The black sheep of the family (The Whisky Shop)

The black sheep of the family (The Whisky Shop)

Tom Bruce-Gardyne talks to self-confessed black sheep of the family, Peter Semple, who almost by accident found himself eventually running the largest chain of independent whisky shops in the UK

Places | 16 Nov 2001 | Issue 19 | By Tom Bruce-Gardyne

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Try to discover Peter Semple’s roots in the trade – that ancestor who worked on a bottling-line or kept an illicit still – and you will search in vain. Disappointingly he dismisses any smuggling heritage or any story of a long-lost uncle famed for his propensity to gamble and quaff quarts of the hard stuff. “No, I come from a very tee-total, Presbyterian background in Northern Ireland,” he says but almost in the same breath he is quick to point out that he’s definitely not that way inclined. “I suppose I am the token black sheep of the family!”Almost by accident he found himself, at the age of 23, managing The Whisky Shop in Edinburgh’s Waverley Market in 1993 which had just been bought by William Glen & Son. It was the firm’s first venture into Scotch having retailed gifts and souvenirs to tourists in the Trossachs for the previous century. In the next two years the company chairman, Mike Cantlay, added another Whisky Shop in Glasgow’s Princes Square and bought Hector Russell – the world’s foremost kilt-maker with 20 shops of its own. Peter then found himself thrust to the forefront, the sharp end of the expansion. Thanks to the success in Edinburgh and Glasgow it was decided to expand north to Inverness, Drumnadrochit, Fort William and Oban. Today there are 10 Whisky Shops running alongside the kilt business: nine in Scotland and one in San Francisco.The North American venture wasn’t quite such a leap into the unknown as you might think. Peter had already been entrusted in taking The Whisky Shop on-line with www.whiskyshop.com in 1997 and subsequently found that three-quarters of the hits were coming from the US, while Hector Russell already had outlets in Seattle and Toronto. So, a week before Thanksgiving 1999, when the license arrived after months of red tape, the shop opened at 76 Geary Street in downtown San Francisco selling kilts on one side and whisky on the other.Whether their compatriots will be willing to brave a holiday in the Highlands in the wake of foot and mouth disease remains to be seen. For now The Whisky Shop stores on the tourist trail can only hope so. When Mike Cantlay flew back from America recently after a working as part of a delegation promoting Scotland in the US through Tartan Week, he told Peter a story. “He may have been winding me up, but apparently a Haggis arrived in Seattle Airport and they didn’t know what it was, so they took it out to the runway and shot it! I don’t know whether it’s true, but if that’s the level of paranoia in the US then it’s going to be a challenging season!”Interestingly, the firm’s flag-ship store, designed in-house – a vibrant, subtly-lit shop of whisky, copper, slate and oak – is in
Glasgow, which at weekends becomes the city of vodka and Red Bull. For Store Manager John Wilson anyone coming into the shop in Buchanan Galleries claiming not to like whisky is simply a challenge to be overcome. To help him there are always around 30 bottles open for tasting out of a total of 350 different bottlings on display.Unlike blends, there is a certain sex appeal about malt whisky in a style conscious city such as Glasgow where labels matter. As Peter says: “If people are standing at the bar with a glass in their hand, they want someone to come up and ask ‘what’s that you’ve got?’” Malt whisky benefits from being hand-sold so that the customer is led on a ‘journey of discovery’. This gives the specialist a clear lead over the supermarket where the only journey of discovery is finding the till with the shortest queue. “Part of our success is actually having people hold the bottles and take part in the whole experience – it’s a very tactile thing. We try to keep as many whiskies on display for people to read the labels and whisky notes and learn something for themselves. Best of all though, is that moment watching people’s expressions change as they try a whisky the likes of which they’ve never tasted before,” Semple enthuses. This is what he lovingly describes as “igniting the thrill of discovery”.This ignition of enthusiasm is something Peter tries to instill in all his staff either through tasting sessions or workshops in order to learn about the industry directly. One such event was in conjunction with Bowmore, when all of The Whisky Shop’s Managers visited Islay, cutting peat and working in the distillery. “To meet Norrie Kimble (aka Norman Campbell) the Peat Cutter alone will remain a lasting memory – a true whisky folklore character if ever there was one!” Another event, this time with United Distillers was ‘Operation Branch’ – as only UDV could call it. This involved UDV sending their marketing teams to work in Peter’s shops. “It was a major learning curve for all involved, it brought them closer to the customer we both share. We practically had to scrape one of their guys off the ceiling when he’d sold a bottle of whisky for £500!”Semple has a wide range of suppliers from the mighty Diageo (UDV) to independent bottlers like Andrew Symington’s Signatory Vintage Malt Whisky and Gordon & MacPhail. On the whole they are good at giving advance warning of promotions by the big retailers so that when one store comes out with one of its crazy deals on Glenlivet or whatever, The Whisky Shop can steer clear. The number of different whiskies on offer lies between 200 and 400 with prices ranging from 99p for a blended miniature to £4,000 for a bottle of Bowmore 40-year-old. Given a natural inclination to promote local distilleries, individual best sellers vary from shop to shop. Deanston does well at Callander, Ben Nevis is top of the pops at Fort William and there are no prizes for guessing the number one at Oban. Throughout the stores, Peter guesses it was probably a toss-up between Bowmore and Highland Park as the number one seller last year. While for him, nothing quite beats a dram of Bowmore 17-year-old. As for the future, there are no current plans to expand in Scotland – but the States could be a different matter. Notwithstanding the complexities of State liquor laws, could this be the start of a Trans-Atlantic invasion in the other direction? A Starbucks in reverse, one might say? And what with the supposed paranoia at American airports, will they let a black sheep in to the country after foot and mouth? I should imagine every whisky lover Stateside hopes so.
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