In a former life, living in Italy I worked for a big Sicilian wine producer. On one occasion my boss and I took a trip to London which involved a stately trawl through the West End and its myriad of Italian restaurants. This seemed to induce a worrying complacency in my boss who appeared blissfully unaware of what was really happening on the streets. It was time for some shock therapy and a visit to Oddbins – the maverick chain of drinks shops which now number 238 across the UK. Not only were the Sicilians conspicuous by their absence but Italy itself appeared like a tiny island bobbing on an ocean of Aussie Chardonnay and Shiraz. For it was here in Britain that the first wave of New World wines broke in the late 80s. This pioneering spirit remains crucial to what Oddbins is all about, and inspires everything it does from promoting the next generation of Greek wine-makers to unearthing rare bottlings of Bowmore. Whisky buying is the responsibility of Grant Ramage, a 29-year-old Scot who took on the job three years ago. Despite coming from Paisley, which is just south of the Clyde from Auchentoshan and even nearer the big bottling hall of Chivas Regal, there was no family connection with Scotch. Neither was it love at first sight.“I think I drank some horrible blends from my Dad’s whisky cabinet when I was very young which put me off for a long, long time. It was only when I moved down here to start in the buying department that my girlfriend – who’s now my wife – and I sat one night and scoffed a large part of a Balvenie 10-year-old. It was the first whisky I’d really tasted and thought ‘that was really good – there’s something to this – it’s delicious and very easy to enjoy’.”Like most of the buyers, Grant worked his way up as a shop manager, in his case in Stirling and Manchester, before promotion to head office. “When you start you get to buy bags and paper. Then you get let loose on corkscrews and soft drinks, and gradually you get more and more interesting areas as you prove you can deal with it.” For Oddbins, ‘whisky’ effectively means malts which outsell blends – in complete contrast to the national picture, where 90% of Scotch whisky drunk is blended. As with wine, the range carried even in some of the smaller shops, is mildly mind-boggling. Bottles are given one facing each and stacked up to the ceiling on shelves which cover every spare inch of wall space. Strategically placed across the floor are piles of drink in boxes and bottles on special offer. The overall effect is of a cramped, somewhat chaotic, library of booze.The current Oddbins list runs to something like 160 different malt whiskies, with prices ranging from a half-bottle of Glenlivet 12-year-old at £11.49 to a 1948 vintage Macallan at £2,000. The majority however, are in the £20-30 bracket. The idea is that all shops carry a core range of around 70 malts, which is a great deal more than any other comparable High Street chain. Then for the top 60 outlets – in terms of the amount of whisky they sell – the shops have access to the full list, which includes a couple of dozen Rare Malts. Among these are bottlings from defunct distilleries such as Port Ellen, Brora, St Magdalene and Hillside or Glenesk. So how much does whisky really matter to Oddbins? In financial terms: “It’s as important as a fairly major wine area,” says Grant. “But the importance goes beyond that – we see malt as something where we’re punching way above our weight.” Oddbins’ share of the total liquor market is only about 3%, whereas in malts the company claims to sell one in 10 bottles in the country. Whisky is sold in much the same way as wine. “We’ve always taken a fairly unstuffy approach, so it’s not just about heritage and background. It’s about the personalities involved and this helps project a specialist image and that’s very important to Oddbins.”Sharing the same irreverent, slightly off-the-wall image, the newly resurrected Bruichladdich was ideal for Oddbins. Above all there was a great story to tell in the way the distillery had been brought back to life and the involvement of that legend of Islay, Jim McEwan. For Grant, “it is these sort of anecdotes that help sell things in Oddbins, because that’s what the guys in the shops use.” Before the launch, Gordon Wright, Sales Director at Murray McDavid who own Bruichladdich, sent out sample pots of turquoise paint to the top whisky shops in the group. For a chain that believes in sign-writers like no other, that was a neat touch. The overall result is that Bruichladdich has become one of the most popular malt whiskies on sale, in one or two shops even overtaking the mighty Macallan and Glenmorangie. In an ideal world, Grant would rely on the storytelling powers of his managers to persuade customers to come in and buy. There is also the colourful stream of brochures produced by the company, which in the past have featured the crazed, ink-splattered drawings of Ralph Steadman. But whisky drinkers need tempting offers as well, and the long-running deal on malts at Oddbins is “buy two and save £10”. For Grant the most exciting thing to have happened over the last few years has been the exclusive bottlings from suppliers. This started with three expressions of Bowmore including a cask-strength ‘84, still just available at £45 a bottle, which remains his all-time favourite dram. Last year there was a 1960 Laphroaig, and more recently a pair of casks of Highland Park that had lain side-by-side for 28 years before being bottled up in time for Christmas. The fact that they tasted quite different only helped fuel the excitement which percolated down to the standard 12 year-old. “It also creates a real buzz for the guys in the shops to be selling bottles for £400 a pop.” Sadly, Whisky Magazine doesn’t pay that kind of money, so I found myself drawn to something more modest but no less
satisfying – another exclusive, this time an 8-year-old vatted malt under the James Martin label, from Glenmorangie at £12.99. The actual label is very small, the idea being to portray it as a premium spirit that just happens to be whisky. The sort of cool brand that can sit happily alongside the likes of Absolut vodka or Maker’s Mark bourbon. In the same spirit, Oddbins has just taken on Cutty Sark to be sold as a sexy new import complete with posters of giant cannabis leaves. Cutty Sark may have been created by that most pukka of wine merchants, Berry Brothers & Rudd, in the 1920s, but that’s not the way it looks in Spain. The posters are in Spanish and taken from the current advertising campaign there. Personally I hope it goes like a bomb if only to prove than blended Scotch in Britain does not have to be a fusty, old man’s drink. With initiatives like this, let’s hope Oddbins continues to flourish under its new French owners who took over from Seagram in January. I’ll drink to that!