Places

Whisky Oasis (The Whisky Chaser)

Martin Betts visits a veritable whisky paradise well hidden in the extreme north-west of England.
By Martin Betts
Nestled in between the seaside kitsch of Blackpool and the historic industrial town of Preston, St Annes on Sea is found in the eminently northern county of Lancashire. This quaint little seaside town on England's north-west coast stares out over the Irish Sea towards the emerald isle, a land of triple distilled single malts, with bourbon country far distant over the western horizon. To the north is Scotland, for many the spiritual home of whisky. One may be forgiven for cruelly thinking that this is something of a whisky no-man's land.Not so. For if you take the time to visit the town and stroll along Wood Street you will find The Whisky Chaser a small independent retailer that can boast a vast range of whisky, fine wines and beers in one location. Any wealthy, spendthrift enthusiast of all things alcoholic risks leaving the store a pauper.The Whisky Chaser is owned and run, hands-on, by the ever affable Andy Cornwall. He and his Assistant Manager, Ian Cairns, toil seven days a week to make the store one of the best in the country, not just the north-west. Andy is relaxed and knowledgeable, always willing to help customers find the whisky that will most suit their palate amongst the myriad available.His knowledge stems from when his parents would allow the young Andy to enjoy a glass of wine with his main meal. As he grew older his palate became more refined, leading him to visit many differing wine merchants in an attempt to find new pleasures of the vine that would appeal to his discerning taste. However, his love of whisky developed only four years ago. Andy was in a local restaurant with his father, who had his own shop which supplied the establishment with malt whisky. After the meal Andy had a dram of whisky and discovered that he had found a spirit to rival his love of the grape.Whisky was a major influence when he decided that it was time for a career change. Andy had been a disc jockey for eight years, playing at venues such as the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, and had spent a year in the Canary Islands where he ran his own nightclub. He believed that his interest in whisky and wine was now worth pursuing as a career and so it was on the 6th June 1999 that Andy Cornwall opened the Whisky Chaser.Currently the shop stocks 650 malts, 60 blends and over 500 miniatures – claimed to be the largest selection in the UK. They are immaculately presented on dark wood shelving, allowing for an unrivalled view of the stock which includes bottlings such as: Springbank 1966, Glenmorangie Cognac and Claret Finish, Royal Brackla 10-Year-Old distilled in 1969 and Benromach 1971 Connoisseur's Choice from Gordon & MacPhail. Previously the Whisky Chaser had been home to over 1,000 malts but Andy was forced to reduce his range because "a few were gathering dust." Possibly a case of his over exuberance clouding his business acumen for a brief moment.The most expensive whisky in stock is a Talisker distilled in 1948, this rare beauty retails for £450. In terms of popularity, however, his customers preferred choice of blend is Famous Grouse and the best-selling malt is Finlaggan. The Whisky Chaser's philosophy is definitely to stock the best malts, blends and bourbons that the customer will enjoy buying and drinking rather than holding incredibly expensive collectors items out of the range of the 'average' (if there is such a thing) whisky enthusiast.Even though he has only been in business for just over a year, Andy has already seen a number of changes in the range and types of whisky available. "There are more independent bottlers, more vatted malts and less blends. This is a bit of a shame. Blends get a bad name because of the cheap varieties that are on the market, but the best clarets from Bordeaux and the best champagnes are, after all, blends – so why not whisky?"As well as the hugely impressive stock, Andy believes there is another reason why his business has been so successful. "The strongest aspect of the business is customer service and the choice we offer," he says, "we are becoming known in the area as a shop with a tremendous range of stock. The customers know that if we haven't got it we can probably get it in stock within a couple of days. One of our customers has given us the nickname 'Aladdin's Cave of Alcohol'!"This reputation has resulted in customers from not just the local area but Germany, Sweden, Ireland and Scotland making a pilgrimage to the store. Celebrity customers such as British actress Anna Friel and former English Rugby Union international Wade Dooley have also perused the well stocked shelves of the Whisky Chaser - there are hopes that Tiger Woods will visit the store next year taking time away from the The Open Golf Championship at Lytham, a course which is a hefty whack of the driver away.The Whisky Chaser has quite a relationship with its customers, this is underlined when Andy describes his best whisky experience. "Last Christmas we held an in-store tasting with 20 of my best customers all drinking five different whiskies which were all over 30 years old. Unfortunately, this was followed by my worst whisky experience the next morning," Andy says ruefully. Also for the benefit of Andy's beloved customers, The Whisky Chaser has put together a range of 150 10ml samples of whiskies and bourbons so people can try before they buy, helping them to decide whether an expensive bottling is to their taste.So what now? What will happen to Andy and The Whisky Chaser in the 21st century? "The future sometimes holds some fears for me," he confides, "supermarkets are cheapening the image of malts by selling them at ridiculous prices, especially at Christmas. Last year The Glenlivet was being sold for £12.99! People now expect to buy quality malts for under £15 and this just isn't possible. I regularly have people in the shop expecting to get a 40 year old malt for
about £25."For some, St Annes on Sea is as important to the whisky industry as the square wheel is to the motor vehicle industry. But if you do find yourself in this neck of the woods, perhaps you may be planning to visit The Open Championship next year, make a beeline for The Whisky Chaser.