Let’s continue the web interview I started earlier, with the Whisky King himself, Rob Stevens.
This part will continue where we left off Saturday and will focus more on Rob’s view of the industry. No less interesting I might add!
MF: Apart from your favorite whiskies being a Springbank, Caol Ila and Highland Park, there also must be a whisky you remember as the worst you’ve tried. Tell us which, please!
RS: It’s one I have baptised as the ‘mail man whisky’. During the first whisky festival in Amsterdam I was the only importer of indie whiskies. Among the brands I represented was Dun Bheagan. Outside as well as inside the church it was just above freezing levels. I had just received an Isle of Jura 1986 that morning and hadn’t tasted it yet. It would be the first dram the visitors would taste that night, and it being a rare thing would be a guaranteed success!
After the festival I tried at room temperature. Let’s just say it took me 12 years to sell 120 bottles… I used it a lot in tastings, to show people a ‘bad’ whisky from a cask that could only have been bottled for the money. The bottler later heard I referred it as a whisky that smelled like the mail man (think of the rubber bands, wet coats and such). They weren’t pleased…
MF: Your list of favorite drams is one I can fully agree with. Luckily I have a bottle of each of those waiting to be opened in the future! I notice however, that all those bottles are almost a decade old. Do you think whisky has become less special or is there some nostalgia in your choice as well?
RS: Back in the days (the early 2000s) there weren’t as many jewels as there are now. The ones you did discover were truly sensational because of that. Nowadays, the availability is so vast that you have to be an alcoholic to get anywhere near tasting them all. But also, the nostalgia is certainly a factor in my choices. Just like tasting a dram at a distillery is always better than tasting it home alone, right?
MF: The logical follow up question: Do you think whisky used to be better some years ago than it is now? A few decades ago, for example. It’s an opinion you hear quite often from people who have been around for a while.
RS: Years ago the availability was much less, which also means the availability in bad whiskies was less. Now it seems that every cask should be bottled as a single cask, just to supply demand. For that reason I veer towards distillery bottlings, because me and my customers have been disappointed by indies more often than before.
MF: Since the whisky virus is running rampant the last few years it seems that everyone and their brother has a ‘specialised’ shop of a dedicated whisky shop. The same goes for indie bottling lines. Do you think this resulted in a decrease in quality? I’ve noticed that you have become more and more picky in what bottles are represented in the shop. You don’t fill your shelves with just anything that is released.
RS: Well, I think I have an advantage on all those newbies, because my experience tells me how new and old customers will react to the overdose of bottlings eventually…
MF: You used to be importer of quite some brands. Also, a few years ago many brands were imported by many different shops and companies. Now it seems that that has concentrated on a few number of companies. Whisky Import Nederland and Bresser & Timmer, for example. Did that influence your choice to move towards Original Bottlings?
RS: I noticed the sales of indie bottlings decreasing since 2006. In Holland the 2008 crisis didn’t help. It’s understandable that indies start shopping around for new importers that offer better deals. But, if the market for indies isn’t growing and new brands are continuously made available it’s kind of logical that consumers shift their interest a bit. However, I don’t think the grand total of sales for indies is growing.
Bottlers like Dun Bheagan, Hart Brothers and maybe even larger ones like Blackadder are finding that out too, just as the new batch of importers. You notice that from the brands the importers represent through the years.
What I regret is that old indies like Cadenhead’s are affected too. They used to be first in line to pick from the available casks.
MF: Some brands that were in your portfolio are now very small or have disappeared. Think of Dun Bheagan and Hart Brothers. Except through tasting by the importer I never see or taste them anymore. I also hardly know anyone who ever buys a Cadenhead’s or Blackadder bottling. Do you think those bottlers have been overtaken by others and sometimes newer bottlers? (Think of Douglas Laing, Adelphi and G&M, but also David Stirk’s Creative Whisky Company)
RS: I think Dun Bheagan fell for the whisky-cowboy trap. James MacArthur also knew better and by now they’ve had many importers already. Hart Brothers is a different story since they went bankrupt. One of the brothers (the whisky-knowing one) quit and the marketing brother continued. Never heard from them again until some salesman walked in and asked if I had ever heard of Hart Brothers… Absolutely no knowledge of the market.
I trust the old guard more than the new guys and in the quality of offerings from G&M, Cadenhead and Signatory. I’ve always sold them well in the shop and the whisky never lets down. Only Cadenhead went to an importer that won’t do business with me and the other way around. A bummer with such a nice brand.
MF: You said you go for OBs for the shop because of consistency and the growth of bottlers has decreased the general quality. Aren’t you afraid you’re missing out on the real jewels that sometimes pop up?
RS: Missing the jewels is a bummer indeed, but more for me as a whisky loving salesman. Commercially it’s not such a big deal, since the availability is so incredibly small that you can only move one case at a time. Especially thinking of the jewels I bought in the past and can’t even sell them at a 25% discount…
MF: That’s it for my questions. I might have some follow up or might want to chat again in the future!
Although most whisky shops in The Netherlands are closer to my house than this one, I still go to Den Bosch regularly to visit Rob’s emporium. The sheer amount of older bottlings is terrific and although the indie bottlings from years ago might not represent the best bottlings of those days, there still are many gems to be found!
Especially the tasting are recommended and usually consist of rare and unavailable things like the Springbank Millennium Collection or 4 consecutive Bunnahabhain Feis Isle versions!