There is something about standing in amongst a load of booze that makes me feel at home. It possibly has something to do with the fact that my home is always full of booze, but I’ve always loved a good off licence. The anticipation of the evening you are buying the booze for, the dimmed lighting, the wooden shelves full of different coloured redolent liquids from around the world and the fountain of knowledge sitting behind the till awaiting a nudge or comment so that he or she can whirr into action like the silver painted “robot” buskers of Covent garden awaiting a coin.
This is perhaps why I got so exited when I heard about a new off licence opening up just down the road from me in Bath. Independent Spirit of Bath is to booze, what the very successful Mr B’s Emporium of reading delights and Toppings and company book shops are to books. Namely its a very well run, independent off licence that shies away from the commercial mass produced to favour the well made and the small and to champion the excellent over the banal or over hyped.
I caught up with Chris, one of the owners and asked him a few questions to get more of a feel of the shop that I will be giving much of my hard earned royalty cheques to.
You were both barmen originally is that right and do feel that has helped you get to know what booze your customers might appreciate?
I started off in bars 14 years ago and specifically cocktail bars, travelling to Edinburgh my eyes were opened to single malt whisky through the SMWS (Scotch Malt Whiskey Society). I found very quickly that a passion for quality and education about specific types of alcohol naturally attracted like minded people. It was far, far removed from branding and assumed styles and categories associated with whiskey and discovering new things became the norm for me. What sparked an enthusiasm in me became infectious as I sought to educate and entertain the members.
Customers have preconceived ideas about what they like, I found challenging them to try something different could be enough to give them a spark and let them go off and want to know more themselves.
There are plenty of online booze shops, what do people get from you by coming into your shop that they won’t get online?
Service and a range that can move faster and be more specifically relevant to suit both the needs of our regular clientèle who visit us a few times a month and hopefully for special occasion purchases; as well as the visiting customer base who want something local, of outstanding quality and that they can’t get back home or in duty free.
Online booze shops throw a wide net by targeting nationwide or even further afield. Through our regular tasting events and drop in sampling sessions we get to interact with our customer base in a way that ensures that we can build a regular audience for our products. Because of our backgrounds the way we interact with our guests is a cross between hospitality and retail which we hope makes a trip to the shop memorable.
Running a shop like this has got to be the dream of most people, do you pinch yourselves or is it actually a bit of hard work?
I have had a very steep learning curve over the past few years and the retail aspect I fell into by chance. I happened to establish myself quite quickly while working in Edinburgh. It is fun and you get to talk to people who genuinely are interested rather than the 3am drunk. The hard part is mostly over for us, setting up office systems, worrying about budgets stressing about solicitors. As far as we are concerned this is when the fun begins. Looking at stock lists its like being a kid in a candy factory, we always have to be aware of normal business protocol, cash flow and all that but this makes it worth it.
The shop you’ve moved into used to be a Video shop, one of the types of shops that 20 years ago seemed to be part of the impenetrable fabric of daily life; yet within a few years a sustained onslaught from digital in the guise of streaming, piracy, on demand services and DVD’s by post killed it off. Is the love of good beer just a trend and to what extent are you future proof?
Supermarket pricing, rents and rates being liable to the whims of local authority, increased legislation from an out of touch government and of course the other associated costs in having a physical, as opposed to an online, presence means the UK on-trade on-sale has always been up against it.
The large chains that disappeared had many problems they had money tied up in stock and property and were unable to keep up with trends to name just two major ones. Oddbins (for example) as a chain built itself on its products and its staff. The staff went because the products went and the family atmosphere went and they took their training with them. These guys are now the small independent traders around the UK.
Love of good beer is a passion, its something you share, you savour, most importantly you support it. Its the people who make it, be it the brewers down the road who started up the brewery in a shed as a few friends or the Belgian breweries still in family hands. If there is no passion, no enjoyment then you deserve to go the way of the chains; its more than just a job to us.
The best thing about it is we will never stop learning, we talk to home brewers and breweries. They buy beers from competitors, they buy the Belgian, British, German beer that they first fell in love with.
In your opinion what qualities does a good purveyor of beers, wines and spirits need to have?
Enjoy it and know how to interact with your guests. If people tell me they don’t like something I challenge them to try it again. Finding out what our guests needs are is part of our ethos and part of the reason we decided to go it alone.
What percentage of your beer stock is British, in your opinion is Britain keeping up with the rest of the world when it comes to choice in beer?
Certainly the bigger range of our beer is Europe and America just now, but we have split the display area into 2 to facilitate a 50/50 split long term. We are sourcing our suppliers right now and are finding quite a movement to try and showcase the variety and creativity of both local ingredients and flavours and unusual combinations of brewing styles. British brewers are right up there with the best of them but I don’t think its recognised because the UK as a whole doesn’t support the industry, the small producer or encourages it as an exportable marketable economy. For example the LCBO in Canada are among one of the biggest purchasers of alcohol in the world and they welcomed in Innis and Gunn and had them create a canadian whisky cask finish just for them, theres definitely a market for out there but no sign of support in or out of the UK.
If you were allowed three desert island beers, one British, one American and one Belgium what would you choose and why?
British: It would be from Scotland, a brewery that isn’t open yet. Anything from Top Out brewery when it opens, I know Michael who is starting it and anything he brews is pure gold. If his commercial brews are as good as his cupboard brews I’d be a happy man.
American: It would be North American, Canadian in fact. I spent a year working in a brewery in Canada. It would be Steam whistle which isn’t anything special but very well done. They know how to look after people, put back into the community and are quite forward thinking with their environmental strategy’s. Sometimes you just want something refreshing and uncomplicated.
Belgian: Delerium nocturnum just because I can. It does exactly what it says on the tin.
Independent Sprit of Bath is situated just up from the train station opposite Bog Island.7 Terrace Walk, Bath – 01225 340636