Martyn ‘Simo’ Simpson: shaking up whisky and cocktails
With half a dozen bars in London, Martyn Simpson, known as Simo, is a major player in the capital’s drinks scene. He discusses his love of whisky, and how he shook up a sometimes staid sector of the hospitality industry.
*This interview was originally published in the March 2022 issue of The Spirits Business magazine.
Martyn Simpson, more commonly known in the industry as Simo, is the owner of six drinks venues in London. Some may recognise him for the impressive display of his own bars tattooed down his arm. One inked design is the emblem for his latest venture: London’s hottest new cocktail bar, Silverleaf.
Its launch follows Simo’s other projects: whisky specialist Milroy’s of Soho, and cocktail bar The Vault, which sits below. Milroy’s of Spitalfields was set up four months before the pandemic hit, and also features members club The Dram House above it. Neighbourhood cocktail bar The Proofing Room is located underneath. These, plus Silverleaf, make up Simo’s staggering portfolio of watering holes.
In November 2019, Simo and co-founder Chris Tanner had been running the second Milroy’s outpost in Spitalfields for two months when they were approached for a new project by a hotel marketing team who “fell in love with our passion”, according to Simo.
“There are a million operators in the world, but what sets us apart is that we just fucking love what we do,” he explains.
“I love everything about whisky – talking to people about it, doing tastings. My favourite thing in the world is being sat at my bar, and doing a whisky tasting for people that have never tried it before. You can explain it to them and open their eyes.”
Silverleaf is nestled under the wing of luxury hotel Pan Pacific London, but its branding is firmly rooted in independence.
“It’s a big corporate structure that we had to get used to – Chris and I are both a tad hipster; I still don’t own a shirt to this day. We don’t bend to people’s will. They let us bring this independent bar mentality to a luxury hotel. That was the premise of the pitch.”
That’s not to say the bar doesn’t boast opulence: its temperature-controlled gold display cabinet presents some of the ‘finest spirits in the world’, plus bespoke lighting and swirl-patterned tables carved from solid marble blocks welcome guests on entry. A private bar, named Alba, is yet another luxury feature of Silverleaf, accessible by invitation only, and exclusive to “friends, family, and people in the industry”. Responsible for the meticulous design of Silverleaf is acclaimed designer Tom Dixon.
“The guy’s nuts,” Simo exclaims. “He’s really cool, very intelligent. A bit like me and Chris: I see everything in whisky, Chris sees everything in cocktails, and Tom Dixon sees everything in design. We worked really well with each other.”
Alongside a passion for drams, Simo expresses an enthusiasm for “breaking down barriers” in the industry, with regards to hierarchies established in the whisky world.
“There’s a group of people I call wingback wankers. It’s like that old white guy, smoking jacket in a wingback chair, swirling his whisky and looking down on everybody,” he says.
“When I got into the whisky industry years ago, people looked down at me. I used to go to posh whisky bars with tattoos, knowing more about it all than they did. And it pissed me off.”
Simo attempted to eradicate these stereotypes when he built a bar in Milroy’s of Soho. “I built this really thin bar there – so it’s like you’re chatting to a mate,” he explains.
“There’s no menu there. We want to get rid of that. Because people look at a menu and say, ‘I saw that on TV, I’ll have that’.”
Simo embarked upon the concept of ‘palate progression’, allowing the bar team to guide a customer’s order based on their answers to key questions.
“Everything is flavour-led. We ask about what you usually like to eat and drink outside of whisky,” he continues. “Your brain tells you what you like according to your happy memories. It’s why when we smell sambuca nowadays we all have a bit of a turn in our stomach. You have to break down barriers with whisky, because it’s seen as such an elitist subject. It’s just made by a bunch of farmers in Scotland – it is a drink of the people. As soon as it comes south of the border, people have forgotten that.”
As a result of Simo promoting an unconventional dram experience in Milroy’s, the bar saw “men and women of all age groups drinking whisky”.
“This is what it should be like,” Simo insists. Silverleaf presents similar themes, too: “We’ve democratised high-end luxury hotel bars – you should be able to go to a bar and ask any question.” Despite costing a great deal to build, Simo says it is “still just a bar you can hang out at with your mates”.
Meanwhile, the menu, developed by Tanner and bar manager Liam Broom, is built on 10 flavour profiles, with each drink containing four of these.
“It takes you away from ‘I want the vodka one, I want the whisky one’. Now, you can say, ‘actually, I want a fresh drink’,” Simo adds. “A lot of the drinks are quite clear – no heavy colours. This isn’t your normal whisky cocktail, it’s light and fresh.”
Passion for the job
An undeniable personality trait of Simo’s is his passion – particularly for the job.
“I fucking love what I do. I do 80-90 hours a week. Everyone that works for me – they’re like family,” he explains. “The other day, the toilet got blocked because someone had flushed a tampon down it. I had to get on my hands and knees and pull it all out.
“As a manager, if you can’t go clean the toilets, you’re a shit manager. You get involved in the nitty gritty.
“A boss that says, ‘do this, do that’… people like that are dickheads. You work as a team.”
Reflecting the themes of Silverleaf’s minimalist drinks menu, Simo’s philosophy for success is one of simplicity.
“My dad always says, ‘if you love what you do, the money comes’. The first and foremost thing is looking after your staff, making sure they’re happy, and the customer walking through the door has a fucking great time. It’s a really simple thing. Success comes afterwards.”