Fully committed

Fully committed

How do you guarantee customers will love your whisky? Get them to do the selection for you,\rthat's how.Richard Jones joins the Earl Grey Whisky Committee in Leek, Staffordshire, for a night\rof conversation, whisky and dubious decor.

Places | 14 Apr 2006 | Issue 55 | By Richard Jones

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Committees don’t enjoy the best of reputations. In little more than 30 seconds on the internet I managed to come up with following musings on the subject: “Committee - a group of men who individually can do nothing but as a group decide that nothing can be done”; “A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled; “A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours”; and “To get something done a committee should consist of no more than three people, two of whom are absent.” But a whisky committee? Now that sounds like a whole lot more fun.The Earl Grey Whisky Committee is the brainchild of David Wood, owner of The Wine Shop in Leek, Staffordshire. Despite the name of his shop David is a huge whisky fan and decided he didn’t just want to stock the same whiskies as everyone else, so he launched his own Queen of the Moorlands range.But what makes it unique is the way the whiskies are selected.“The idea for the Earl Grey Whisky Committee began when we took a few customers on a trip to Islay,” David observed. “I was looking to put together some rare cask bottlings and it made sense to get everyone to taste the various samples with me. The idea of a committee just grew from there.” The EGWC gets together whenever David needs to introduce some new whiskies to his range, typically every few months or so, and tonight, Matthew, I had been invited along as an honorary member.I was warned about the Earl Grey Inn in advance, and it isn’t much on the face of it. But a quick glance around the walls of the cramped room told me what attracted David to this place.We were surrounded on all sides by empty whisky boxes, which advertised the extensive selection available to buy at the bar. It appeared the landlord of the Earl Grey Inn spent his time on whisky rather than interior decoration, filling his collection with innumerable gems.David had already poured the whisky samples for the evening. There were 18 in total. During the next 15 minutes or so, the members of the Committee began to filter in.My first impression was just how seriously the EGW Committee went about its business. We were also joined ‘virtually’ by the staff of the Islay Whisky Shop who had been sent samples earlier in the week to taste on the island. Their results would be sent by text message later in the evening..We were told the retail price of each of the whiskies, but not their identity. The whiskies would be tasted first at cask strength (the strength at which they would, ultimately, be released) in five flights.We were encouraged to mark each whisky with an ‘I select this whisky, ‘An average whisky which I could, if pressed, be tempted to drink’ or ‘I was not at the Earl Grey Pub that night and therefore could not possibly have put my name to such a selection!’ We could recommend more than one sample in each flight if appropriate.There was just one glass of each sample, so the members looked on as the flight made its way around. Whisky number one came with a suggested retail of £39.99, and was initially fairly aggressive on the nose with overtones of honey and wood. It was good but not great.Whisky number two would have cost £50 but lacked the complexity and / or intensity to justify such a price tag. Whisky number three was more like it, my notes reading, “creamy, powerful yet balanced. Lots of complexity underneath the alcohol”.The whisky three turned out to be Tullibardine 1994 and comfortably received the most votes for the flight.The next set of whiskies were a unanimous disappointment, but flight three was better and also more controversial. The majority of the Committee in Leek voted for whisky number seven, Clynelish 1994, but I found it to be relatively undistinguished.Far better to my mind was whisky number eight, Linkwood 12 year old, which showed plenty of wood but was also beautifully soft and complex. Clynelish received nine votes, the Linkwood six, or at least until the voice of the Islay jury came into play.Those truly refined and perceptive tastebuds of the Western Hebrides also preferred the Linkwood taking the scores to nine votes each. As a result David is now considering releasing both whiskies.During a break I had the chance to catch up with my fellow members. I was surprised by the range of backgrounds and professions around the table.Gordon was the local blacksmith in Leek and had been involved with the EGW Committee from the very beginning. Afan of big, peaty whiskies, he was at the meeting with his friends Rob, a weaver, and John, a refuse collector.I chatted to Steve, a retired police officer, Phil, who preferred not to name his profession (Aspy? Agangster? Agigolo?) and chairman Iain Banks, a long haul airline pilot. Iain has been a huge whisky fan since college and, when he’s not buying bottles duty free, spends an inordinate amount of time in David’s shop.The next flight of whiskies featured four different expressions of Bowmore. Surprisingly it was the cheaper 10 year old that stole the day (against three 1987s) displaying a complex peaty nose, mouthfilling intensity and a great finish.There was more peat on display in flight five with Laphroaig 10 year old and Caol Ila 10 year old both performing well. However for me it was the Highland Park 1985 that stole the show – an absolutely brilliant whisky, soft, mature and profound.Only four other members of the Leek Committee agreed with me, however, so it was left to my kindred spirits on Islay to vote the whisky back into contention. The tasting finished with two fully mature, heavily sherried and utterly glorious whiskies Glenglassaugh 1978 and Port Dundas 1973. The latter wasn’t available as a Queen of the Moorlands bottling but David simply wanted the Committee to try a top quality grain whisky.All the members here are, of course, also David’s customers. Can there be a better way of generating customer loyalty than the Earl Grey Whisky Committee?David, meanwhile, is able to stock a range of whiskies perfectly tailored to his customer needs and can rely on the members to buy a bottle or three of their selections. Who says a Committee never achieved anything?
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