Landlord and landlady of pub with 700 whiskies to retire
A pub world famous for its 700 whiskies is set to have a new landlord as its current incumbent is bowing out after almost 49 years.
Mike and Karin Willgoose expect to pull their last pints next month, when the listed 17th century George Hotel in Leadenham receives fresh management.
Since May, when their lease expired, the 68-year-olds have been ‘babysitting’ the historic premises while the local estate finds a successor.
Mike, from Nottingham, first became involved with the pub as a 19-year-old, when his father Geoffrey Willgoose met someone who said a good landlord was needed in the village.
The teenager was making potting compost at the time and Geoffrey was a retired bookmaker, but Mike moved over to take the reins of the hotel in December 1969, with his parents arriving from Nottingham a few months later.
Mike said: “We had a thriving business. I opened up the stables as a disco. It was one of the first discos in Lincolnshire. I was young and wanted to get young people here.
“I got a DJ and he brought this young lady with him and some months later we were married. After 47 years we are still together and we are together 24 hours a day.”
The newly-married Mike and Karin then opened a steak bar which soon earned the hotel a reputation for the best steaks in the county.
Mike said: “We used to hang the meat ourselves and butcher it ourselves. It was mostly local meat, coming from Lincolnshire Reds.”
But The George’s global acclaim for whisky was a matter of chance.
“We went to Scotland in 1972 for three days and unfortunately at the top of Ben Nevis Karin fell ill and we had to call the mountain rescue. One of the guys who rescued us was David Urquhart, whose dad owned the Gordon and McPhail bottling plant. So while Karin was in hospital, he said ‘don’t sit in your hotel room, come out with us.’”
It led the couple to visit the bottling plant at Elgin and on seeing so many different whiskies Michael thought “wow.”
“In those days, most pubs had two or three different whiskies but we brought back 25 and that’s how the whisky connection started. We changed the bar to the Scotch bar.”
Initially dad Geoffrey wondered what they had done, but the whiskies proved popular, with Mike and Karin buying whisky from all over the world. At the most they had 730 varieties.
“It turned into an obsession buying them but with us retiring we are not buying any more.”
Collecting so many whiskies made world headines, with stories in the Daily Telegraph, the New York Times, a newspaper in San Francisco and so on.
Fortunately, the couple expect the prospective landlord to ‘keep’ the collection as part of their takeover.
However, despite gaining a reputation for good food, including a popular carvery, the George has been ‘hit’ by major changes, changes that have affected all hostelries.
Mike explained: “Sky TV and cheap booze from the supermarket is killing the village pubs. There’s too much home entertainment now. People do not use the pub like they did. Everybody used to come on certain days. Now, it’s barbecues at home, cheap booze and have friends at home. It’s not good for the community.”
The opening of the Leadenham bypass in 1995 also hit trade, with Mike saying even before midday, passers-by would already be queueing at the door for lunch.
However, the family-run business, which sees daughter Theresa and son Gary work at the pub, along with grandson, full-time chef Damon Willgoose, focussed on being a traditional pub, with a reputation for good steaks, rather then turning into a gastropub like so many others.
Events became a regular thing, with folk music at least once a month, the pub playing a major role in the Leadenham Folk festival, which attracts thousands, and a famous seven course Burns Night Supper, with a whisky for each course. The Sunday carvery remains busy to this day.
Mike doesn’t know if his 48 years is the longest for all publicans, but it might to be for one in the same place.
He recalled: “We have had some great times over the years. It’s been fantastic.”
Once a successor has been found, and looked like one was to be confirmed as the Journal went to press, Mike and Karin will see the George from the other side of the bar. The couple have bought a home in Leadenham that comes with land, on which Mike hopes to grow grapes.
“The George Hotel will be my local,” he said.
Aiming to do a bit of outside catering work, Mike has offered to help out at Burns Night too.
Karin said: “We’ll just relax and keep a hand in different things.”
Mike added: We hope to be out by the end of September. I have given our (hopeful) successor lots of tips and advice and he’s got some good ideas himself.”
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More by this authorDarren Greenwood