The Glasgow publican talks converting newbies, Irish wood types and his beef with bottle flippers.
As I watched the landscape through the rain on my return from the Cheltenham Lit Fest (a worthwhile visit but, Jesus, the train companies do their utmost to make it almost impossible to get there and back easily, or comfortably), I thought back to the previous night’s post-gig drink at John Gordons, which is both a wine and spirit merchant, and a whisky bar with a cleverly chosen selection of 200 drams.
Looking at the shelves, it was clear that the range on show wasn’t just an exercise in box ticking, nor did it seem to be one where personal preferences had been allowed to dominate. It covered the basics well, but was eclectic enough for the whisky convert to discover new things.
It was the end of 10 days of talking for me. A few days previously, at the Berlin Bar Convent – where it seems as if every distiller and vermouth producer on the planet is vying for your attention – I’d been discussing ways in which bars could maximise their whisky range and help newcomers navigate their way through this most baffling of territories.
Heaven or hell?: A fully-stocked bar can be overwhelming for whisky novices (Photo: The Pot Still, Glasgow)
One way was to plot their range on a flavour map and see if all the points were covered. In my experience most bar owners, if left to their own devices, head towards smoke and sherry, not because that’s what sells, but because it’s what the owner or staff like to drink. This can be a good thing if it gets them promoting it, but on the other it’s bad news for the punter who doesn’t like peat or dried fruit. It’s that word balance once again.
I’d also used an image of the well-stuffed back bar and asked whether it filled people with excitement, or terror. What is nirvana for the whisky geek is hell for the newbie – and never forget that there are many more in the latter category.
Even as a paid-up whisky nerd when I’m presented with a gantry like that, the thrill at seeing the selection is tempered with fear. Is there something at the back which I’ve missed; where do I start, where and when do I stop? Choice can be overwhelming and off-putting as well as enticing.
I’d been looking out of the window at the forest. Pine, silver birch, ash, willow, whitebeam, the rest a mustard and green blur, too many to discern, so much information that I couldn’t see the trees for the wood.
It’s similar to the dilemma faced by bars around the world. Do you cram every inch of the available space, or work with its limitations and select the best, and most representative bottles – ones which will sell and not just gather dust? The customer’s eye flickers over the forest of labels, only settling on one of the shapes it identifies.
Does each added layer make the selection better, or is there a point when it brings about despair to drinker and owner alike? I’d asked the question to Frank Murphy at Glasgow’s Pot Still a few weeks earlier. ‘Everything must sell,’ he’d said. ‘We’ve only got so much space. I have to make the choice as to what we buy, what stays, and what goes.’
This is an issue for new producers the world over. If shelves are already full, then the only way you’re getting your whisky into people’s hands will be if it replaces something from an established distiller. They, in turn, cannot just approach new releases in the manner of a trigger-happy teenager spraying a road sign with shotgun pellets.
It isn’t as simple of too much choice, but how well the person behind the counter knows the stock and can guide the drinker into the wood. The task isn’t just about selecting the bottles; it is also about explaining (and justifying) the range in order to make things less terrifying for the customer.
That is why every town needs a place like John Gordons, or the Pot Still, Black Rock, Swift, or the Bow Bar (I could go on). It is why training is paramount, why finding new ways of cutting paths through whisky’s thickets is so vital.
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