Calgary’s Andrew Ferguson is an interesting guy. Truly.
This year marks his tenth anniversary as the ‘Scotch Guy’ at Kensington Wine Market. In that time he has managed to expand the whisky selection from an initial tableau of 60 expressions to upwards of 300 bottles. And while quantity tells part of the tale, quality tells the rest, as KWM’s selection is really second to none in the city. New malts are always en route, often exclusive to the shop, and often sell out rather quickly.
Andrew has made a point of keeping his friends close (and in the case of the Maltmonster…his enemies closer) and it is this engagement with us schmoes that has made him not only the premier whisky retailer in Canada, but also a great guy to call a friend. Case in point is his dilligence in involving customers in tastings of cask samples to aid in cask selection. KWM regularly purchases and bottles exclusive casks from some of the world’s greatest distillers.
In February of 2007 Andrew launched the Calgary Chapter of the Companions of the Quaich with an inaugural dinner at Buchanan’s Chop House. This little enterprise now boasts a membership of some of Calgary’s most entertaining and interesting individuals, and events never fail to be anything less than memorable (and chock full of perfect blackmail moments).
The following year, 2008, Andrew started Ferguson’s Whisky Tours. A couple times a year he leads a handful of enthusiasts across the pond to tour some of Scotland’s best distilleries. These tours are not your ordinary whisky jaunts. Andrew’s industry connections and personal passion have led to some once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for those who sign up.
Of course, someone with their finger held so tightly to the pulse of the blood of Scotland is bound to be recognized by the industry at some point. Indeed, April 2011, the Keepers of the Quaich opened their arms to Andrew and toasted him with a dram of anCnoc 16 for his inauguration.
Here’s an opportunity to listen to a guy that has managed to turn his passions into a career. Not many of us can say that.
ATW: First things first…everyone starts somewhere. What was the catalyst that got you interested in whisky, and at what point did it become more than just an interest?
AF: A friend in University got me hooked with a bottle of Lagavulin 16 Year. I didn’t know at the time what I liked about it, I just liked it. So I started buying the odd bottle in University when I had the sheckles, and I recall Bowmore, Bunnahabhain and Lagavulin being my favourites. I started at Kensington Wine Market in 2001, with the intention of just sticking around for a few months until I could get back on my feet and then get a real job. I’d been away travelling and had shut down a painting business I was not enjoying. As it turned out, I was able to create my own career here with the support of an understanding boss. As clichéd as it may sound, it was a very natural and organic process and I never really saw it coming. It just happened!
ATW: You’ve managed to turn a passion into a career. Something not a lot of people can say. How did this development come about?
AF: It really happened of its own volition. I had never started out with a plan to be a Scotch expert, and even in the early years while I was getting my feet and growing my reputation I never really intended to stay the course. I planned to go back to school, get a business degree and land a real job. I envisioned working at a desk somewhere that would allow me to moonlight and sell whisky. But I love the job I have, and it continued to grow in terms of expectations, opportunities and responsibilities; it’s been impossible to let go of it. By far the most rewarding thing about the job is the relationships and friendships which have grown out of it. This is a big part of what has kept me so attached to this place.
ATW: Tell me a little history about Ferguson’s Whisky Tours. What led to you setting up this enterprise?
AF: It started out as a way to cover the cost of my trip to Scotland and also a way to share my experiences with others. I first made a pilgrimage to Scotland in 2006 and fell in love with the country, and even more so with Scotch whisky. I spent the better part of three weeks visiting as many distilleries as I could, wrote a travel blog and immersed myself in the experience. It was a wonderful trip, but lonely as well. I had people from distilleries to welcome and host me, and take me for dinner, but it was a relatively solitary experience. When I started talking with my employer about going back in 2008, she suggested I take a group with me of some of my customers. Around the same time a few of these people had expressed interest in and were encouraging me to put together a tour. I took my first group in 2008, and it was an incredible experience and a huge hit. Some of my fondest memories are from that trip. The next year in 2009 I split it off as a side business and started organizing and guiding trips. It has really taken a life of its own from there and I am currently in the process of building a new website. Both my trips in May are full and I have a lot of people inquiring about trips this fall.
ATW: Can you share a few of the bigger successes, personal highlights and maybe humorous mishaps in launching Ferguson’s Whisky Tours?
AF: There have been so many highlights that it would seem hard to select a few, let alone one. Tasting the White Bowmore in the Number 1 Vaults at Bowmore certainly would be near the top. We were the first people outside the company to taste the follow up to the Black Bowmore. Jackie Thompson at Ardbeg opening the mill and getting covered with flour is another memorable moment. She was guiding another group and I in May 2011, and was telling a story of the time a group asked her to open the mill and how her black outfit had been covered in flour! I had to remind her that it was my fault… There have been some other funny moments like stone I drove over on Arran which cracked our vans oil pan, the time I awoke sleep walking in the hallway of my Edinburgh hotel and the time one of my guest ran along the side of the slow moving van in the rain to enjoy a cigarette (he tripped over a road construction sign). But the funniest moment had to be the German singing an a capella song in English that he had written about his trip to Bowmore. It wasn’t so much that his song was funny, but he was one of 40 of the most motley crew of Germans imaginable (he was by far the most straight laced), and the buildup to this song was something out of a British sitcom. It was one of those you had to be there moments, I was trying so hard not to laugh that I started crying and had to step outside and just let it out. The next day as we were walking up the malting floor stairs at the distiller we saw the Canadian flag being raised while the German flag was lying in a crumpled heap on the ground. It all came flooding back! They turned out to be good guys, but the scenario was so bizarre,.
Did the Malt Monster ask this question? Ask him why he turned down a glass of the 10th Release Port Ellen in Craigellachie? That’s a good story too!
ATW: Though I imagine each time out is a unique endeavor, what can a guest on one of your tours reasonably expect to experience?
AF: Each tour is unique, and obviously the whiskies change with time. Basically they can expect to get the best tour and tasting the distilleries, or independent bottlers are willing to offer, excellent food, interesting company and generally a great time. I pride myself on putting on the kind of tour I’d want to be a part of. Small, focused on whisky, but ready to have a good time. I look after all the details from the time the guest is picked up in Edinburgh or Glasgow on the Sunday morning until the tour concludes on Saturday night with a dinner at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh. Along the way they will see the best whiskies and distilleries the region has to offer (I currently do three tours: Islay, Speyside and one which covers the Orkneys and Nothern Highlands) as well as the most important points of interest. I also where possible try to leave enough time for at least one round of golf, weather permitting. In 2013 I am hoping to offer my first Japanese whisky tour.
ATW: It is unarguable that the mass appeal of whisky has broadened over the past few years. The reputation Scotch has had as an ‘old boys’ drink has been somewhat eradicated by a slew of interest from the younger spheres, a greater balance in the sexes and aggressive marketing to a younger demographic. This is all bound to affect the output from the distilleries, in terms of flavor profile, volume, cost and overall quality. Do you see this working for or against the intrinsic quality of good whisky?
AF: Interesting question. The biggest driver right now is the growth in the BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China. Distilleries, especially the bigger ones are falling all over themselves to increase production to take advantage of the rapidly expanding markets, especially in the East. While some of the smaller placers are catering whiskies to appeal to certain demographics the bigger players are only concerned with one thing, getting as big a piece of the new markets as they can. And the consequences are already been seen, stock shortages in existing markets and price increases. This leaves me with several concerns: firstly, that quality will suffer, especially from the bigger producers as their production increases; secondly, that rapid and large price increases, especially among the older and rarer expressions, will shift consumer interest to other products; thirdly, that the industry is expanding so rapidly that it is creating yet another bubble (like those of the late 1890’s and late 1970’s) which will eventually pop. The last of these concerns me the most.
ATW: When you encounter someone in the shop (link to KWM) who is new to whisky how do you generally determine where to lead them and help them make their purchase?
AF: I have a couple of go to whiskies for the neophyte, like the Arran 10 or the Glenmorangie Original. The key is to start them off with something soft but flavorful. First impressions are very important, you don’t want to ruin whisky for them so in my mind the key is to start with something easy to appreciate. Generally we’ll offer them a sample to see if they like it, and based on their response I’ll generally know which direction to take them. What’s really interesting is giving a tasting with a group of beginners, people who’ve never tried or enjoyed whisky. Taking them through a flight of six whiskies I find that if you start with the lighter softer ones and build into progressively stronger tasting whiskies almost everyone will be able to enjoy peated and cask strength whiskies. What I take away from this is that the manner in which you present them to people, and the order, is just as important as the strength and flavour.
ATW: One of Kensington Wine Market’s (link to KWM) greatest features, I hear repeatedly, is that there is always the opportunity to ‘try before you buy’. The open bottles in the shop are of all ages and price points. How do you make it financially viable to open so many whiskies, and do you see the return in what the average shopper takes home?
AF: This is one of our competitive advantages, and I certainly don’t want to give away all of our secrets. We do pride ourselves on having open bottles of most of our whiskies available for customers to sample. This started out organically and has really taken on a life of its own. I conduct most of my own tastings, rather than relying on agents, suppliers and brand ambassadors to do them for me. I don’t think there are many stores where this is the case. This means the heels, the partially full leftover whiskies stay in the shop, making them available for customers to sample them. Eight years ago when we first started offering samples I might have had a dozen whiskies available for sampling at any given time. It really caught on with our customers and word spread. As business grew we were able to offer more tastings which meant more heels.
The bottles we have open are a reflection of the tastings we offer, which range from $35 introductory tastings to my Ancient Malts Tastings which cost $200-300/person and many others in between. The Ancient Malts are to the best of my knowledge unrivaled in Canada, featuring whiskies like: The Macallan 50 Year Lallique, Black Bowmore 1964, Gold Bowmore 1964, Auchentoshan 1957 50 Year (both casks) and the Gordon & MacPhail Generations Glenlivet 1940 70 Year (tied for the world’s oldest whisky) to name just a few. In late March of this year we offered an Ancient Malts Tasting featuring seven 40 year old whiskies. I don’t know any other business which is doing this.
Being able to sample a whisky, at $50, $100, $200, $500 or $22,000/bottle, before you buy it gives the customer the confidence that they are making the right decision. Especially if it is my recommendation.
ATW: Something you’ve driven hard through KWM (link) is the importance of having exclusivity of product and purchasing your own casks. This is obviously a brilliant tool in helping overcome competitors and chains that may be able to undercut a smaller store by way of volume purchasing. Can you share a bit about what determines your cask selections and what goes into obtaining a portfolio of exclusive bottlings?
AF: The Alberta liquor industry is a relatively even playing field, at least in theory, all stores have to be given the same price on every product regardless of volume. We believe our prices are fair, and in line with our major competitors. Exclusives and single cask purchases build interest and mark us out as whisky specialists. We are especially careful about how we choose our casks, because we want our customers to be confident that we will always sell them whiskies of superior quality and interest. Ultimately I will make the final decision when selecting a cask, but I try to involve others in the process whom I recognize as having good palates. At the end of the day we select our own private bottlings, and this above all else guarantees quality.
In addition to our private bottlings we do aggressively go after obtaining exclusive distribution of certain whiskies. Our customers like variety, and this is one way we are able to provide it to them. The exclusive opportunities come from hard work and relationship building. Whether it is with our customers, suppliers or the producers, relationship is everything.
ATW: What is the most personally rewarding aspect of being in the position you are in, as regards the running of the club, the tours, the shop, etc?
AF: Without a doubt the friendships which have grown out of the business: customers, agents and brand ambassadors. I count many of these people among my closest and most trusted friends. There is a thriving whisky subculture, and I love being one of the cogs around which it turns in Calgary and Canada.
ATW: Being on the frontlines, and watching the evolution of the whisky Industry, what trends do you see consumers moving towards? Away from?
AF: More and more women are getting interested in whisky, though I think there is still a lot of room to educate, grow and serve this demographic. As far as customers shifts I see two divergent trends: firstly, a growth in collecting and secondly, a shift away from brand loyalty. The first, collecting is still on the up, with the major brands leading the way. Some of them I fear are pushing the collectability too far, with the risk they will slay the Golden Goose. But it is the second trend which interests me more. Customers at this end of the spectrum are increasingly less brand loyal and more focused on quality than age or price. Cask strength, unchillfiltered, single cask and naturally coloured whiskies are the future. Whiskies bottled at 40 and 43% with added caramel colouring are the past and rapidly losing market share to the others. Some companies site tradition, fear of alienating customers and cost as reasons to continue these practices, but I don’t buy them. I think they are assuming the consumers aren’t educated in these regards, and that may be the case now but it’s changing. They should be looking to the next generation of whisky drinkers, not just the current ones. Customers are becoming better and better educated, and those distilleries that recognize this trend and respond to it will do better than the others in the long run.
ATW: Which distilleries do you see making the greatest inroads with the consumer right now, and in what ways?
AF: Small and independent distilleries are the hottest products right now. Firstly, because they have largely bought into the single cask, non chillfiltered, no added colouring and cask strength trends while the larger companies have not. And secondly, because they are more creative and willing to experiment. There are some bigger players which have started to move in these directions, but they are the exception. Most large players are focused on gaining market share in new markets rather than growing and developing their existing markets. This may pay off for them globally, but it will cost them market share in their existing markets; and already is. Of the smaller players I think Glendronach and BenRiach are the two most dynamic right now. Some of their single cask offerings are spectacular, but also limited. Springbank has long been ahead of the curve on all four fronts, and is still doing well, though it concerns me that they seem to be a distillery with a lack of ambition. They seem to be comfortable with who they are and what they’re doing but have little desire to build on that. I love how the distillery is small, traditional and family owned, and that it is such a big part of the local community. It also makes great whisky, I’d just like to see them take that concept are grow it. They used to be a real leader, and I’d like to see them return to that perch. They have so much potential…
ATW: With so much of your livelihood tied up in whisky, is it still possible to simply sit down and enjoy a dram? What are a couple favorite ‘downtime’ drams for you?
AF: Working in an industry where I am exposed to alcohol on a daily basis, it would surprise people to learn how seldom I drink at home. I love micro brewed beer, and good wine, but my drink of choice is still single malt Scotch whisky. When I do have a dram or two, my favourites are generally Bowmore, Ardbeg and Port Ellen. In the last year though I’ve really developed a taste for sherryed Speyside whiskies like Glenfarclas and Glendronach. My preference is generally for cask strength, sherry cask and peated whiskies.
ATW: What is your favorite whisky experience to date? What is on the bucket list to top it?
AF: Opening the Macallan Lallique 50 Year live on CBC radio and tasting it blind for the first time was a big moment. It was by a factor of 10 the most expensive bottle I had ever opened and the genesis of much of what has followed over the last 5 years. My second was the sampling of the White Bowmore 1964 in the No.1 Vaults Warehouse at Bowmore on Islay during my first group whisky tour in 2008. We were the first people outside the company to have the opportunity to sample the whisky, and to do so in the holy of holies. It was an experience I will never forget.
As for my bucket list, I would like to eventually visit every distillery in Scotland, of which there are a little over 100.To date I’ve been to 70 or so. I am also looking forward to touring the whisky distilleries of Japan.
ATW: Final question…is there any sort of protocol you have in place for dealing with problem customers? Like say, some dirty Irish folk from Edmonchuk?
AF: Patience, lots and lots of patience.