Innovation in whisky is alive and well in the historic market town of Leek,Staffordshire. Richard Jones reports
For someone who has managed to create one of the country’s most innovative and interesting whisky ranges, it’s perhaps surprising that the parting words of the previous owner still occasionally haunt David Wood.“He told me that I’d never be able to sell whisky above £30 a bottle,” he recalls. “That price was a big issue with many people and anything more expensive would simply sit on the shelves. Sometimes, when I’ve just selected an old or rare bottle, I can hear his words ringing in my head.” David Wood and his wife (and business partner) Léonie bought The Wine Shop in the historic market town of Leek, Staffordshire in December 2003. They had both spent virtually their entire working careers at the national off-licence multiple now known as Threshers.“We never dreamed we’d own our own shop, we just dropped on it at exactly the right time. The store had been in my home town of Leek for about 15 years and the owner was looking to retire.“I’d just been made redundant by Threshers and Léonie was on maternity leave.We happened to find out by chance that the shop was for sale, so we immediately offered the money and got it.” At the shop itself, Léonie is responsible for the wine and David takes care of the whisky.“I’m incredibly passionate about whisky and, despite the warnings from the previous owner, I really wanted the opportunity to sell it. Wherever possible, we always have a sample of every bottle open – we’ve grown our reputation on the fact that people can try before they buy.“Most people come into the shop with an open mind, so if you get the right liquid under their nose, they’ll go for it.“ Rather than stock exactly the same whiskies as everyone else, from the very beginning David was determined to be a bit different.“We launched our own brand whisky, Queen of the Moorlands 12 year old Speyside, just over a year ago,” he explains.“We wanted something in an easydrinking, rich and sweet style that could be given away as a present – a whisky with a taste that no-one’s going to dislike. At £22.99 it’s been incredibly successful for us, particular with the ‘ex-pat’ Leek community. Just as Islay is called the ‘Queen of the Hebrides’, Leek is known as the ‘Queen of the Moorlands’ and we feature a local landmark on the label.” Yet in terms of originality, it is not the 12 year old that stands out. Rather, David has more recently unveiled a range of Queen of the Moorlands single cask bottlings. Not unique in itself, you might think, but just listen to the way the casks are chosen.“All the whiskies are selected by a committee of about 12 customers and myself.It’s a lot of fun – we hire a room, blind-taste a bunch of cask samples and pick out our favourites. All the names of the committee members present at he meeting then go on the back label of the bottle.“The first whisky in the single cask range was Strathisla 35 year old at £80 a bottle.People just loved it, absolutely fantastic whisky, probably the best whisky in bottle I’ve ever tasted. We sold the lot within a week.“More recently we’ve picked out Laphroaig 12 year old at £37.99, which, if it was a wine, would be an incredibly gutsy Sauvignon Blanc wine with intense citrus flavours, and Longmorn 12 year old at the same price, which has rich, decadent flavours of honey, truffles and cream sherry.” With ideas and enthusiasm in abundance, it’s not surprising that sales of whisky at The Wine Shop are in boom mode.“We’ve grown the range from 30 bottles to more than 300 different expressions,” David says. “Whisky sales now make up around 30 per cent of our total but my aim is to make it more like 50:50 with wine.” David and Léonie also have plans to open a second, larger shop in nearby Congleton. Not surprisingly, David is full of new initiatives for the venue.“We’re hoping to have a living cask in the shop. I’ve tasted some fantastic living cask stuff and that’s the inspiration. It’s great for customers to be able to bottle their own whisky – it makes it really special for them.” And it’s clear from talking to David that the ideas won’t stop there.“It’s really refreshing for us to be working in the independent trade and to do this sort of stuff. When we were working for a big company we were constantly being held back with our ideas. We can now do all these little things, and it’s these little things that are really important to our customers.”The Wine Shop.
22 Russell Street , Leek, Staffordshire, England, ST13 5JF
Tel: +44 (0)1538 382 408
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