- Grant Ashton is CEO and founder of 67 Pall Mall, which claims to be the world’s first private members’ club for wine lovers.
- Previously a city trader for 30 years, Ashton opened the club after he managed to collect too much wine.
- He raised £8 million from 87 investors to finance the project, which is aimed at making some of the world’s rarest wines more affordable.
- Now, the club has the most wines by the glass in the world and 2,750 members.
Grant Ashton had spent 30 years running trading floors in the City of London and Canary Wharf when he took a year off. It was hardly a holiday.
As well as starting a green gas business and taking Chartered Financial Analyst exams, he set out to solve a far less taxing issue: How to sell off the vast wine collection he had amassed.
“I started collecting, and like most collectors, you over-collect,” Ashton told Business Insider.
This happy conundrum soon became a business plan when he fell in love with Sir Edwin Lutyens’ Grade II-listed building, which had been empty for 15 years in central London. Fittingly, for a man who has worked at the likes of UBS and Barclays Capital, it was also once the west end branch of Hambros Bank.
Ashton has transformed it into setting for 67 Pall Mall, the world’s first private members’ club for wine lovers.
The 17,000 sq ft building now boasts 26,000 bottles of wine, and 12,000 hand-blown crystal glasses. It is home to 2,750 members, 18 sommeliers, the biggest wine list in the UK (4,000 wines), and 800 wines by the glass — the most in the world.
It was built with £8 million of finance — the “front to back cost of the club to date” — that Ashton personally raised from a now 87-strong list of investors.
As well as pulling this patchwork of investors together, he did the accounting, the legal work, and even cleaned the toilets. The club was a truly personal project.
“I started this club because I had too much wine, I wanted to share my wine with a bunch of my friends who had too much wine as well,” Ashton said.
He and his investors realised that the world of wine had become far too expensive, meaning people who enjoy a glass of the good stuff often “downgrade” their choices. We’ve all had that moment when you settle for the cheapest bottle on the menu.
Ashton thinks his membership gets around this and opens up more expensive wines to people. “The key offering we have is our wine is very, very subsidised,” he said.
“We can afford to show very, very good pricing relative to what things cost because it’s a membership club. People upgrade their choices. That’s what interests me in this — that’s kind of what got me involved.”
And the demand since the club’s launch in December 2015 suggests he hit upon something: 67 Pall Mall had 1,200 members before even opening its doors. It opened a second floor in October last year and started accepting new full members once again, with 2,750 now on its books.
The cost of membership is £1,500 a year, plus a £1,500 joining fee. Candidates require a proposer and seconder from within the club’s existing membership.
Overseen by Master Sommelier Ronan Sayburn, one of the cheapest bottles at 67 Pall Mall will set you back £40, while the most expensive can come in at an incredible £16,882. By the glass, the price range goes from £7 up to a whopping £667.
But of course it’s not all about the wine.
On the first floor, the club boasts a Members’ Lounge with an impressive-looking bar…
…and a wine library.
A relaxed mezzanine leads to the second floor…
…where you’ll find the Club Room…
…which contains another bar and a coal fire, one of Ashton’s favourite features.
There’s also the ‘Naughty Corner,’ where members can find spirits should they tire of the vino.
Perhaps the coolest feature of the club is the Members’ Reserve facility, which allows members to store wine from their own collection in the club’s cellars, or the Chatwood “Invincible” Strongroom.
The room, a secure facility built for Hambros Bank in 1934 where the club also stores its finest and rarest wines, is a space that’s like “something out of Goldfinger or Fort Knox,” according to Ashton. It currently houses 26,000 bottles of wine and counting.
“Part of the proposition of the club is, if you have bottles of wine stored downstairs, you can sit here and say ‘I’d like my bottle of Dom Perignon ’02 please,’ and they’ll go downstairs and grab your bottle from your box,” Ashton said.
Members can even order the wine from an iPad, where they can view what they have in the downstairs collection, click on it, and order it to their table.
“You pay £20 corkage and you drink your own wine,” he said. “Ours is very well priced, but… a lot of people store their own wine here because they have an emotional attachment.”
And the vino stays fresh thanks to the Coravin wine access system, which allows bottles to be accessed and resealed without ever taking the cork out.
It pushes a needle through the cork, injects argon gas, then takes the out needle of the cork, allowing it to reseal.
“That allows us to have a huge list of wine, some of which have been open for 18 months,” Ashton said. “It allows us to have 800 wines by the glass, and they don’t spoil, because you never take the cork out.”
Demystifying the “dusty wine list”
And if members are daunted by the wine list, the sommeliers are on hand to help.
“They’ll find something amazing. They’ll bring me something I wouldn’t normally order,” Ashton said. “Part of what we do is demystifying the huge dusty old list of wine. People get really intimidated by page after page.”
And there’s food to discover, too.
Head Chef Marcus Verberne — formerly of the likes of Caprice, The Ivy, and HIX — serves up a breakfast menu (a highlight is the ‘Summer bubble ‘n’ squeak with fried duck’s egg & girolles’); a grazing menu, featuring oysters and charcuterie; and a more formal European a la carte menu in the first floor dining room, shown below.
“I suspect we’ll do some more dining,” Ashton said, explaining that the club owns another floor in the building currently being used as office space. “Over time we’ll find somewhere else for our offices to be and move up there and do something more as well,” he said. “But give me a couple of years, I’m a bit tired.”
So who are 67 Pall Mall’s members?
“Anyone who loves wine is who’s here,” Ashton said. “Anyone from a chateau owner, a lot of winemakers, wine trade, wine journalists…a lot of wine professionals are members.
“The rest are wine lovers, not people who have got huge collections or who have the most amazing knowledge — we’ve got those as well — but people who are interested in wine, interested in a nice social mix.”
He added that 67 Pall Mall is a “non-fussy, nice, simple, ordinary, social club” where there’s no formal dress code and members often wear jeans.
“This is not a sort of ‘look at me’ club, we’re not really that, we’re all about being a nice, gentle social club that’s fun. There’s always a glass of wine nearby. The ethos of it is very relaxed.
He added: “The nature of this is it’s not grown out of some hospitality group somewhere. It’s kind of authentic, it comes from the heart — a bunch of wine lovers. If you put a load of wine on a nice list, price it well, fill it full of nice people, not idiotic people who are just interested in the price, you’ll have a nice place.”
Working with wine
67 Pall Mall is also attracting an influx of young entrepreneurs in the city who can “sit down at 7 in the morning and get up again at 12.30 [at night] having sat here all day working, talking, drinking,” Ashton said.
“If I as a 25-year-old a very long time ago thought, ‘I’m going to open a wine club and raise millions of pounds,’ they would have looked at me and said ‘Don’t be silly, come back when you’re 40,” he added.
“Now, we have an awful lot of entrepreneurs who are members here. They like wine, but they also quite like the nice, social club that’s a bit ‘grown up’ but not stuffy.
“Sitting around a boardroom table or conference room isn’t what people do as much anymore… they want to sit here, be social, in a relaxed setting that isn’t Starbucks or Costa coffee.”
He said the club allows guests to use cell phones “if they do it discretely,” and they can work on their laptops during the day. “But at 6 o’clock, but the laptop away — nobody needs to work after 6,” he said. “That’s the nature of this club.”
The club is currently made up of 70% men, something that Ashton is keen to change, partly through the decor done by renowned design studio Russell Sage.
“Getting the right kind of gender balance in this place is really important,” he said. “We have a big push to get to 40% ladies, ideally 50/50.”
While Ashton calls the downstairs floor “amazing, beautiful” with 80-year-old panelling, the goal of the second floor was to be “slightly younger, slightly cosier, slightly more feminine.”
All in all, it’s easy to understand why Ashton is there “too much,” as he says.
“I love it, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I’d never go back to trading bonds for a living. I spent 25 years sitting behind a computer screen in the city. This is much more fun.”
The wine way of life
Despite his love of the club, Ashton said “there would have been a lot easier things to do” than open 67 Pall Mall.
“It’s cost a lot of time, a lot of cups of tea with people explaining what we were going to do, getting everybody comfortable with what we do — getting the planning, getting the licensing, getting the investors together,” Ashton said.
“I have swept floors in this place, I have literally cleaned the loos. I also raised the £8 million it took to do. I originally did all of the accounting, all of the fundraising, all of the legals, every single thing.”
Still, he said it beats working for a living.
“That’s what I’ve learned from 25-30 years sitting behind a Bloomberg screen. Getting out in the world, meeting new people rather than just being on the phone all the time to people, it’s very good fun. The City had some amazing years, but it’s a lot tougher to work there than it used to be, and this is a lot more fun.”
We can raise glass to that.