Continuing our theme on independents, we look beyond the bottlers themselves to the whisky shops across the country. Local institutions that are a vital resource, offering advice alongside their handpicked selection of whiskies. Often without an online presence, these merchants may have operated for decades and even generations, becoming a local hub for whisky enthusiasts and clubs.
In the first of what we hope is a long-running series, we turn the spotlight onto these vital retailers. This concept has been on our ‘to do list’ for some time now. After reading several of Roy’s Instagram posts on this very theme, which showcased his ability to capture the environments and staff within, we asked if he would expand on the premise for MALT. Thankfully, he agreed and we hope you enjoy these articles as much as we do. And if you’re in the neighbourhood; why not drop by these whisky shops and explore…
Roy: It’s good to have a few hand grenades when starting a conversation in a whisky shop. Tight allocations, online auctions and the inexorable rise of Macallan are often a reliable litmus test of a proprietor’s mood. After twenty years selling whisky, Andrew Cuthbert of JL Gill remains passionate about his local community, Scotland and its distilleries. Speculate about an overheated market though, and he begins to express his frustrations.
“The thing that gets me is a guy will come in, say he’s wanting to buy a bottle for investment. He’s hoping to make £200 profit given enough time, then complain that its three quid cheaper elsewhere”.
It wasn’t always like this. “I’ve been a shopkeeper for 30 years, starting with grains, pulses and animal feed”.
He added locally sourced produce including craft beers, until his Dad encouraged him to stock a few whiskies. £360 bought two mixed cases from Gordon and Macphail, plus a few sleepless nights worrying if they’d sell. Now he can spend £50,000 a month on stock, but the Tayside of the early ’90s was a different time. Margaret Thatcher had just been replaced and the Classic Malts of Scotland campaign was slowly introducing Scots to whisky regionality. He recalls a time of prudent and occasional (aye right) blended whisky drinkers. Today, the market town of Crieff is picturesque, bustling and affluent. Perth and Kinross appears saturated with carefully detailed, sparkly metallic Range Rovers.
Stocking expensive single malts felt like a gamble at the time. Gingerly, I had backed the 18-year-old independent Springbank I’d been turning over in my hands. Clumsy moment of ironic symbolism coming in 3, 2, 1… “It’s my last one, only £600?” he suggests cheerfully, before squeezing it back among the tightly packed shelves. More chance of pea-enthusiast, John Major, returning to Number 10 than me affording that unicorn dram any time soon.
Andrew recalls the excitement, but not the name of his first £100 sale. He does remember the first £500 bottle. A 1998 release from Glengoyne hinted at what was possible with ultra-rare bottlings. The 1969 Farewell Dram came complete with its own shiny solid brass faux spirit safe presentation case. This he explains, was a legendary sherry-bomb, released to commemorate the retirement of distillery manager Ian Taylor. Surprisingly, examples can still be found online, if the packaging wasn’t enough of a disincentive, today’s asking price probably will be. £3,250.
It’s a world of contact-less customers, especially when that latest greatest (and almost always under-supplied) limited release gets whisky shop phones ringing. However, Andrew still sees more enthusiasts and actual malt drinkers keen to visit in person. They come to talk, listen and see what’s available and recommended. It’s a comfortable friendly place, where staff like Alan (an encyclopaedic sage straight from the set of tv’s Open All Hours) know their whisky. It’s a compliment to say the décor and experience are deliberately old fashioned.
When Andrew tweeted recently about an impressive new Ben Nevis batch release, his comment struck a chord. Although relatively young and £93 a bottle, case after case shifted. Scotch fans are always hunting for the next big word-of-mouth winner. His advice: look in an unfashionable direction occasionally.
Like you, I’ve been in a lot of whisky shops, and genuinely enjoy hearing the views and insights of the people you meet. Andrew is the first who’s ever mentioned exports. The penny drops when he tells me he’s just opened a second shop in Hong Kong. A little replica of the Crieff family business, supplying prestige bottles in a market where scarcity and exclusivity matter enormously. The next project sounds interesting. He describes a vatting of three middle-aged sherry heavyweights, the liquid richly scented and dark as night. Each bottle tastefully decorated and only for his new Chinese customers. I wonder whose idea the cask was, and why? Fingers crossed there’s a few more of them kicking about.
Back home, Andrew enthuses about his near neighbours. Forecasting good things at Glenturret under its new luxury goods owners Lalique and from Strathearn, one of Scotland’s smallest distillers (surely the most disputed and over-used USP in Scotch whisky).
“A friend bought two casks years ago, forgot about them, so I made some enquiries”.
I’m shown both cask samples, only 6-years-old, one of which he’ll be bottling soon. Both thick and viscous, a benefit of Strathearn using smaller casks perhaps? The depth of oak was the most obvious difference to me, but I do suffer from Perennial Rhinitis. It makes smelling whisky difficult, but it doesn’t entirely explain my complete lack of nosing skills. I couldn’t pick out wintergreen in a police line-up, by I know I like most things. Holding my preference, was there an expression of interest list or open ballot? Andrew just laughs, telling me to check his Facebook page for news of when it’s likely to become available.
“We’ve also been working with a local farm to source barley, water, and (aside from the maltings) everything will be done at Strathearn. It’ll be the first time a local product will have been done like that here in years”.
You can tell Andrew thoroughly enjoys this work, and is proud to help sell Scotland’s best-known product here and overseas. It’s business, but warm-hearted, friendly and free of elitism. Just don’t bring up auction bottle-flippers, you’ve been warned.