You know that feeling when you’ve heard a word so many times, that it starts to lose its meaning? Well, the previous week my wife was heading north, to Glenfinnan, for a girls Highland weekend away. Google Maps confirmed her route would pass the Green Welly Stop. I’m not one to let an unexpected whisky opportunity pass unmarked.
This was back in October 2016, and the Kilkerran 12-year-old was just released, and I was in the first few months of my latest all-consuming mania, whisky. Of course, she didn’t mind picking up my order, she was passing anyway. A weary “do you really need it?” would be her likely (and entirely reasonable) reaction now, too many bottles later. She arrived to find the place heaving, packed solid with rustling Gore-Tex clad outdoorsy folk. Past the delicatessen (Springbank or Laphroaig-infused cheddar anyone?), tucked right up the back was the “Whisky Galore” section. A treasure trove of old and new bottles. Glengyle’s flagship might have been the buzz of the whisky web at the time, but Harry Potter’s favourite railway bridge, Glenfinnan Viaduct, was all the girls talked about. Photographed for Instagram from every angle. Isn’t it curious that the word “whisky”, heard a million times or more, doesn’t grate anywhere near as much (makes mental note to look up inelastic demand in economic pricing theory).
I’ve made the same trip myself a few times since, sometimes looping around Loch Fyne to Inveraray for a marathon of whisky miles. It would be difficult to travel the A82 and not stop at the GWS. There’s a real frontier feel about it. It’s a little homemade, organically added extensions here and there, but mainly it’s because of the location. Situated in Tyndrum, a village of just 167. Surrounded by forests at the northernmost edge of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. The otherworldly Rannoch Moor is twenty minutes up the road. For travellers, it can seem like the last real somewhere, amid a wilderness of nowhere. Last for fuel; for painkillers; for bacon rolls, and for a surprisingly huge range of malts to rival anything on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. There are no other dramming distractions for forty miles in any direction. Ben Nevis, Edradour, Aberfeldy, Glenturret, Deanston, Glengoyne, Auchentoshan or Oban. All hours away. Points on an imaginary compass with the GWS at the centre.
There was talk a few years ago about locals building a distillery nearby. Plans were considered but ultimately it came to nothing. Regardless, more than a million people visit each year (the owners don’t count any more, the electronic punter-counter on the front door having been retired recently). A million is a difficult number to visualise, but it’s one which compares favourably with last year’s Scotch Whisky tourism figures. As Craig Dearden, Internet Team Manager explains “We are not a destination, but we’d like to be. We can’t please everybody, but we recognise all who come here. Look around, we get everyone. Walkers, cyclists, retirees, bikers and lots of tourists”.
Whisky was important for the GWS thirty years before Craig built its first website (recently rebranded as tyndrumwhisky.com to differentiate it from wellies and waterproofs). Like most things, it started modestly. A single bottle of AnCnoc 12yo was his first online sale, but three or four orders later a Port Ellen confirmed that people were prepared to spend big* virtually.
* Big in 2007 was £300. Craig still has the email confirmation, and every other one since, so maybe needs to do a wee bit of work on his inbox management. For a moment though, lets gently fade in a sepia and vignette filter and imagine when Port Ellen’s were £300…
Back in the real world, cost-conscious Glaswegian day-trippers’ wince in the cafe at two-quid for a cuppa. Craig says most walk-in whisky customers spend thirty pounds or less. It’s another reminder that much of the industry (underlined by Jason’s recent Aldi review) is not created with our preferences in mind. Take some time to look around shelves, and you’ll notice the range is varied, and comprehensive. “£50 plus tends to be those getting something nice for a present. To give to whoever looked after your pets/kids/home that week when you were away at the log cabin”.
It’s the opposite online. Craig says this is where most of his enthusiast collectors are, with 80% of orders at that £100 sweet spot. It must be a sign of where my head is currently, but that comment immediately made me want to graph the decline in average age-statements £100 could have bought, since the shop opened. I saw a social media post today that suggested “buying local” meant the owner could put his kids into the local football team, go for swimming lessons and pay a modest mortgage. Which got me thinking. If your website outsells actual visiting physical customers 4:1, as it does here at the GWS, is this keeping trade local? Compared to Amazon or other online behemoths, maybe?
As well as some incredible miniatures, there’s always interesting exclusive-bottlings, including an Arran, Benriach and an Ardbeg/Mortlach mashup currently. Craig says that anything with a significant age (such as past Glendronach single casks) inevitably sell quickly online. I’ve noticed that some city centre whisky merchants try to keep a little stock offline, precisely because they want to encourage actual punters in person, to browse and discover. However, I’m not running a business, paying wages and trying to make a modest profit. So I keep this insight to myself.
It’s always surprising how little Macallan is available when I go browsing, and Craig suggests that it could be both a supply and demand problem. It does seem a lot easier to get the Gold Double Cask at Morrisons or Asda, than find a reasonably aged (forget reasonably priced) example in your local whisky specialist. Ralfy recently highlighted a related point, the apparent contradiction of some premium Islay brands still being heavily discounted to a price-point for UK supermarkets. Want the 2019 Macallan 18? Well, for most folk in the UK, flippers seem to be your only option. Craig pinpoints a change in the whisky landscape to six months after the opening of a major Scottish auction house. “With the internet, more people became aware of the secondary market. If it’s scarce or collectable, it’s going online, to be resold and likely sent overseas. I worry, but I understand this, and I’ve bought interesting bottles myself for the shop”. Makes you wonder if some of those early Game of Thrones release dates were just fortuitously aligned with auction deadlines.
Needing to pick up a gift, I scan the shelves and choose the new G&M Miltonduff 10yo, all the while bemoaning its rebranded price hike and fancy bottles. Curious, I ask Craig what his favourite dram of the year has been so far? Proving once again that taste, preferences and perception are entirely individual he says the Port Charlotte 2010 MRC:01. “I know it’s a cliché, but there’s a balance between sweetness, flavour and smokiness that isn’t always evident in other smoky whisky. Just right up my street being a sweet-toothed whisky drinker”.
Now if only there was a scenic railway backdrop nearby. With that distinctive bottle design and a dab of Apple’s portrait-mode, we’re talking a guaranteed 100+ likes on Insta. Even more with a fat cigar or chunky watch in the shot too.