Places

Scotland's obscure corner shop (Whisky Shop)

David Stirk makes a pilgrimage to the heart of Speyside to meet Fiona Murdoch at the Whisky Shop, Dufftown, and collect his medal for visiting this 'obscure corner of Scotland'
By David Stirk
Until three years ago, Dufftown, the heart of Speyside and malt whisky country, did not have a whisky shop. It had a kilt maker, seven distilleries, a cooperage and a clock tower but nowhere to buy uisge beatha. A paradoxical situation comparable to visiting Cuba and finding that it does not even have a solitary cigar emporium. “Before opening The Whisky Shop I had an art gallery in the same shop,” Fiona Murdoch the proprietor of The Whisky Shop explains, “people kept coming in and saying ‘Nice paintings, but where can we buy whisky?’ Then I realised I was selling the wrong thing. “Being brought up in Dufftown meant that whisky was too close to me and it took me a while to realise that that was what people wanted to buy. There was no dedicated whisky shop in the whisky capital, even though there are specialist whisky shops elsewhere in the world. There are still local people who can't believe I only sell whisky.”Fiona grew up in Dufftown spending her childhood years in the family home, Kininvie House. At this time William Grant & Sons were building a new distillery and were holding a competition for their employees to name it. One such employee, who happened to be a friend of the Murdoch family, put forward the name Kininvie and duly won. Fiona can recall her parents receiving a letter from William Grant & Sons informing them of the new distillery’s name and promising a case of the whisky when bottled. That was ten years ago. Fiona must be wondering how much longer she has to wait. The move into selling whisky was therefore not a difficult decision for Fiona to make, as she explains: “My family have been in the booze
business for generations and used to be wine and spirit merchants in Glasgow – my grandfather sold the firm but the name still lives on and is owned by The Speyside Distillery Company, which still produces a Murdoch blended whisky. My father even contemplated building a distillery on Kininvie for a while as we lived next door to the Glenfiddich complex but I think the investment was too large and long-term.”Fiona’s shop stocks over 300 single malts specialising in whiskies that don't often make it on the shelves of conventional off-licenses. She also stocks a number of grain, vatted and blended whiskies. Accompanying her line in Scotch whiskies are Scottish bottled beers from breweries like The Black Isle, Aviemore, Tomintoul and Traquair. Yet the real selling point of the shop is Fiona's canny ability to find that elusive bottle of whisky, whether it is a Bowmore Black or a Ladyburn, for her customers. She rarely lets them down because of her strong connections to private buyers and sellers all over the world.“I stock, or can get, all currently available bottlings (Scotch only, of course) and I will also try to get for customers any of the collectable bottlings from the past. As most people in this area have connections with the distilling industry, I often get offered bottles that people have found in the back of their cupboards and it is the uncertainty of what might be offered to me for sale, which is part of the fun. I live for the day when someone comes in with something like an original bottle of Parkmore or Towiemore, which would be enormously valuable.”Special attention is paid in the shop to Dufftown and Islay whiskies – perhaps giving away her feelings on the two greatest regions for whisky. Her two biggest selling whiskies, Mortlach and The Macallan also pay testament to her location. “Mortlach is by far my favourite malt. Not just out of loyalty to Dufftown but because I think the 16-year-old Flora & Fauna bottling is the most perfectly balanced whisky. I will drink Mortlach at any age and any strength but if I had to go to a desert island with only one whisky it would be the 16-year-old Flora & Fauna. I once got into trouble when I was quoted in The Sunday Post saying that I’d rather cuddle up with a bottle of Mortlach than a man. Otherwise, I am pretty well devoted to Speysiders, the richer and darker the better.”Fiona has been instrumental in the development of the Speyside spring and autumn whisky festivals, organising talks and tastes which almost always sell out before the festival begins. What she enjoys the most is meeting the visitors from all over the world that the festival attracts. “There are so many funny things that happen here that this is hard to answer. Usually it is to do with two people meeting up here by
coincidence,” she says. “Like the time an American Macallan fan fell on his knees in worship when he came into the shop and saw the big range of Macallan's I usually keep in stock. He started talking to me about an article in some US newspaper, this was just after Macallan had been taken over by Highland, about how all the Macallan ‘noses’ had been sacked, when one of the sacked ‘noses’ walked in!”Fiona now possesses a wealth of information about whisky and can, and will, tell you about the whisky you are thinking of buying. She is far more concerned that you are going to like the whisky you buy than if you buy anything at all. This has led to her sometimes being a little too outspoken about some of the local products but disagreements, she claims, make drinking whisky all that more fun.“It never ceases to amaze me that I can live in this tiny obscure town in the middle of one of the least-known parts of Scotland and yet the whole world manages to find me. I think anyone who manages to make their way to this obscure corner of Scotland deserves a medal or, at the very least, a good time when they get here and I hope we always provide that in The Whisky Shop.”