relationships with all the suppliers and they said, “If you supply Gerry’s, we won’t buy from you” but four or five years down the line that all changed.  Del Monico’s eventually disappeared because Michael and Gerry really were Del Monico’s.  

So when did spirits start to really take off here?

Spirits always were a big thing but it was around 1990, maybe even earlier, that they really began to take off. Absolut Vodka Heritage from Sweden came here and made a film because we knew the guy from Absolut from way back and the film was a sort of homage to Michael, saying “this is the place that started off the big vodka boom.”

And you also launched Crystal Head Vodka in the UK.

Yes, we had Dan Aykroyd came to do the official launch of Crystal Head Vodka here. That was fun. We had people queuing up outside the shop from half eight in the morning, right round the corner - people dressed up as Ghostbusters and stuff.

Did Dan Aykroyd actually stand in the shop pouring out samples?

We had a tasting earlier on in the day and then he turned up at about half four, maybe five, and he was here for about an hour, an hour and a half, just sitting behind the counter. We had security on the door and we just let three or four people in at a time. They’d come in, buy the bottle and Dan would sign it and have his photo taken with them.  It was quite cool. He was a lovely fella.

Do you think he was surprised by the shop?  Because he’d probably been told this was a very influential place – do you think he might have been expecting something a bit more, well – blingy?

As soon as they come across the threshold, I think most people get it.  I think the reason people love Gerry’s is because there’s absolutely nothing pretentious about it at all. I was saying to someone the other day, if you go any city in the country – Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool – it doesn’t matter where you go, you get out at the train station, go down the high street and it all looks exactly the same.  There’s an H&M, a Boots – just the same as anywhere else. If I ever go anywhere like that with the wife, I always go down the back streets to see if there’s anything interesting and I think people feel the same way about Gerry’s. Every year we have a discussion about remodelling the shop and every year I say, “Well - maybe not this year!” And if I ever mention it to any of our customers they always say, “Don’t you dare touch it!”  It should be listed, really.

It should.  All the cuttings and pictures on the walls – when did that start?

That was Michael. Years ago, he started taking pictures of the customers and he’d probably get through a roll of film a week.  There was a little chemist on the corner where we used to get our films developed and we’d put the pictures up and then famous people would come in and bring us their headshots.  It doesn’t happen so much these days because well, one thing is that there’s not much space left – and the other thing is, who prints out photographs these days?

You must have seen a lot of changes in Soho over the years?

Massive changes. When I first came to Soho, it pretty much lived up to its reputation: full of peep shows, lots of girls on the street - every second doorway you went to was a French model. We knew them all because we used to deliver to them – Mimi, Fifi, Monique – and they were brilliant, really lovely people.  Today the prostitutes are usually Eastern European and they’re on a metre, they have to have so many [clients] per hour but in the old days, the French women didn’t have pimps or anything, they did their own thing. They were all sorts of sizes and shapes, some of them were great fat ladies, and they were such a laugh.  They’d ring up and you’d go round and you’d deliver say, two cases of water and a couple of cases of wine and some champagne and they’d always give you a tip. They tipped better than anyone else and they were really good fun. I used to really enjoy that.

Of course, we also delivered to all the bars and drinking clubs and by the end of the day you were quite often absolutely sozzled because everywhere you’d go, you’d always be offered you a drink and a couple of quid.  When I first started working here, I never worked behind the counter, I just did deliveries, and one of the women who was working here, Lesley, said to me, “Why don’t you come off deliveries and serve behind the counter?” and I said “No – because whatever you pay me, it’s not going to make up for the tips I’m going to lose,” because we used to make really good money from tips. At one time there’d be seven or eight of us, making deliveries all day long. Then that side of the business started to slow down so I did a bit of serving, then I did a bit more, and nowadays, at the age of 50, I try not to do any deliveries because I’m a bit past it.

You certainly don’t have 7 or 8 people doing deliveries now.

Two things happened.  One is, years ago, we used to deliver to all the local bars and restaurants.  We serviced virtually all the restaurants In Chinatown – the larger wholesalers wouldn’t touch them because they insisted on minimum orders which the smaller, independent customers couldn’t fill. It was very easy. Customers would ring up, place their order and they would have their delivery in 10 or 15 minutes.  Then things got a bit tight and the wholesalers started fighting over every little scrap of business. The second thing is that gradually all the independents disappeared - 99% of the places you see are owned by big companies who usually only want to buy from one wholesaler and if you want to sell to them, you usually have to approach their buying department and jump through all sorts of hoops to do business with them.  Having said that, we still have a few customers that we’ve been delivering to for years - the only reason we’ve ever lost customers is (a) if they just go out of business and (b) if they die.

Are you disappointed that Soho has changed so much?

It still has its moments but it’s changed completely because, as I was saying before, when we first came here it was all peep shows and prostitutes. I think a lot of people thought it was seedy but it only looked like that to people from the outside looking in.  We knew everybody in Soho - all the prostitutes, the clippers and all that, and when you were a part of it, it was actually a really nice community. Everybody knew everybody and it was quite cool.

It’s actually a lot seedier now because there are junkies and people dealing drugs in the street.  In the old days, all the girls were very visible but it was reasonably harmless. I mean, if you weren’t interested, no one would bother you. They were here to make money.  It was quite an interesting time. We used to drink in the Duke of Wellington on the corner – there would be me, a good friend of mine, Ken, John and Claude - John used to look after most of Paul Raymond’s bars, and Claude was a French air steward who was John’s boyfriend - there was a guy called Ash who was an Iranian ex-tennis champion, Herbie from the market and Mark who ran a shop selling sex equipment - he used to have to have acupuncture once a week to cure his aggression  It was fabulous, there was such a mix of people. I had the time of my life - I never wanted to go home!

How often do you get approached by people with new products?

We get approached all the time – not quite so many gins now, it’s slowed down a bit but we still get offered two or three a week.  I have a couple of key questions – the first one is, “how much does the gin cost?” If it’s going to retail for over thirty quid, I usually say no.  There are people who come in here and say, “I’ve got a brand new gin and it’s blah, blah, blah and it’s a half litre and you’re going to have to sell it for £45”. And I say “Really?  Do I really need your gin at £45 for a half litre?” The second question is, “What is your back story?” because obviously, a good back story helps but at the end of the day I look at the product and I think, “Can I sell that product at that price?” and if I don’t think I can, I say no.  But I’m always very polite!

What do you think about the onslaught of gins on the market?

As I said, it’s tailing off a bit but I think gin is here to stay. Quite a few of the smaller brands will drop off because their scales of production are so small, it makes it expensive to produce and also, a lot of people come up with a recipe and then get someone else to distil it for them, so of course they have to have their cut too. It’s much harder to make money [distilling gin] than people think. When anyone comes in here and starts talking about making their own gin, I say, “Fine, but don’t put your house on it.”  To be honest, it’s the Government who makes the most money out of gin – all that duty you have to pay!

I was interviewed by a market research agency that was working for one of the large drinks companies and they wanted to discuss craft production. I told them that craft production will never affect the big brands. It might nibble around the edges a little bit, but the whole idea of craft is that it’s small, and if you start to get bigger you’re part of the mainstream. Of course, some of the smaller brands will stay – you’re doing all right, for example…

Touch wood!  So what’s your desert island tipple?

At the moment I’m drinking calvados. I’m a very simple man, I drink calvados and ginger ale and that does me fine.  If I go out, I can’t drink beer - it just makes me very drunk and feel very ill and I don’t see the point of that.

So tell me what else makes Gerry’s so unique.

We have some great customers – a lot of local characters, people who work in the nearby offices and because we’re near all the theatres, quite a few famous people. We’re also always full of trade people, not necessarily buying but just coming to chew the fat. People seem to like to come here. It’s a destination shop. Plenty of people will come and spend two hours here and not buy anything and that’s OK – we don’t mind.  It’s just got a really good vibe.

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