People

Feet firmly on the ground (Mary O'Shea - Heathrow)

In the latest in his series, Richard Jones talks to Mary O'Shea, who is a whisky consultant at Heathrow Airport
By Richard Jones
My day varies according to the time of year and the different flights that are scheduled at the airport,” begins Mary O’Shea, whisky consultant at Heathrow Airport.“At the moment my shift starts at six o’clock because we have some early morning flights to Norway, then throughout the day we have passengers travelling elsewhere in the EU, as well as Asia, Australia and the east coast of America. There are five of us in the team and we provide cover until nine o’clock in the evening.“Mary O’Shea is based in The Ultimate World Duty Free Liquor Store in Heathrow Airport terminal four.“I spend most of my time in the Whisky Zone which specialises in single malt whiskies. We stock around 80 different expressions covering all the major distilleries in Scotland ranging in price from £7.99 to £225.“It’s my job to promote the Scotch whisky category in its entirety within the store. Heathrow Airport is a huge window on the world and we have such a great product that we can sell.“People arrive in the store in all sorts of states, particularly with all the additional security at Heathrow. They might be busy, stressed out or just not their normal selves. “It’s my job to put them at ease, to approach them and ask if they need any help. They might be looking for a bottle for themselves or for a gift. I always try to build up a picture, to get an idea what they or the recipient likes or dislikes, or what they’ve enjoyed before.“We’ll normally have plenty of whiskies available for tasting, which can also help people in their selection.” Although Heathrow is a busy international airport, over the years Mary has managed to build up a number of regular customers.“Once I approached a gentleman and asked if he’d like to taste some whiskies. He immediately snapped back at me, ‘no I do not!’ Later, he came back to apologise and explained he was in a bad mood because he’d just been forced to pay a £200 excess baggage charge.“Even though he didn’t want to buy anything ‘because the airline have taken all my money.’ I persuaded him to try a few samples. He’s now become one of my regulars, normally buying two or three bottles of Ardbeg 10 years old several times a year.“I have another customer who used to come in twice a year and buy a few bottles of Ardbeg 30 year old at £150 a bottle. When the 30 year old came to an end he was devastated. Rather than see a grown man cry, I let him have the remains of my tasting sample. He’s now substituted to Ardbeg Provenance at £225.”As well as her regulars, Mary also comes across more than her fair share of famous shoppers.“I’ve served Bono, Mick Jagger and Charlton Heston in my time. Mick Jagger was after an Irish whiskey; whereas Charlton Heston ended up buying a bottle of Aberlour I think.“We get quite a lot of Euro MEPs coming through terminal four and recently I had Neil Kinnock in the store. He was aghast that we didn’t yet stock any Welsh whisky! I’ve promised him I’ll see what we can do.“My favourite celebrity passenger was Pierce Brosnan. He wasn’t even looking for a whisky, just a razor because he was visiting him mum and she didn’t like his designer stubble, but he made me go weak at the knees!”When it comes to selling whisky, Mary is fortunate to have a number of duty-free exclusives at her disposal.“At the moment we have Glenmorangie Cellar 13 at £28.99, a light and elegant malt that makes an excellent gift if the customer isn’t too sure what the recipient normally enjoys. Also Glenmorangie Traditional at £38.99, which is beautifully presented in a short, old-fashioned bottle and packaged in a square box lined with Hessian.“It’s bottled at cask strength without chill filtration and is a super whisky that sells really well on tasting.“Moving up in price, we also stock 1975 Vintage Glenmorangie, bottled in 2004 making it at 29 year old, selling at £85. In addition to these exclusives we have the Macallan Elegancia 12 year old at £26.99, Laphroaig 10 year old Cask Strength at £32.50 and Glenfiddich 15 year old cask strength at £29.99.”Although she has worked in the whisky industry for more than 15 years, Mary O’Shea’s enthusiasm for the product shows no signs of diminishing.“I like the whisky industry and the type of people that it attracts – those that make whisky and those that drink it. In fact I just love whisky in general.”So much so that it is sometimes difficult to switch off.“When I’m at home with my husband in the evening, he’ll reach for a bottle of whisky and I’ll instinctively start to talk, giving him details on maturation methods, tasting notes and the like. ‘Leave me alone’ he says, ‘I just want to drink it!”