Take a glance around a supermarket spirit shelf in any good sized town and you will be faced with quite a selection of whisky including offerings from outside the UK. In fact, as Gin, tequila and other spirits have seen a massive rise in popularity and therfore shelf space which has fortunately been driven by the consumers “thirst for knowledge” we see a general increase across the categories. Go back just fifteen years and your choice of gin would be perhaps three in total with 100% agave tequila almost unheard of in anything other than top London destinations. Today you can buy some of the best tequila and boutique gins from distillers such as Sipsmith and Chase from your local supermarket whilst stocking up on dragon fruit and edemame. Consumers are understanding these categories more and seeking out the more unusual offerings, but only after careful research gleaned from every available source. Consumers have all the information they require to hand from the enthusiastic bloggers post reviewing the latest releases, lifestyle magazines that scratch the surface a little deeper to tell the reader not only what to drink- but where and how to order (and what to ware whilst ordering!) to experience events such as the hugely popular GandTeatime and Dont-shoot-tequila which offers educational tasting events across the categories all across the UK (just like us at Dramatic Whisky). Yet there is still a need for an element of trust when a bartender or shop assistant is recommending a product which is only gained if the right knowledge is shown.
Whisky has always help a fair proportion of the shelf space- mostly due to the range of blended whisky that has always been available, but the current success of more premium spirits has undoubtedly lent a helping hand for whisky and in particular single malt. Blends have always outshone single malt, contributing to about 90% of all global whisky consumed, and not only the standards blends but as we see premium blends such as Black Grouse and Johnnie Walker Gold Reserve start to jump over the sales targets set- although some premium blends are beginning to tag themselves with prices around that of a 10 or 15 year old single malt, the choice for the consumer is at an all time high. There is without doubt, an opportunity to up-sell in a recession stuck country such as our- people may be going out less and certainly watching what they are spending their money on, but when they do venture out its value for money and an experience they seek no matter what their status or budget, And as staying at home becomes more common place, people are choosing more premium products to recreate a “better than normal” experience at home. Unfortunately, far too often the UK hospitality sector and the high street retailer are seriously lacking the skills to deliver the right service or information, failing to capitalise altogether.
A few years back, when I managed The Lobby Bar at One Aldwych, London hit a tough time for tourism as 9/11 was a recent happening. Most of the five start establishments had slashed room prices as occupancy dropped to an all time low with some of the grandest of London’s establishments only reaching 20%. One Aldwych stuck to her guns, kept rates as standard but didn’t lay off a single member of staff. I witnessed this risky approach in action one evening as the then time C.E.O. of a certain orange budget airline, who was a regular, asked the owner directly why he was paying the rate he was when he could pop over the road to another five star and stay there for a third of the price. My boss’s response will stick with we forever- “Would you like me to arrange for our luggage porter to take your bags over because they have had to let theirs go”. Basically, if you can still offer value for money and deliver the perfect guest experience every time, you can maintain your price when all around you are loosing theirs.
Emerging markets outside the UK such as India, Russia and China have certainly helped boost the numbers in terms of whisky exports and sales over the last coupe of years and no doubt will continue to do so for some time, but surely we need to support the foundations in the UK to ensue we are not left behind- and here is where the problem lies.
To most people, a bottle of single malt is a pricey investment when buying at the supermarket as many still choose by age and with age, rightly so in many cases, comes a hefty price-tag. The consumer is left with a bewildering choice with little guidance other than the marketing departments best attempt to stand out from the crowd with a well crafted introduction to the whisky on the label- few though, actually tell the customer what the whisky actually tastes like. I’ve tried to ask members of staff for help, and even in large high street retailers, unfortunately the response is rather laughable.
Pubs in the UK don’t fare much better in my view. Most stock whisky, a blend at least, or have a carefully selected range which unfortunately is selected for them by the brand manager and therefore the bar staff think the job is done. They don’t need to actually learn about the range, it has “something to cover all palates” as the rep told them. Now of course this is not always the case- there are venues out there who do take care and consideration over the stock they invest in and support the choices with good staff training ensuring they can sell through the range and keep customer satisfaction at a peak. After all, with whisky on such a rise, there is great profits to be made on a large dram of liquid gold.
But the above is a minority, too few and far between a dram to bother seeking out. Even in my home country of Scotland I am shocked to find such a lack of knowledge and enthusiasm for our national drink which you would think would be the first place to start. Yet sadly, it is venues such as these, which are filled on a daily basis with customers who are interested in trying something different, moving up from a blend to a premium blend or a single malt, who would gladly spend that little bit extra if only the bar staff had the training and knowledge to deliver trust to the customer that they knew what they were offering and could recommend well.
In reality the local pub actually has it quite easy as they should know the clients well and therefore have the opportunity to sell a single measure of a new whisky, allowing them to try something without investing in an entire bottle from the supermarket. So why does this not happen more often? It seems to me that venue owners are as much to blame being fearful to invest in whisky. Yet the numbers are clear, whisky is on the rise. From the entry level blend through its premium big brother on onto the guidy heights of superstar single malt. You don’t have to be brave to bath in its glory- just clever and understand that with a little investment in training staff or even further – inviting the customer to partake in tasting events such as Dramatic Whisky, then whisky sales across the bar will increase. What I fear is that venue owners, upon hearing the good news about the growth in the category will simply grab an extra couple of “on offer” brands when next at the wholesaler and hope they chose well enough. Its not as if the tools are not out there on offer either. Every whisky brand manager will happily spend an afternoon at your venue training staff on the virtues of their brand. Or you can bring us in.
Try my little technique to work out if a bar knows its whisky- scan the back bar of whisky, find something you know well then think of an alternative but similar brand. Tell the bartender you want a whisky and normally drink the brand you are thinking of, then ask for a recommendation of something similar. Hopefully the bartender will offer you the brand you picked out but trust me on this- it works maybe 2-3 times out of 10. In fact, I have said at times I normally drink Glenlivet 12 in the hope they will offer me the Glenfiddich 12 but I have in the past been offered Laphroaig as a substitute because “Its really popular”. Eh, HELLO? Great news for the brand manager of Laphroaig, but I’m one unhappy customer if I don’t like Islay whisky and I’m afraid that all important confidence i was hoping to attain as a customer has just left the building.
Recently I was asked to consult at the bar for a two michelin star restaurant- a very well respected establishment with a great reputation. Apparently the whisky shelf was a little tired and they had asked that I come in to help revive things a little. I visited the venue and yes, it was clear not much love had been placed there with Jack Daniel’s the only American choice on offer and the usual suspects making up the numbers. However, being a French restaurant the Armagnac and Cognac range was outstanding but on closer inspection it turned out that they didn’t actually sell much of any of it. My plane was set out in three parts:
Train the staff on the current stock of whisky- highlighting “duplicate” styles and training them on how to push the up sell to these to clear the shelf of them.
Introduce replacement stock, again with another training session to ensue the staff had the correct tools to not only continue to sell the existing range but also the new additions
Return to the venue in 3 months for a refresher training course and to analyse how the sales have been.
Two page proposal, all aimed towards increasing whisky sales and maintaining a healthy GP, fee set low as it would be a fun project with a great bit of kudos attached. Result was a “Thanks but no thanks, we will leave it as it is”. I checked the proposal again and I hadn’t put too much in there for them to carry the project through themselves, the fee was below market value considering the gains from the end result and yet no, even a restaurant with a per head spend in excess of £100 could not see the value in whisky.
What ever happen to the “Auld Alliance“? Somethings will never change.