Like so many of the best things in life Arkwrights shouldn’t work. Highworth is north of Swindon, a lovely little market town which regards itself as the Gareway to the Cotswolds. As Swindon grew in the 60s and 70s so did Highworth. Indeed Arkwrights is classical late 20th century housing that you drive past. Surely a mistake. On entering that feeling of ‘Is this is?’ is not abated. The basics of life surround you. Newspapers, bacon, milk, eggs. Then you notice there is whisky everywhere!!
That such a schizophrenic shop works is testament to two rather special people, Ken & Fran Thomas.
After a career in farming Ken moved into retailing, in 1991 he bought the current shop in Highworth and set about reviving what was a run down newsagents and general store. Ken already had more an interest in the wines and beers stocked. The range expanded as Ken progressed first through his W.S.E.T. exams. It was while studying for the Diploma that Ken discovered a hidden passion for whisky, and single malts in particular. Numerous trips to visit distilleries followed, and as his enthusiasm for whisky grew so did the stock of whisky in the shop. A website to run alongside the shop was a natural progression, and at this point Fran became involved full time. Her own love of whisky, coupled with a strong customer service and administration background, ensured that the business could move forward.
The growth in the business has been almost entirely down to Ken & Fran’s personality which is impossible to ignore. Now Arkwrights has regular customers come from an area that takes in Southampton, Bristol, Chippenham, Oxford, The Cotswolds and beyond plus many who make monthly or yearly pilgrimages from further afield.
Knowing that the needs of the occasional whisky drinker are well served by the major multiples, they concentrate on expressions that cannot be bought on the high street. The product range keeps growing – covering the operating, and many of the closed, distilleries.
But how do you make Arkwrights actually work? To me it seem that it is because it’s Ken & Fran, a real partnership.
Both have tried their hand at whisky making (Ken at Springbank whisky school, and Fran at the Bruichladdich whisky academy plus experiencing whisky making the old fashioned way on a small still at Abhainn Dearg). Additionally, just talking to people. This passion for communication is everywhere in their lives, be it informal in shop tastings or just a chat and a dram. In addition, a regular programme of tutored tastings held at a local hotel is extremely popular.
One particular contribution Fran can make to the business is to bring a female perspective to what is a male dominated world.
She is keen to get more women to discover the joys of whisky and as part of this ambition a first ladies only tasting was held last year. Presented by Ian Murray of First Drinks it was much enjoyed by all those present and the second ladies tasting, sold out very quickly, so this is looks like becoming a fixture in the calendar.
The website is very much the same as for the shop – aiming to provide a professional, knowledgeable service with a very personal touch to both UK and international customers.
Contact is positively encouraged, by being available at the end of the phone or email to give friendly and expert advice. Arkwrights really shouldn’t work at all, I just very glad it does.
Arkwrights Whisky and Wines
114 The Dormers, Highworth, Swindon, Wiltshire SN6 7PE
Tel: (01793) 765 071