It’s not being unkind to say King Street in Kilmarnock has seen better days.
Like many high streets, tattoo artists, charity shops and nail salons have replaced traditional high-street names. Weatherboard and whitewash disfigure much of the once elegant Victorian sandstone. 200 years ago, the most famous shop in the town’s history opened on King St., John Walker was just 15 years old when his father died, forcing the sale of the family farm. Although lacking any experience, he chose to invest in a small grocery. Today, it’s estimated 95% of all SME’s fail within their first five years. Walker not only survived, but over the years the business grew and thrived – as did his wealth and influence. A skill for blending whisky was his comparative advantage over local rivals. An outlier, before businesses spoke of such notions.
I read that most historians dismiss the idea of linear progress in societies. Even so, its genuinely disheartening to learn that two centuries after Walker, a quarter of all children in East Ayrshire live in poverty. 7,000 kids, whose parents make do with less than £304 a week total income.
Diageo have commissioned elaborate marketing plans to commemorate this latest bicentennial, focussing on style, modernity and the continued relevance of the striding man. Not that many Killie folk will enjoy the celebrations. Local anger at the 2012 closure of its Red Label bottling plant hasn’t abated much, although the Hill Street site was gifted to the town for redevelopment. This factory was the last Walker premises in a town made famous, then airbrushed from his bottles. Although 200 staff were redeployed (some relocating to Leven in Fife), 500 ceased working with the world’s largest whisky producer, taking severance or redundancy. Johnnie Walker, arguably the world’s number one Scotch whisky brand, has no link with its birthplace. Last July, Diageo reported operating profits of over £4 billion from net sales¹ of £13 billion.
In tricky PR situations, it’s important for communicators to walk the line. Hill Street management explained the tough decision was necessary, to save on costs and help secure the sustainability of the business in Scotland. Which no doubt resonates better with the public than saying you want to increase margins, but the effect is the same. It’s not easy to make profit full stop, and more creativity than ever is needed to stay ahead of the competition. Last April, the European Commission ruled that Diageo had benefited from what amounted to unlawful state aid. The estimated £275m saved, likely to prompt another in a series of tax conversations with HM Revenue & Customs.
In 2009, over 20,000 people marched to Kay Park in a good natured, but ultimately futile protest at the planned Kilmarnock exit. Diageo also chose this moment to end production at the Port Dundas grain distillery in Glasgow. Another 200 jobs were lost and a historic link older than Walkers, was gone forever. It began grain distilling in 1811 and was producing 39 million litres a year, at its peak. A figure worth remembering, next time you consider whether £120 is good value for a 21yo from this lost distillery.
Opposite Kilmarnock train station, close to King Street, sits Sinforiani Brothers newsagents. Like many Italian migrants; Alessandro, Davide and Mario left Tuscany, seeking a better life in Scotland. Working together they opened a small tobacconist café. This was back in 1920, and it’s unlikely they could have imagined it remaining here, 100 years later. As the decade’s passed, sons replaced fathers, deepening the family connection to the town.
In the wet winter gloom, I walked the length of King Street to find the place. The town was still busy, late on a Saturday afternoon – even with so many empty units. Inside, next to tins of loose-leaf tobacco and cigarette papers, sat a beautifully presented 28yo Macallan from Hart Brothers. At first, this £1,200 unicorn seemed spectacularly out of place. Less so was the young lad who came in behind me, wearily struggling with a carrier bag full of copper coins (to top up his pay-as-you-go electricity power card). It’s a small town, and one used dealing with tough challenges.
Looking up, I saw several Kilkerran WIP, Signatory and Douglas Laing single cask bottles – all very reasonably priced. 1960’s Glenburgie and Glen Grant’s in yellowed, faded sleeves. I’m a fan of this unpretentious olde-Scotland aesthetic, before most brands opted for a faux-luxury makeover. 10yo Springbank and Laphroaig sat beside unfamiliar export-market blends. Gift bottles displayed next to everyday sippers. My budget couldn’t stretch to the 1966 Glen Mhor Private Collection, and I had little interest in the latest Highland Park Nordic nonsense. However, great deals on Glengoyne, Aberlour and Glenfarclas won me over. It’s not a huge place, but the 400 whiskies on display do change frequently. My stash has been improved (at the expense of my bank balance) since fellow whisky-club-member, Jim, told me about the place.
The current manager, Marco, was 12 when began helping his father Pierluigi. In the late 1980’s, Pier had a chance encounter with a passing whisky rep and became intrigued (despite a preference for cognac and armagnac). Single malts were a novelty then, and in truth, he was looking for something new to stock. Gradually the volume and variety of malts and blends grew. Snaking around the walls from high shelves, well you can’t be too careful. Many customers are regulars, and each visit I’m struck by how many are known personally. Where they work, and for others, why they aren’t. Marco is infectiously enthusiastic and charming.
“Now, I wish it was just whisky I was selling. How great would that be? I wouldn’t need to open until 10am for a start” he laughs.
So many whisky stores have much of the same stock. Perhaps what keeps us coming back is the potential for novelty, the chance of finding something unusual. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a bargain either – only interesting and reasonable. Many of his yesteryear bottles have gone (including, sadly, the MacPhail’s 50yo snapped up by another dithering rival, whose year-long procrastination ended a fortnight before mine). Nevertheless, Marco gets enough unique bottles in regularly, to justify the effort. Whatever you liked the last time, he’s usually got a sound recommendation of something to try next.
We each have a choice in the decisions we make, on where and how we spend our time and money. It’s likely I will “Keep Walking” whenever I see any new Johnnie Walker, but not for the reasons its marketing team probably hoped.
Brindiamo ad altri cento anni², Sinforiani Bros.
¹Net sales are sales less excise duties
²“Let’s toast another hundred years”