“If anyone starts without any knowledge there are plenty of people to teach them”

“If anyone starts without any knowledge there are plenty of people to teach them”

Ian Wisniewski talks with Keir Sword,proprietor of Royal Mile Whiskies.

People | 28 Nov 2008 | Issue 76 | By Ian Wisniewski

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IAN Can you tell me how it all began?KEIR Through chance really, I saw an advert for a job at Royal Mile Whiskies, and worked there for the summer in the early 90s when I was a student. Initially I thought of setting up my own business as an independent bottler.Then I thought about setting up a shop, and got quite far down the line but that fell through.Then I learned the owners of Royal Mile Whiskies were interested in selling, so it all tied in. I got a friendly bank manager and haven’t looked back since. That was 1997.IAN How do you put your whisky list together?KEIRWe get asked for all sorts of whiskies, so what our customers are asking for has a big say in that.We do as many of the proprietary bottlings as we can, and we try to stock whisky from most of the independent bottlers out there.IANWhat kind of balance do you have between single malts,blended malts,grain whisky and blended Scotch?KEIR From our point of view we were always a malt whisky specialist.Where we do quite well on blends these days are the more unusual blends.In terms of blended malts it’s still a small category with niche products, and niche products are ideal for us.IANWhat range of choice do you offer customers in terms of less and more expensive options?KEIRWe cover a full spectrum of price points, and in terms of our stock holding we have case loads of £20 whiskies, and a bottle of £1,000 whisky here and there.We have customers who spend at all price points.IAN And you have customers with various levels of knowledge, rather than catering specifically for a more knowledgeable group?KEIR Absolutely, we’ve got gift buyers, buying a bottle for Father’s day or for Christmas, needing you to help them choose the right whisky, through to people who could teach our staff a thing or two.IAN Customers coming into the shop will have a certain expectation,so what kind of staff do you look for?KEIR When I first worked in the shop I had very limited knowledge of whisky, but had huge enthusiasm to learn and we’ve still got that principle, the key quality is enthusiasm for the product. We do have tasting stock available for the staff. We are very fortunate as we have a lot of staff who have been with us for more than 10 years now which is amazing, so we have good retention of staff.There are plenty of people whether in the office, or the Edinburgh and London shop who have a really good, indepth knowledge of whisky. So if anyone starts without any knowledge there are plenty of people to teach them. And I get to go to distilleries quite regularly, so I’m very lucky, I do get to visit some fantastic places.IANWhat role does the website play in the business?KEIR Everything we stock will be listed on the web.We try to put as much product information there as possible, and also information on distilleries. When we taste whiskies we try to be as pro-active as we can about getting our own opinions on the net, and we get everyone’s input. A lot of people who shop on the web then come in to the shop, but a lot of people make their decision before they come in by taking a look on the website, and then come in to buy it.We also do a newsletter every month.IAN Have you noticed any different purchasing patterns between the shops in London and Edinburgh?KEIR Yes, they’re very different shops. London throws up surprises more than Edinburgh.The London shop has a lot more space so it can carry a lot more stock.IANWhat trends do you expect to see in the next few years?KEIR The malt market in general will continue to grow. In terms of specific styles I think there will continue to be growth in the peated sector, but possibly more in line with overall growth rather than in excess of it.Tastes change, you don’t know what people will be wanting to drink in a year or two’s time.
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