In the latest of our series celebrating some of whisky's lesser known personalities, Dominic Roskrow catches up with David Wood, owner of The Wine Shop in Leek,Staffordshire.
When David Wood and his wife Leonie took over The Wine Shop in Leek, Staffordshire, and decided to get serious about whisky six years ago, they did it by unleashing their best weapon:people power.The shop had, unsurprisingly given its name, a strong reputation for quality wine. But it was an intimidating and traditional sort of place and although it offered whisky, it had a limited selection occupying the higher shelves beyond the reach of the customer.So while Leonie focused on the wine business David instigated a revolution. Just 32 years old at the time, he had been bitten by the whisky bug and was convinced that if others underwent the experience he had had, they would be too.”I had been working for a wine specialist chain and had been asked to increases sales of malt whisky,”he says.“I started doing tastings and got to taste a lot of whiskies. And then when we started with this business I started visiting distilleries, specifically those on Islay, and once I’d been there I was hooked. It’s a tactic we went on to use here by taking groups of customers to Islay.” Involving the customers didn’t end there.David increased the choice of whisky from around 20 different bottles to a few hundred. Then he set about demystifying them.“In the old days The Wine Shop was a fairly intimidating place, the sort where you felt you needed to know a great deal before you even went in. We wanted to change that. We moved the whiskies from behind the counter so people could touch and pick up the product. Bottles were out for customers to pour their own samples from. We wanted to make sure that as many customers as possible who were purchasing a bottle were getting the right one.” But The Wine Shop’s real masterstroke was to introduce its own range of rare single cask bottlings and to involve customers in their selection.Called The Queen of the Moorlands – after the title bestowed to Leek – the range has been of an exceptionally high standard and had whisky critics scrambling for superlatives. That, says Wood, is because the casks have been democratically selected.“We recognised we needed a point of difference so we decided we would get our customers to help select what is to be bottled by gathering together a collection of samples and voting on them.We have had evenings when we have linked up with a pub on Islay and they have voted on the same samples. Not only does it mean that we end up with a very good choice each time, but we know they are likely to sell well because customers have already tasted and liked them and the word gets around.“Sometimes we select by group or sometimes we get an individual to choose, but we have always involved the customer in some way.” Unsurprisingly there are plenty of volunteers for inclusion on the voting panel, and the resulting demand for Queen of The Moorlands rare cask bottlings has been pivotal in the success of the shop. Despite the name the customers who travel considerable distances to visit tend to be interested in whisky, though Wood says there is a big crossover of customers interested in both categories. He feels whisky has piggy-backed off wine and is now established among a new generation of young professionals in its own right. Wood encourages this but believes that the categories should remain separate and removed from each other.“We have people very interested in both categories,”he says.“But we’re finding a level of bemusement when wine terminology in particular is applied to whisky beyond a description of the finish.“Thankfully malt whisky is no longer perceived as, or marketed as, the reserve of the elite pipe and slipper brigade,”he says.“There are not many people worse than a wine snob but those who are are whisky snobs. Thankfully due to the large numbers of people now exploring the hundreds of different whiskies they are being pushed out of the picture.” Certainly that’s the case for The Wine shop, which continues to grow. Wood is optimistic about the future.“”The Queen of The Moorlands name is still growing,”he says.“We don’t have to rely on it because the shop is the main business. But it means we can bottle things as and when we want to, and as a result people are always amazed by their quality. That’s why we consider we have the best jobs it’s possible to have – enthusing people about something we love.” PROFILE
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