Places

Cut and thrust on the Royal Mile

Young entrepreneur Keir Sword is going places with Scotch. Marcin Miller met up with him at his shop on Edinburgh's famous thoroughfare
By Marcin Miller
Keir Sword – you can’t forget a name like that in a hurry – thrives on change and the special buzz that only seizing a daring opportunity can bring.Three years ago he took over Royal Mile Whiskies, situated on Edinburgh’s legendary street. Set up in 1991 by Ken and Ian Taylor, Keir had previously worked in the shop while a catering and hotel management student at Napier University. His initial interest was in wines but he knew that there was little commercial scope in that sector in Scotland since the market was already well established. The multiple retailers had everything sewn up and competition was hard. But when Royal Mile Whiskies shop came on to the market, his entrepreneurial spirit could not be held back even though he was just 28 and, in retailing terms, a complete unknown. But after talking to Keir for just a few minutes you realise how he made Royal Mile happen. A natural dynamism was further fuelled by a love of change and transformation – whatever the substances – grapes into wine, malted barley into whisky, tobacco plants into cigars. It was the process that inspired him and continues to inspire. The shop now has over has over 300 bottlings, but Keir is keen to point out that he believes (like Richard Joynson of Loch Fyne Whiskies) that the size of range is no true indicator of the quality of the retailer. “Size-ists get bogged down in fruitless ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ arguments which go nowhere,” he explains.Keir is more interested in items like the shelf of ‘anniversary’ whiskies which has a vintage bottle from (nearly) every year stretching back to 1929. Apart from a few gaps in the early 1930s and, of course, the war years, the range is pretty near complete. Only one sample from each year is on display, but often there are more examples below stairs. Keir is always on the lookout for more; last year some 1948s were released which he bought.Keir was born in 1968, so I ask which anniversary bottling from that year would he most enjoy? He reflects briefly, then replies, “I can’t think what ‘68s I have in stock but I remember that Hart Brothers had a 1968 Laphroaig several years back. But the most important to me is a whisky that I enjoy, no matter the date.”And that turns out to be cask strength Laphroaig. “I’m a great fan of Islay whiskies generally; for me that’s as good as they get,” he declares. Given the shop’s location, Keir is in a prime position to know what’s currently flying off the shelves. “It depends on who is promoting what at any given time. I find that in-store tastings are a great promotional tool,” he says, adding that he is particularly fond of a lady who comes into the shop to promote Heather Cream Liqueur. “She’s like everyone’s mother,” he says. “Very friendly. She comes in to promote the liqueur but doesn’t miss the chance to promote Old Pulteney 12 year old.” She has disproved the misconception previously held by Keir that liqueurs and malts cannot be co-promoted. It is for this reason that Old Pulteney has enjoyed twice the sales for the last year of the second best-selling whisky (Ardbeg 17 year old) in the shop. People always seem surprised when they are informed that Royal Mile’s top-seller is Old Pulteney but Keir puts it down to it being a good whisky, well-presented and available at an excellent price. When you enter Royal Mile Whiskies you feel there are so many bottles that they are liable to jump off the shelves. This slightly anxiety-inducing scenario for whisky lovers who are scared that they might miss a label, will soon be no more. Keir has a refit planned for next year. But how can shops ever have enough space to accommodate the ever-growing stream of new expressions and rare bottlings being released? “It is a concern,” he admits. “Six or seven years ago the industry became aware of the collectors’ market. At the time there were several good value bottles around costing around £35. People realised that they could purchase these bottles as an affordable investment.” He cites the case of Black Bowmore, first released at a price of £90 to £120 over a three-year period. Now it is fetching astronomical figures, on the rare occasions that it can be found. “On the strength of that it appears that some of the distillers have got a little greedy and some of the bottlings coming out now are over-priced and are not, as such, an investment as they are already pitched at a high enough level,” Keir adds. During his first summer at Royal Mile Whiskies, he sold a full set of Black Bowmore (three bottles) for £1,500. He recently sold an individual bottle for £800. “We have a very bizarre mix of customers. The shop that I took over was a tourist shop that happened to sell whisky. Now it is a whisky shop that happens to be in a tourist location.” Indeed it now attracts a growing number of very serious whisky connoisseurs, including many from Germany, Scandinavia, Australia and a few from the US.
But does he think whisky in general is too expensive?Not surprisingly, he replies, “Emphatically no; I think there are some very good value whiskies available. You can buy a very, very good malt whisky for £20-£25 and that represents excellent value if you consider the work that goes into it.” Keir is convinced the cask situation could be very important for the future development of the Scotch whisky industry. Moves are afoot to allow producers of American whiskeys to re-use casks. The cost of casks will increase significantly which will, in turn, have an impact on the cost of whisky. In view of that, Keir views the current crop of wood finished whiskies as a good idea given the impending shortage of bourbon barrels. He is not unaware either that they are also, of course, a good marketing ploy. “New casks are terrible for whisky; they really kill the whisky flavour,” he declares. “Experimentation has to be a good thing, therefore, whether in wine casks, Cognac casks or whatever.” So how does Keir see the future? “I’d like to have more shops, certainly. Maybe up to three of four, but it depends on being able to get the right managers for them. We are now starting to look into the internet. We will have a very small site initially, one that we will get absolutely right prior to expanding it. That’s the way to do it, get the mechanisms in place and ensure that the physical structure is there to cope. The last thing I want to do is set up a big website which we can’t service.” Keir has done it his way, very successfully so far. But I wondered if there was anyone he admired. “Of course,” he says. “You learn by looking at what others are doing. I‘m very impressed by what Inver House is doing at the moment; they’ve done great things with Old Pulteney and it looks as if they might do the same with Balblair. I’m very impressed by what Glenmorangie are doing with Ardbeg too. It’s great to see something that had been so neglected coming back.” Keir last visited that distillery when taking part in the Islay half-marathon. “I think the 1975 is fantastic and the 1976 Distillery Manager’s Choice is wonderful,” he enthuses. But what about individuals, who does he particularly rate? Almost without thinking, he responds, “Jim McEwan at Bowmore is a fantastic ambassador for whisky; he has a huge passion for whisky, a huge knowledge and a huge passion for Islay. He’s the one who springs to mind immediately.” It’s a description that well fits the dynamic Mr Sword himself, whose name and career path seem perfectly suited. With whisky retailing in such dynamic and intelligent hands, the future for drinkers is bright indeed.