A free tasting at their new branch on Brompton Road might leave you slightly vertiginous.
But it’s the staff who’ll really floor you with their fanatical knowledge of exotic tipple.
The Zapotec farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico, are a quiet people. Easily offended. Each village lays claim to many different versions of their indigenous drink, mezcal. Made from the agave plant, first burned in a pit fire, then fermented and distilled with other ingredients – a skinned chicken in this case…
I’m furiously scribbling down notes as ‘Brand Champion’ Jan explains Pechuga, the smoky-smelling spirit I’ve just been handed in a peculiar little clay dish. Jan raises a Zapotec toast, ‘Stigibeu’ (‘to the life force that surrounds us’). Excellente – another esoteric cultural flourish I’ll be passing off as my own later on to my girlfriend.
Suddenly I’m diving into a heady mix of flavours infinitely less harsh than any tequila, by turns salty, fruity – and yes, with a faint note of poultry.
Amathus, with its ceremonious titles (‘Armegnac Ambassador’?) and regular master classes, could be as much a finishing school for wannabe mixologists as it is a high-end off-license.
This dual formula seems to be the key to their success: a buying team with a flair for picking out next year’s big hits means shelves brimming with rare boutique and exclusive items; whilst their singular passion for educating their customers in the finer details makes them all the more enticing when shared with friends.
And now, with stores already in Soho and the City (‘punctuating’ rather than ‘saturating’ the capital, they hasten to emphasise) this third opening a stone’s throw from Harrods places them perfectly to teach London’s elite their Claret from their Beaujolais.
Mercifully, the interior doesn’t try to compete with the gaudy splendour of Harrods – the bottles on the shelves are allowed to speak for themselves, lending the room an understated and mellow atmosphere, perfect for standing and sipping. The only recognisable difference from your usual high street drinks merchant is its size – that and the large electric machine at the back, dispensing various flavours of the week like some adult twist on Willy Wonka’s bubble room.
As the manager, Pip, leads me towards it, I notice the prices are generally far more reasonable than you might expect. The top wines on display go for more than £8,000, but it’s perfectly possible to pick up a £7 bottle for dinner – with a far better selection than what’s on offer at most supermarkets.
Personally, I’m always wary of wine merchants talking up the expensive stuff. There’s something tremendously satisfying about those blind taste tests proving the psychological effect of a high price tag – or that laymen actually prefer cheap wine. Even if experts can tell the difference as they claim, is it really worth learning to sniff out those hints of cassis if it means bankrupting yourself?
But at Amathus it quickly becomes clear that there is no intention of pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes. When I ask about a flamboyantly packaged brand of vodka, I’m told it’s a little gimmicky, and directed to a cheaper but higher quality one. With each sample I try, I’m encouraged to decide for myself whether the flavour is enjoyable before the spiel begins.
And while my eyes usually glaze over after a short while of rarefied wine-speak, the staff’s passion is genuinely contagious. I learn about Japanese Koshu, a crisp wine with an umami flavour that makes it the perfect accompaniment to sushi or sashimi. And Louis Sipp, a French wine made by a woman whose husband tragically left her for the Russian Front, tastes all the more nuanced for the story behind it.
I ask which is her favourite. She stares for a good 15 seconds. “It’s like choosing between children,” she tells me helplessly, before picking out an Alsace-grown variant of Pinot Grigio called Pinot Gris, which balances intense tropical fruit flavours with citrus and spices.
By the time I get back to the spirits – cachaca and Tonkabonen are beginning to sound like exotic criminal sentences – I’m not listening quite as intently. One thing’s certain though: this is the real deal, an array with more curatorial consideration than the Saatchi Gallery.
You can book a place on a free master class at Amathus here (deposit required). Amathus can’t guarantee you’ll like everything they do. But after all, that’s kind of what tastings are for.
Just don’t try to argue with them. You will lose.
words Lawrence Hunt