Standing out from the flock (Spencerfield Spirits)

Standing out from the flock (Spencerfield Spirits)

Ian Buxton dons his wellies and digs out his shepherd's crook

News | 01 Jun 2007 | Issue 64 | By Ian Buxton

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Spencerfield Spirits is not your usual whisky company. For one thing, it’s based in the tack room attic of the owner’s thoroughbred livery stable and, for another, you have to meet Doug (the company dog, pronounced ‘dug’ – it’s a pun, you see) and four friendly horses before you get down to business.And then it’s considered good form to knock the mud off your shoes as you clamber up to the office (did I mention this involves crossing the horses’ paddock?).Then there are the whiskies – with names like Sheep Dip and Pig’s Nose you might think they were just part of the trend to silly names. So it would be easy to conclude that this was just some kind of jokey, lifestyle business that will be happy selling a few cases of whisky to mates before closing the office for an early, liquid lunch.Nothing could be further from the truth.As the company’s Alex Nicol explains: “These are typical ‘orphan brands’ discarded by large companies as being unworkable in international markets and too quirky to succeed with their portfolio approach. But small niche, fleet-footed operators can often run rings round heavier, more ponderous rivals.” But it isn’t just a question of a wacky name. There are serious whisky credentials here, though worn lightly and with an irreverent sense of wit and style that, if somewhat out of step with the zeitgeist (dominated as it is by spreadsheets and Blackberries), is delightfully reminiscent of an older and more gracious way of doing business.Like the horses, there is real breeding to be found at Spencerfield. Sheep Dip has a 40 year history as one of the original vatted malts, though today of course it refers to itself as a ‘blended malt’.But, before looking at the product, Spencerfield also has a fascinating whisky history. There was a distillery recorded in 1795 on the Spencerfield Farm estate which was built by one Duncan Montgomery by the Keithing Burn.The business initially flourished and by 1836 was employing a working Coffey’s Patent Steam Still producing a Lowland malt whisky for the English and local markets, though it closed in 1851 and has been demolished.Even more tantalisingly, George Washington’s plantation manager and distiller, James Anderson, was born here in 1745. After farming and growing grain in Scotland, the failure of some of his distilling clients cost him his business and he emigrated to the United States with his wife and seven children around 1790.By 1795 he was distilling near Fredericksburg, Virginia, but in 1797 began working for Washington and immediately pressed him to open his own distillery – eventually a substantial operation by the standards of the time.Washington’s correspondence records: “Mr. Anderson has engaged me in a distillery, on a small scale, and is very desirous of encreasing (sic) it: assuring me from his own experience in this country...” Today, Spencerfield Spirits carries on in the same innovative and entrepreneurial style.Its proprietor, Alex Nicol, has around 30 years experience in the drinks industry.Having started his career with Long John and Laphroaig (in Whitbread days), until July 2005 he was chief operating officer at Whyte & Mackay, with lengthy spells in global marketing at Glenmorangie and Scottish & Newcastle.He saw unfulfilled potential in Sheep Dip and its stable-mate Pig’s Nose – after all, he reckoned the brands had once sold in excess of 40,000 cases a year, but a bewildering series of changes in ownership had left them drifting.But I sense that Alex was never a corporate man. He persuaded Whyte & Mackay to let him take these brands on his own as an independent and Spencerfield Spirits was born.Since then, both have been completely repackaged with handsome new labels and, more importantly, reformulated under the guidance of Richard Paterson, master blender at Whyte & Mackay.Richard has greatly improved the quality of the blending with the addition of more aged Speyside whiskies and old Dalmore single malt, using primarily first fill bourbon casks.So far as Sheep Dip is concerned the result is a lovely creamy blended malt that’s full of rich fruity flavours and hints of smoke on the finish. This is seriously good stuff.Nosed and sipped during twenty minutes or so this dram reveals real depth and substance. I reckon there’s a healthy drop of old Dalmore in there and some other fine and complex whiskies.Pig’s Nose hardly lets the side down either. It claims to be “as soft and smooth as a pig’s nose.” I can’t claim acquaintance with the porcine schnoz so can’t speak for the veracity of this claim, but it’s a very tasty whisky. I put my nose in it and thought it smooth, mellow and rich with delicious spicy hints.But setting up a small whisky business, even with brands with some heritage and a great taste, isn’t easy.From the towering heights of directing strategy for a significant global business to running your own operation is challenging stuff, even if your wife steps in as partner (Spencerfield is a true family business).So how, I asked Alex Nicol, was he finding the business of getting down and dirty with his customers?“I’ve set myself four rules,” he says.“First, achieve the best possible product quality.“Second, avoid discounting and third, work only with partners who share your business philosophy.” And the fourth?“Have as much fun as you can and try not to go bust,” he replies.Seems like horse sense to me.
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