A celebration of grandeur

By Roger Protz

- Last updated on GMT

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Protz: "Nicholson’s sells 4.7 million pints of cask beer a year"
Protz: "Nicholson’s sells 4.7 million pints of cask beer a year"
The architecturally stunning Nicholson’s pub estate — part of Mitchells & Butlers — launched its third beer festival of the year in mid-October, showing an ever-increasing dedication to cask, reports Roger Protz.

A bizarre mix of gin, beer and cricket combine to make Nicholson’s pubs places of architectural splendour, rich in the history of Georgian and Victorian Britain.

The pubs are the scene of a beer festival that began on 21 October and continues until 17 November, with the emphasis on cask beers brewed in the localities of the pubs.

The group runs 77 pubs, with 43 in London and further outlets in Birmingham, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Oxford and York.

The pubs — part of the Mitchells & Butlers group — have a long and fascinating history that’s rooted in both gin and cricket. James and William Nicholson were gin distillers in London, based in both Clerkenwell (central London) and Bow (in the east), where they made Lamplighter Gin.

The Bow site still stands at Three Mills on an island in the River Lea and is clearly visible from District Line Underground trains between Bromley-by-Bow and West Ham stations. Distilling ended there during World War Two as a result of both bombing and a shortage of grain, but the restored buildings are now used as film and TV studios.


William Nicholson (1825-1909) was chairman of J&W Nicholson, which had been founded in the 18th century at the time of the craze for cheap gin. He was the son of one of the founders, John Nicholson, and had a remarkable career that included being an MP and a first-class cricketer: he played for Middlesex between 1845 and 1869.

The wealth he acquired from gin distilling made him a major cricket benefactor. When the MCC, cricket’s governing body, bought the freehold to Lord’s ground in 1864, Nicholson donated £18,333.

He loaned a further £21,000 when a new pavilion was built at the ground in 1869. It’s thought that the MCC’s famous ‘egg and bacon’ colours of yellow and red were adopted from the logo of Nicholson’s distillery.

Nicholson’s became a pub owner by a twin-track route. The distillery bought pubs in the East End of London when publicans failed to pay their gin bills. The company also acquired more ostentatious ‘gin palaces’ from the Victorian period. Government legislation in the late 18th century had forced dram shops that sold only gin to also provide wine and beer to try to counter the social problems caused by the drinking of cheap spirits.

In the following century new, larger and architecturally dazzling pubs, lit by gas, were facetiously dubbed ‘gin palaces’ and many of them form the core of the Nicholson’s estate today.


But not all have such an illustrious past. The Coal Hole in the Strand in central London started life as the coal cellar for the Savoy Hotel. Today the narrow L-shaped bar, with beams and latticed windows, is a listed building and independent of the hotel.

Nicholson’s assistant brand manager Ben Lockwood told me the autumn beer festival was the third staged by the group in the past year. The festivals have been fuelled, he says, by the growth of cask in the group, up from 11% of total sales three years ago to 20% today. In total, Nicholson’s sells 4.7 million pints of cask beer a year.

The group employs cask masters attached to the pubs. Their job is to encourage barstaff to develop a passion for cask beer and look out for guest ales that suit individual houses. The cask masters also write tasting notes for both barstaff and customers.

The core beer in all pubs is Nicholson’s Pale Ale, brewed for the group by St Austell Brewery in Cornwall. The rest of the beers available during the festival will be local variations: the London pubs, for example, will have beers from Sambrook’s (south-west), Portobello (west), Redemption (north), Truman’s (east) and Windsor & Eton (Berkshire).

Across the country, visitors to the pubs will find a wide choice of beers, including mild, bitter, golden ale, wheat beer, rye beer, porter and stout.

Among Nicholson’s London pubs are the Argyll Arms and the Clachan in the West End; the Old Bell in Fleet Street, built by Sir Christopher Wren; Woodins Shades in Bishopsgate; Doggett’s Coat & Badge on the south side of Blackfriars Bridge; the Dog & Duck in Soho, where Madonna was known to drink when she lived in London; and the Bear & Staff off Leicester Square where Charles Chaplin enjoyed a drop.

The jewel in the capital crown is, arguably, the Blackfriar opposite Blackfriars Station in the City. This art nouveau-inspired masterpiece pays homage to the bibulous monks who once had a monastery on the site. Among the group’s Oxford pubs is the Eagle & Child, a favourite of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, who pursued academic and literary careers in the city.

The best-known of Nicholson’s Edinburgh pubs are Deacon Brodie’s, Greyfriars Bobby’s and the Conan Doyle.

In the unlikely event you are served less than a full pint in a Nicholson’s pub, you could revive an old expression by asking the barperson “to put a large gin in there”. Nicholson’s, naturally.

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