I’ve been visiting several independent whisky retailers throughout the month of October. Working within the COVID-19 regulations to get out and about. Showing what support I can, by making a purchase here and there, offering some conversation and just trying to gauge this crazy situation we’re all in.
Edinburgh, normally a bustling 24-hour city full of life and vibrancy has been reduced to a backdrop in a Hollywood disaster movie. The streets are eerily empty and devoid of movement. The Saturday’s that I’ve been in Scotland’s capital, should be the worst possible time to visit. The cobbled lanes are normally heaving with tourists and locals going about their business. Places to park the car should be uncommon, but the reality is somewhat different. Spaces are plentiful and the traffic wardens still prowl the roads, eager to pounce – somethings never change, no matter the environment.
I’m acutely aware walking in many of Edinburgh’s whisky retailers, that these aren’t normal times, nor is it a positive situation. The footfall has dramatically reduced to a trickle and there are less staff behind the counter or on the shop floor. An online arm, may for some, be a lifeline, while for other retailers they have to rely on regulars who feel able to venture outdoors and onto the cities, towns and villages across Scotland. Times must be extremely hard for those who may only have a handful of daily visitors.
New releases are a buoyancy aid from the industry and the rebrands that we’ve discussed previously with Benriach and Glenturret will have provided some new interest. But this isn’t a consistent current and other new releases, including blue bottles from Ireland, aren’t flying off the shelves right now. The limited, exclusive and for want of a better word – flippable – seem to be the main sellers right now to onlookers.
So, to delve into all of this in greater detail, I reached out to Arthur Motley, Sales and Purchasing Director at Royal Mile Whiskies, to make sense of it all…
MALT: How would you summarise 2020 so far for Royal Mile Whiskies? How difficult have things been for the team?
Arthur: Emotionally it has been very draining at times, with constantly changing parameters and endless new ways to lose sleep. Thankfully our staff are amazing and everyone pulled together really well.
MALT: Have you seen a reduction in footfall across stores since reopening?
Arthur: Absolutely. This was especially felt in city centres, so our central London shop was very quiet. Interestingly our Pitlochry Drinkmonger shop was actually pretty busy, so people felt clearly like they wanted to take day trips to beautiful places for walks and fresh air. Our shop on the Royal Mile obviously suffered from lack of tourists, but we’d always had a really strong local customer base also so we were thankful for that custom.
MALT: Do you think anything can be done in the near future to get customers back into shops?
Arthur: Before all this, people were already making the argument that the high street needs some support as they are competing against tax-efficient internet giants (one in particular). I imagine this argument will heighten, as the online shopping sector has been one of the few areas to benefit in a year that has had a terrible burden on the state. Not really my place to comment I suppose, but I think whisky retail specifically will still have a place as I believe people will still want to come to a shop to discuss, taste and view what’s been released. Whisky bottles still don’t fit through letterboxes and once people eventually return to workplaces deliveries will become more awkward again.
MALT: How vital has the online aspect of RMW been in replacing some lost revenue?
MALT: Are you buying in less than anticipated this year to adjust for the fluctuation in demand?
Arthur: I’m not really prepared to go into too much detail here, but we are certainly buying differently.
MALT: Is there anything you’d like to see the industry do to support retailers?
Arthur: Supply excellent whisky at a fair price, that’s all we ask. Perhaps shift their model to less direct selling for special releases? It is not part of our model to ask for ‘marketing support’ or whatever people like to call it.
MALT: Are there any noticeable trends in what’s selling right now? Such as whiskies under £100, or those that can be easily sold on the secondary market?
Arthur: Other than the below, I am keeping that info to myself, for obvious reasons.
MALT: RMW have taken a stand and encouraged customers to open their bottles in stores etc. with the Drammers Reward. How successful has the initiative been and is this something you’d like to see continue?
Arthur: I am really happy with how this trial has worked.
One clear trend of 2020 has been an increase in intensity from flippers/short term investors. Was a COVID collapse of other markets such as gig tickets to blame? Or were people using furlough money and spare time to increase their ‘hobby business’? Hard to say, but the activity and intensity of sales related to the auction system increased. Calls from people who didn’t know how to pronounce Ardnamurchan and clearly thought Daftmill was an odd name for a whisky increased.
We saw more obvious proxy accounts ordering duplicated bottles and other silly tricks that drained our time a little. So, we had a bit of a clear out, calling a few clear flippers and had a frank and honest discussion with them, which has fascinating.
There was a bit of shock that we would not accept their money for future orders of Pappy, Daftmill, Yamazaki etc and disgust that we would dare assume what they were doing with their bottles. If nothing else it was psychologically fascinating to have that discussion and hear how they didn’t think they were part of the problem, or denial that there was a problem at all (they were trying to buy more in a month than any locked down human could safely drink in five years, and in some cases actually worked for an auction house).
I listened to the argument that it was a ‘free market’, but ultimately if you are doing this as a job you have the ability to have multiple browsers during working hours and shop professionally whereas if you work in a bank or are a farmer who drinks or collects whisky as a hobby you can’t. A couple of auction office staff and their database of ‘regular clients’ can make a huge difference to availability and price of the most exciting whisky to be released, and we hear more and more frustration from drinkers and genuine whisky fans. People can argue about it all they like on Social Media, but the auction system is there, is extremely efficient and is having a huge effect on the industry and the price people pay for whisky.
The Drammers Reward idea is a little complex admittedly, but it was thought through over a long period of time and discussed with colleagues and a few trusted distillers and bottlers. Part of the drive to do ‘something’ was frustration over comments online saying ‘the whisky brands love these high auction prices!’ and that distillers and retailers are complicit and fuelling this. In some cases that may be true, but RMW has had a publicly declared ethics policy on allocated bottles – no company hoarding, no presales, no staff sales, selling at RRP with only a few rare exceptions- for a very long time now.
I must say I am surprised other retailers didn’t publish similar rules, and we took the same approach when we opened Royal Mile Whisky Auctions with clear ethics including a refusal to consign bottles released with a year of release. Despite the best efforts of Chris, we recently closed this part of our business due to lack of volume of lots (read into that what you will).
Whether Drammers Reward has been successful depends on how you measure it, but I couldn’t be happier. Most pleasing was the reaction of many customers and producers who were happy we were talking about this issue, rather than hiding behind the weak ‘it’s a free market’ argument. We believe whisky is a beautiful drink that deserves to be enjoyed as a beverage most of the time, and while genuine collecting is great, the balance of sealed to opened bottles was out of kilter.
I see the live stats on how many people ask for marked/open bottles and this data is important to me. Obviously, if it is a 50:50 split then RMW make exactly the same amount of money as before (and pleasingly flippers are actually funding drinkers). I would be a fool to share these fascinating stats as they are so valuable to us, but I am happy to say that more than half the bottles are more than half ‘opened/marked’. It would have been embarrassing if we’d actually started making more money by doing this, and the project would have failed. So, those saying online ‘£5 extra won’t make a difference to the flippers’ seem to be wrong. Enough people think like us, we are finding a new way to sell and communicate to drinkers. We hope they reward us with their loyalty in a world where you can buy whisky from many different places at increasingly variable prices.
MALT: Moving onto a more positive topic, as a buyer, how do the retailer exclusives start out? Do distilleries approach you with casks or is it a result of a strong relationship?
Arthur: It’s a bit of both. Exclusives were to most companies seen as a bit of a nuisance, so it was a reward from them for loyalty in the early days. Now it is more common and they have better systems for completing projects. Now we look for the interesting and with meetings with distillers we’ll let them know we are on the lookout for casks or ideas that stand out.
MALT: Is there a set limit to how many you take on per year?
Arthur: To be honest, I am not really counting but this Christmas we’ll hit double figures for exclusives on sale at one time and that is the most we have ever done. There were too many things I couldn’t say no to once the ideas were discussed, including a cider brandy, two single cask rums and a whisky cask matured Calvados.
MALT: Who has the difficult job of trying various samples and making the final decision?
Arthur: Me mostly, but I very rarely take the decision on my own. I tend to whittle samples down rejecting some, and then present the best to key colleagues so they are involved (which greatly helps enthusiasm and sales when the bottles are on the shelf). This year we actually let customers choose two casks during online tastings (Glenallachie and the Tamdhu cask matured Calvados) so I preapproved the samples to check we were happy to have any of them with RMW on the bottle and then let customers vote.
MALT: What’s the average turnaround on these releases, from the initial concept to reaching store shelves?
Arthur: Amusingly varied! One took 15 months from start to finish (really painful) and we have one coming out in December that will be done in 3 weeks from sample to sale, which is impressive (it is to mark a special anniversary, hence the urgency).
MALT: We’ll be reviewing your recent Arran¹ and Tomatin exclusives – what can you tell us about their background and selection?
Arthur: The Tomatin was actually going to be a shared exclusive with the Ensign Ewart pub (go there when they open – they open some great stuff and sell at really fair prices). We’d chosen the cask together and we were really happen to fund the purchase of their first exclusive, which we would then retail. However, we were just about to sign off the labels when COVID hit so we just labelled it up as ours. We wish them all the best when they open as they are great people.
The Arran was really interesting to put together. I had a feeling that a vatting of a few casks is better for us and our customers for a few reasons. Firstly, it gets the price down for the customer. Secondly, it changes the discussion subtly from ‘this is a limited edition, this is a single cask’ to ‘this is a delicious whisky which only we have’. People have time to buy a bottle, open it, and then buy another because it is excellent. Lastly, I really enjoyed the creative process of putting a small vatting together. We had 8 or 9 samples (I think) from the same batch of casks and could play the best combinations so with the help of my colleague Sam we felt much more involved and like we were doing something rather than just saying ‘that one’. It gave me some insight into how important the process of blending casks is when creating a final single malt. We should probably discuss this more as it makes a big difference.
MALT: What’s been your favourite RMW exclusive and why?
Arthur: Damn, that’s tough. I wrote a long list out and the shortlist of three were all picked for emotional reasons interestingly. Port Ellen for a company anniversary, the Glen Ord 40 Year Old because I drank it on some Cornish cliffs for my wedding, and the Daftmill because I was so proud to be able to give my colleagues that wonderful day with Francis choosing it. None of these are the best we ever bottled. If I went for one, it would be the Glen Ord.
MALT: Is there anything incoming that we should keep an eye out for in the near future?
Arthur: The two single cask Chairman’s Reserves rums from the Vendome still are frankly bizarre but brilliant. Plus one whisky that is the best from this distillery I have ever tasted, but it is a secret.
My thanks to Arthur for shedding some light on a difficult year and what Royal Mile Whiskies have lined up for us in the near future. I’ve included links (commission-free) where possible to certain bottles. And now for some whisky.
Royal Mile Whiskies Port Charlotte 2002 – review
One of the first exclusives for RMW’s and selected by Ian Buxton, distilled on 12th June 2002 and bottled on 5th November 2007. A refill bourbon barrel was the host and provided 439 bottles at 46% strength and a 50cl oddly shaped bottle.
Colour: almost clear, just a faint haze.
On the nose: a sweet and salty peat which isn’t too forceful and knows its place. Crushed sea shells, driftwood and a lightly smoked haddock. Pine needles, reminiscent of the PC10 in places. Cooking apples, seaweed, grapefruit and bacon. Well balanced and a good strength.
In the mouth: a little lightweight and all about the peat with a lingering ashy finish. Hamhock, chalk dust from a blackboard and earthy in places. Some of that metallic tinny character, smoked haddock and grapefruit.
Royal Mile Whiskies Tomatin 2007 – review
This exclusive is bottled at 12 years of age after being distilled on 19th October 2007. Residing in a lightly charred American oak hogshead #4283, it was bottled at 57% strength with an outturn of 262 bottles. This is a recent release at the time of writing and is available for £86.95.
On the nose: light and engaging with buttery apples and a slightly toasted aspect. Wafers, dried reeds, light brown sugar and eggshell. Lightly roasted coffee makes things more inviting. With time the toasted characteristics step aside letting the soft fruit come through.
In the mouth: dangerously not 57%! Very drinkable. Cinder toffee, brown sugar combine with a pleasing texture. White pepper, fresh wood, sappy in parts with chocolate on the finish.
A very good example of Tomatin today. Plenty of vigour, style and Highland characteristics that do underline there can still be some sense of regionality in your glass. The only downside is that at nearly £90 for a 12 year old, this is slightly overpriced. I guess given we’re highlighting the need to support local in this article, we cannot grumble too much. However, looking back through the Malt archives we did pay £70 in 2018 for a 12 year old 2006 distillery hand-fill, so there you go. I stand corrected.
The Port Charlotte was fun enough, a good trip down memory lane. A very clean style of peat and Ian picked a good cask. A little more strength would have been beneficial, but you have to balance this with the age and an early example of a PC that we see everywhere as a staple 10 year old.
To echo the points in this article; it’s great to open, explore and share whisky.
¹ well that was the plan, but COVID-19 (remember that?) put an end to travelling into Edinburgh, due to the regional rules. While no longer available online, the Arran is still in stock in the shop.
My thanks to Norbert for the samples that kicked off this article.