Berry Bros & Rudd's new spirits curator shares his vision for its independent bottlings

Berry Bros & Rudd's new spirits curator shares his vision for its independent bottlings

Felix Dear, a former whisky buyer at Atom Brands and Scotch Malt Whisky Society alumnus, shares his priorities and hopes for Berry Bros & Rudd's whisky bottlings and gives his thoughts on the current climate in independent bottling  

Interview | 12 Mar 2024 | By Bethany Brown

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The new spirits curator at renowned London-based drinks retailer Berry Bros & Rudd says he feels the company has the “strong relationships” necessary to keep producing exceptional whiskies in a tough climate for independent bottlers.

 

Felix Dear, who has held roles with many reputable names in independent bottling, joined Berry Bros & Rudd in January 2024. He has taken on responsibility for the selection and development of the retailer’s own-label whisky ranges, which currently includes its Classic bottlings, seasonal releases, and other limited-edition collections.

 

He took over from the company’s spirits reserve manager Jonny McMillan, who is one of three founders of the Kythe Distillery in the Scottish Highlands and left Berry Bros & Rudd to dedicate himself to that project.

 

Dear joined Berry Bros & Rudd from Master of Malt owner Atom Brands, where he worked as world whisky and spirits buyer and on independent bottlings alongside the company’s head of whisky Sam Simmons. Prior to that, he had worked as an ambassador for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, including bartending at its London club with “hundreds of single casks behind the bar”, and at the renowned Highlander Inn in Craigellachie, where he worked on the venue’s independent bottlings and learned from enigmatic owner Tatsuya Minagawa how to assess samples and select casks.

 

“I have been lucky to meet a lot of people who have been very generous and shared their knowledge with me,” he says, adding that one motto he learned from Simmons at Atom has stuck with him: “We don’t take ourselves too seriously, but we take our whisky very seriously.”

 

“The Highlander is where my fascination with independent bottling first appeared. They are chosen by a very knowledgeable staff and owner. When I worked there my work was on assessing the casks, tasting samples, choosing them, and that laid the foundation for me, but it was then working with Atom where I really learned a lot more of the nuts and bolts behind the scenes.”

Felix Dear examines a bottle of whisky at the Berry Bros & Rudd headquarters in London

Berry Bros & Rudd’s independent bottling range is extensive — Dear says he would struggle to think of a whisky-producing country from which the company has not bottled at least one whisky — but it is far from static, and there is change on the horizon.

 

“We’re working towards looking at what the next step is for Berry’s as an independent bottler, what that next evolution is,” Dear explains. “There will be some changes to our offering over the next year… and a couple of new offerings that you may see this year.”

 

Elaborating, he says the company will continue bottling “great Scotches” from household names while bringing more new world whiskies and new-wave Scotch whiskies into the fold, building on foundations laid by McMillan during his tenure.

 

“At the moment we are working on our Classic range of whiskies. I have been working on the liquid make-up for that and vatting of casks. There will be plenty more to come after that, new single cask releases and seasonals,” he adds.

 

As an established name in the whisky business (the company celebrated its 325th anniversary in 2023 and has been bottling whisky since at least the 1910s) Berry Bros & Rudd is well placed to contend with any upsets in the independent bottling market — and anecdotal evidence suggests a storm is brewing. While Dear hails the boom in “indies” as a positive step that has given people more choice, he expresses concerns about the availability of casks, even with an expanding whisky industry that is laying down more of them every year, and the knock-on effect of rising production costs on cask prices.

 

“It has become more challenging to find good casks of whisky. There is more competition for them,” he says. “I think a lot of people are in a similar boat, of having to be quite shrewd about how they go about sourcing casks. But Berry’s has such a strong reputation and such a strong history in the whisky industry, and those relationships still exist today.”

The line-up of the Pioneers, the first instalment in Berry Bros & Rudd's Collective series

Asked what his ‘dream’ independent bottling collection would look like, Dear gives a nod to Japanese whiskies (“the craft movement in recent years that was kicked off by Chichibu would be a really exciting one to explore”) and Ireland (particularly with an impending update to the legal definition of ‘single pot still Irish whiskey').

 

He also namechecks Berry Bros & Rudd’s 2023 Pioneers series, the first instalment of a new range called the Collective which aims to highlight “like-minded producers”. Launched by McMillan in partnership with acclaimed bar owner Ryan Chetiyawardana, the Pioneers showcases how whisky distillers around the world are tackling the challenges of environmental sustainability and features whiskies from Agitator in Sweden, Ardnamurchan in Scotland, Belgrove in Tasmania, and Westland in the US, among others.

 

“It is interesting to see how people are approaching [sustainability] from different angles,” Dear says. “I think that is going to be a really important part of the industry going forward. There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. You see people setting up these new distilleries with sustainability in mind from the outset… but then you look at the old world distillers and the challenge they have to retrofit, and I commend the efforts that are being made by them.”

 

Berry Bros & Rudd’s focus as an independent bottler is on whisky, and with the current growth of the industry Dear does not see that shifting, but he does note opportunities in other cask matured spirits — rum, Cognac, and Armagnac all get a mention.

 

Outside of its bottlings, another major event in the Berry Bros & Rudd calendar this year is the opening of its new dedicated spirits shop in London’s St James’ Street (due in early April). It follows a substantial refurbishment of its flagship Pall Mall premises in 2017. Dear says he will be using the new shop for events and tastings, “to make use of that beautiful space to talk to people about our whiskies”.

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