I decided a while ago that it was time for another report in the Whisky People category. I chose Rob Stevens, who owns and runs the Whiskykoning shop in Den Bosch. I used to visit that shop every week until I moved away and found myself 110 kilometers down the road from it. He is the guy who helped me develop an interest into a hobby into an obsession.
Since I’m quite far away we chose to do an email-interview, which is exactly that. You email people with questions, get answers and email more questions. I’ve distilled that into 2 blog posts, since it turned out too big to do in one post.
Another delay was the VAT increase in Holland that happend on October 1st. He had to reprice about 1250 whiskies and a few hundred other bottles of booze so that kept him busy as well.
MF = Malt Fascination, RS = Rob Stevens
MF: On the website I read you’ve switched careers from IT to whisky in 1996. What made you do that?
RS: During the late 1980s and early 1990s I started catching the whisky bug. I visited Scotland regularly and visited the few whisky shops it had. I found it strange that there were so few, and that it was very hard to find good shops and bottles in The Netherlands. I talked to Neil Clapperton (who ran Cadenhead’s shop in Edinburgh) a lot. He and his boss, Hedley Wright (Springbank and Cadenhead) were thinking about opening other Cadenhead shops throughout Europe and Great Britain. I told him I wanted to run a shop and he said “Just go for it”. That was the push I needed.
The first Cadenhead’s Whiskyshop outside Britain would be in The Netherlands. I was living in Eindhoven back then and convinced Clapperton and Wright that that would be the place for it. I toured Amsterdam and Eindhoven with them and showed them possible locations. The entire process took a few years and resulted in a business plan with which I went to the banks. The biggest issue was that Cadenhead didn’t allow non-Cadenhead bottles in their shops. Understandable, but that wouldn’t work in The Netherlands since you also have to make a living. I ended the talks and they were dissapointed. In the end it turned out to be the right decision, look at what happened to Cadenhead’s Amsterdam (MF: It failed once, restared and failed again within 2 years).
I changed my plans to the ‘Stevens Whisky Shop’ with everything whisky related you could think of. In 92/93 that wasn’t as much as it is now, but the dream of my own shop was born. I went for it.
Eventually I was tipped that Stan de Koning, in Den Bosch, wanted to stop with his off-license. There were three shops with a significant amount of whisky during those years: Verhaar, Van Wees and De Koning. In 1995 I walked through the doors of the latter and told him I wanted to take over his business.
MF: You mention that the first plan was to open a Cadenhead’s shop but that failed because their ‘limitation’ on what you could sell. Still, you have/had quite some Cadenhead’s bottlings in your shop from those days. Bottles that were filled in the late nineties. Did some kind of partnership happen that proved to work or did this happen through regular sales channels?
RS: Since I started my shop I was always able to buy directly from Cadenhead’s until their shop in Amsterdam started. Then everything had to go through there but the shop never wanted to wholesale. Bummer. Nowadays Cadenhead’s is imported through Bresser en Timmer.
MF: Off topic, but since I’m in IT too, what kind of work did you do in that sector?
RS: I started in 1973 at Philips as a computer operator. The 23 following years I worked as a programmer, system designer, information analyst and project manager. From 1986 onward I worked for different software houses and as a freelancer.
MF: Back to whisky! On your website there’s an article about the takeover in 1996. In it says that a Balvenie opened the flood gates for your whisky collection. I had a similar moment in your store (Caol Ila 18). If your passion was unleashed on such a specific moment, was the choice to make it your profession a similar revelation? Did you make a snap shot decision (and over which dram did it happen)?
RS: The Balvenie that made my interest in whisky rise to the next level was the Balvenie 10 year old Founder’s Reserve, the one in the cognac bottle. At that moment I saw the light! When Hedley Wright, during conversations, poured mostly his own Springbank whisky there was no stopping me. Because he was in the industry for such a long time he had so many different Springbanks and Cadenheads in his bar that we went for the home run right away. No training wheels, just like you did when you walked into the shop here.
Because I was so enthusiastic I tried to sell as many Springbanks in The Netherlands as I could. Thanks to that, I ‘oversold’ some of them which means I didn’t even keep a few bottles of it for myself, except for my favorite 21 year old. And then again, where could you buy Springbank before 1996? The shop in Den Bosch under Stan de Koning’s guidance already was a Springbank Dealership, what would be called an ambassador now.
MF: I’ve already known the 21 year old is your all time favorite. Are there any other highlights that you’ve encountered in the past three decades?
RS: There have always been three favorites on my shelf. After the original Springbank 21 there’s the Caol Ila 10 by Hart Brothers and the first release of Highland Park 18. That Caol Ila is the most refined one I’ve encountered and only the 12yo BO comes close. Peppery and sharp, but never too much. Liquid razorblades without ever become uncomfortable. From that Highland Park 18yo I unfortunately sold so much, because it was so impressive and new that I regret not keeping more for myself…
Through some ‘Bramming’ I’ve been able to get an extra box, but the last one will be opened shortly…
(MF: Bramming is named after Bram van Glabbeek, whisky friend to Rob and president of the Usquebaugh Society. When a ‘one per customer’ bottle is released he buys one at every friendly liquor shop untill he gets the one or two cases he wants.)
MF: In the shop you have some other booze that isn’t whisky, but apart from Port it’s all very minimal. What made you make the choice to not sell anything else so early?
RS: In ’96 you couldn’t really start a whisky shop from scratch, the market was too small. Even with only the three names mentioned earlier. Because I started in an existing shop I started ahead with a solid customer base. By reinvesting all profits for many years I could make the shop grow to where it is now. Decreasing the ‘regular’ liquor went slowly. If it didn’t sell, I got rid of it. The port was quite a significant part of the shop before I bought it, and now the port still functions as the ‘pardon port’. That hasn’t changed since the ’80s!
(MF: The pardon port is a bottle bought for the misses at home when you think you’re getting in trouble because of the most recent overspending on whisky. I know it. I’ve been there. More than once!)
End of part one. Soon I’ll write up a more in depth look into Rob’s opinion on the industry.