Amathus Drinks was established by Harry Georgiou’s parents in 1978 and that same year, 18-year-old Georgiou joined the family firm. In only his second interview in 46 years of the business, Georgiou tells Lucy Britner about his ambitions, his life in drinks, and his stamp collection

Harry Georgiou didn’t have a TV when he was a kid. To amuse himself at his boyhood home in Cyprus, Georgiou would collect stamps. “I’d look for a stamp, say for Mongolia, and I’d look at these warlords on horses, or stamps from Brazil with the Brazilian flag. I’d get lost in my imagination – that was my television.” Georgiou’s curiosity about different countries and cultures would later fuel his work in finding spirits from all over the world, and his life-long “search for the truth”. 

He gives a few examples of what that means in terms of drinks: “Was pisco invented in Chile or Peru? Is this an authentic product? Has the producer done the right thing?” Though he admits he could’ve made his life a lot easier and his working hours – currently around six days a week – a lot shorter, it’s not in his nature. 

The business started with a focus on wine – indeed this is very much still the epicentre of the business, with two MWs on staff in Jeremy Lithgow and Ana Jackson. But Georgiou also realised he could apply the same sourcing and blind-tasting criteria to spirits. 

“We discovered a variety of wonderful producers, including Old Rip Van Winkle whiskey. We were its only export market until Buffalo Trace bought it and set up its own distribution in the UK.” 

Georgiou is a great storyteller. He recalls the time he introduced Julian ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle to using his whiskey in a Manhattan, something he “would never dream of doing”. 

“We really transformed his beliefs around how good a product could be in cocktails.” 

Georgiou made his first cocktail around the age of 14. By this time his family was in the UK and he worked at his parents’ restaurant in Uxbridge. Tired of dusting the same old bottle of Cherry Heering week in, week out, he found a Gin Sling recipe and as soon as it was on the menu, it flew out. “We had to order another bottle,” he laughs. 

SPECIALIST PRODUCTS 

The restaurant was sold in 1976, and the first retail store opened in London’s Palmers Green in 1978, followed by Muswell Hill in ’82. Both shops were sold by 1999, as Amathus turned its attention to importing and distribution – sourcing exclusive and specialist products. 

“When I started repping for Amathus in the mid ’90s, I was the only salesman. I decided I wanted to go to nice places. I didn’t have a business plan. I used to smoke back then – I’d have a cigarette and then literally make a note of what I was doing for the day on the cigarette packet. 

“I’d start over in Hyde Park – Four Seasons, Dorchester… The quality around Mayfair was super high level. So having chosen where to operate, that created what the product should be. Then I’d go through Soho, Covent Garden and to the City.” 

We’re actually talking about the major changes in the drinks industry over the past 46 years and Georgiou is making the point that the quality trajectory is continuing to grow. 

He talks of many more early adoptions by the company, including tequila at a time when “no one was bothering to source high quality tequila”. He adds: “We were the first and still exclusive importer of most commercially produced aquavit in Scandinavia. Why would you?” he laughs. “Well, why not?” The geography-loving stamp collector in him adds: “That’s the Scandinavian flags as far as drinks are concerned.” 

By 2011, Amathus was ready to return to retail and then, in 2020, Georgiou reopened the Muswell Hill shop. “We’ve opened that shop in two different centuries,” he says. Amathus owns the freehold and, at the time, the leaseholder wanted to break the lease. “They offered us a year penalty – so we were rent-free in our own freehold. You can’t make it up. 

“I guess that touches on how important the commercials are in this business,” he says. “It’s all well and good having an amazing time but it’s a lot of hard work and there is a lot of discipline in the business. That discipline doesn’t stop short of selecting the best products and serving customers in the best possible way. You have to have the financials to sustain stuff that’s not moving but you believe should be there.” 

Before the pandemic, retail made up about 5% of the company’s annual turnover. Now it has grown to be around 25%, but Georgiou has ambitions to get to 50/50. And that includes opening more stores and continuing to grow wholesale distribution, especially in wine. 

New shops in the pipeline include one in Oxford and one in Wimbledon, but there’s something else up Georgiou’s sleeve: Amathus Wine Warehouse. The first one will be in Richmond, a retail unit that is three and a half shop fronts long, carrying wine and spirits and serving both consumers and trade. 

“We see it as a cross between a typical wine warehouse and an Amathus store like our most recent one in Hampstead – dare I use the word cool? Our Wine Warehouse will be like our retail stores but bigger – and having the pallet, case displays and the volume in abundance.”

Georgiou believes the Wine Warehouse model could reach around 50 outlets, while he thinks there’s room for a total of 18 Amathus shops. “That’s basically the number of locations that we’ve identified with the team.

“It’s scary because that’s a lot of work – work I don’t necessarily want to do. I spend a lot of time surfing waves – kitesurfing and windsurfing are my passions. I get up to about 7m with my jumps. Anyway, that’s a passion I’d love to pursue, but back to business: we’ve got the finances and we’ve got the stock. At any given time, our stock levels are around £11 million.” 

Georgiou says he’s quite risk-averse, and he fears he has “dragged his heels to another level” in terms of retail expansion, but he’s also very energetic. “I don’t want to hang around, but it’s got to be the right location. It maps out a future for the business. There’s no deadline but I realised that I’m becoming impatient – and a bit less risk-averse.” 

The net worth of the business currently sits at £20 million. “As an independent business that’s quite substantial. We got a loan from the bank to buy the freehold we’re in, which has mostly been repaid,” he says. “And the whole purpose of that was to future-proof our cost base. The warehouse is one of four freeholds.” 

Not content with expansion and a new format, Georgiou has also got another venture up his sleeve. It’s too early to name names, but he’s looking to set up a shop and bar space in partnership with an existing bar owner who wants to scale up his operation. It won’t carry the Amathus name, but you can bet it will carry the stock. Georgiou is keen to explore this idea with other businesses, too. But only if they get his stamp of approval.