Juliet Lawrence Wilson catches up with bon viveur and compulsive entrepreneur Martin Miller to talk about gin, antiques, hotels, pizza and Leonard Cohen.
When he takes my call Martin Miller is relaxing at an outdoor table in a café near his residence in fashionable Notting Hill. Had we met in person I would have counted his digits, as there seem to be far too many pies in his larder for any ordinary mortal to have his fingers in. With five hotels, a travel website, an ‘Academy’ and an organic pizza company to keep him busy, it’s a wonder he has any time to concentrate on his gin business, never mind getting round to drinking any of it.
Talking to Miller is an easy way to pass the time. He’s a charismatic, laid-back figure and unlike many high rollers in the food and drink industries, doesn’t use the word ‘passionate’ once. Yet he certainly comes across as a passionate man, not in knowing the DNA of every juniper berry that goes in to Martin Miller’s Gin, but about life in general. Work is Miller’s life but he would define it all as a hobby.
“It was a pretty wild idea,” he says, “Everyone was doing vodka at the time so we thought that it would be good to do something different with gin. I knew nothing about the drinks industry, not a thing and if I had, it would never have happened. I thought it would be fun to have a go!”
A lack of industry knowledge is unsurprisingly no barrier to Miller’s ambitions considering one of his first ventures was authoring a mail-order dating book called Success with the Fairer Sex, despite being only 14 and having never had a girlfriend. He advertised the tome in Exchange and Mart and sold 50-100 copies every week for two years. In fairness his very first schoolboy business had been hamster breeding, so he did know the mating basics if not the dating.
Miller’s friend David Bromige had been working in the drinks industry for a long time and had remarked to Miller that his moniker would be a good name for a gin brand. “I had thought about harking back to Hogarth but that had the wrong connotations. The most important thing was to create something really special. We could have made a big brand that ticked all the ‘right’ boxes but that wasn’t interesting to us, so we made it unusual and concentrated on quality. Of course it was really important that I enjoy drinking it because I always knew I was going to have to drink a hell of a lot of the stuff!”
Having chatted to a mixologist or two in my time I tell him that they often name check Miller’s Gin as one of their favourites. “I’m delighted to hear that. It was always supposed to be a niche brand but as long as enough people like it… In the early days we did a lot of expert tastings and we like that it really stands out.”
Mixologists like Martin Miller’s Gin as it has such a strong character in a cocktail but Miller is more of a G&T drinker himself: “I worry with some more complicated cocktails the essence of the gin is lost in the mix. On our website the cocktails are all fresh and simple – it’s all about taking a classic and reforming it for the 21st century. I enjoy a Martini though and our gin makes a great one.” So which vermouth would he use for a Martin Miller Martini? “I have absolutely no idea – someone else always makes them for me.”
Miller is certainly more host extraordinaire than barman. He has a portfolio of five hotels (“Well three of them are more restaurants with rooms, really”) including Miller’s Residence in Notting Hill and Glencot House in Somerset’s endearingly named Wookey Hole. “I don’t get behind the bar but I really enjoy the social aspect of the hotel business and love meeting people. When couples arrive and tell me they just got married I often say, ‘that must be very depressing for you’. I can be quite naughty with the guests.”
I don’t doubt it: Miller’s charmingly provocative nature extends to scandalising the Wookey Hole locals. We’re going to have an erotic film festival at Glencot House. It was supposed to happen this year but didn’t come off. I hope it does next year as its just the kind of thing I can see on the front page of the local paper, it’ll get them all going!”
A major advantage of the hotels for Miller is that they act as storage for all his antiques. Over the years he has accumulated a collection that fills all five properties literally from floor to ceiling. “When regular visitors return they always spot something they haven’t seen before. They often ask me how we dust them all but I wouldn’t know, as I never do that. The antiques aren’t there for the hotels to be stuffy. I design my hotels as places I’d like to stay in, so they have to be luxurious but fun. At Glencot we have mannequins floating in the lake and chandeliers hanging from the trees.”
Let’s just hope the Wookey Hole Rambling Association doesn’t get lost. Miller has enjoyed a reputation as quite the party animal (or as he describes himself: ‘naturally sociable’) and has been known to find guests sleeping on the sofas and even in his own bedroom at his London Residence.
“Things have calmed down a lot since I got married seven years ago. I used to do big parties every Sunday night, as this seemed the best way to promote the hotels but now we have dinner parties for 10-20 people and we really enjoy this.”
Despite the restaurants with rooms in Winchester, Farnham and Langbourne, Miller wouldn’t describe himself as a foodie: “If I go to a new restaurant and there’s nothing I like on the menu I know it’s going to be a resounding success. I have very simple old fashioned tastes like pie and mash and toad in the hole.”
Yet there is much he is open minded about, having founded Miller’s Academy. An outlet for ‘honourable enquiry’ it hosts speakers such as eminent philosopher A.C. Grayling, chef Tom Aikens, journalist Rosie Boycott and, he who needs no introduction: Clive James. Future speakers include Jake and Dinos Chapman and ‘Dandy in the Underworld’ Sebastian Horsley. “Sebastian’s been before and he’s a real hoot! We’ve also got a witchcraft woman coming up and that’ll be fun too. We like shaking things up. Top of my wish list would be Bill Clinton!”
Miller founded his Academy after a visit to Hay on the Wye. “I really enjoyed the talks but felt there should be a more social side to it and there wasn’t a home for anything like this in London.” The Academy evenings end with a buffet supper and drinks, all included in the deliberately inexpensive price. “We keep the cost as low as possible to ensure a good mix of people and, as it’s a club, many members come on their own. This is what makes the evening special: people of all ages and backgrounds coming together.”
Miller and his third wife, Ioana, often entertain friends in the Academy property and she is a dedicated ambassador for his gin. “She’s great! We were out at the Leonard Cohen concert at the O2 the other night and Ioana had everyone drinking Martin Miller G&Ts. We find that once people try it they stick with it.”
It’s not all been a bed of roses: Miller lost £20 million in the last recession after accumulating a portfolio of investment properties when the price was high, yet he characteristically sees an upside to the present credit crunch. “Antiques cost less than they did 25 years ago, which suits me very well,” he laughs. For many Miller is most famous for founding the hugely successful Miller’s Antiques Pricing Guides but now his ever expanding business interests include a pizza company and a travel website.
“I really enjoy travel, as it gives me so much inspiration for my own hotels though we mostly stay with friends, especially when we go to Venice or Marrakech. For me its more about the people than the places.”
You could say that Miller pretty much lives life on his own terms, so what’s the secret to his success? “Most of the things I do I would do even if it wasn’t work. I’ve never had a job or wanted one and if I don’t like something I’m doing or it becomes boring I just dump it. I think it’s in the genes. I’m not a worrier and I never try too hard. I suppose I’m just lucky.”
So what’s next for Miller? “Getting old and grumpy! With things the way they are at the moment it probably isn’t the time to start something new but to sit and wait.”
Whatever life has in store for him, it certainly won’t be dull.