Whisky Galore at The Wee Dram in Bakewell
PUBLISHED: 00:00 15 December 2015
Derbyshire Life visits The Wee Dram in Bakewell to sample the 'water of life'
‘How did you get into whisky?’ I asked Adrian Murray of The Wee Dram in Bakewell. ‘I fell in at the deep end,’ he replied with a chuckle. Instantly I knew that this was going to be an entertaining interview.
He went on to explain: ‘I was about 11 when I fell into the canal off the lock gate at Fradley top lock near Burton. My dad pulled me out, stripped off my wet clothes and sat me on the deck of our canal boat. He told my sister to get me a glass of whisky – I took a big gulp and was instantly hooked by this strange amber liquid before promptly falling asleep.
‘On my 18th birthday I tried whisky again and liked it just as much. This was in the late 1970s, era of The Professionals TV series in which Gordon Jackson regularly asked in pub scenes for a single malt and I decided to find out exactly what single malt meant.’
However, it wasn’t until 14th March 1998 that Adrian’s passion for whisky turned into profit. After working as a company accountant in the industrial Midlands, he and his wife Alison, who had a background in PA and PR, opened The Wee Dram exclusive specialist whisky shop – thought to be the first in England outside London. ‘Nobody had thought up the idea of a whisky shop in the heart of England,’ said Adrian, ‘and I decided it should be me who opened one!’
By 2004 the business had expanded and so Andrew Tomkinson was taken on to complete the ‘A Team’ line-up.
‘Why Bakewell?’ was my next question.
‘Because of its central location in an area that is generally affluent and with a high number of visitors,’ he replied. ‘The shop may be small and bijou but we thought it perfect, with lots of window space for display and walls for shelving. Also, it’s right next to the car park and under an archway where people take shelter if it rains, so they look through our window.’
‘Before we opened, Alison and I went on a lot of visits to distilleries in Scotland and read books about it. Whisky is our specialist subject but we never stop learning. The first bottle we sold was a Flora & Fauna from Rosebank Distillery, which has now closed down. It was a lowland whisky from Falkirk.’
While chatting to Adrian the door opened and in walked Tony and Pat from Newcastle-under-Lyme. It would appear there are many loyal, long-term customers who regularly pop in and make a pilgrimage journey for a bottle of their favourite tipple or to sample something new. With the advances of social media, Alison can email the latest news, post on Facebook or blog on their website.
Pat commented, ‘After Adrian applied for his licence all those years ago I met the magistrate at a tasting and he actually told me he thought this young lad was round the twist to be opening a whisky shop, and should save his money.’ Needless to say, Peter the magistrate is now another of Adrian’s regular customers.
Glancing around I was entranced by all the different shaped bottles, colourful boxes and clever labelling – definitely a psychology study in themselves into the expertise of design technology and the mind of a whisky drinker.
The shop stocks approximately 620 different whiskies from over 150 distilleries, 100 of which are in Scotland. But I could also see bottles from New Zealand, Holland, India, Japan, Taiwan, Africa, Sweden, France, Wales and Norfolk as well as ‘whiskey’ from Ireland and America.
The Wee Dram website www.weedram.co.uk offers online sales but these are generally restricted to the UK. ‘Sorting out the duty on sales abroad is a nightmare,’ explained Alison.
Whisky production is a science, each bottle determined by the ingredients and maturing processes. In the 1860s an Irish Customs officer named Angus Coffey developed a still, enabling whisky to be produced from the grain cheaply and commercially. The spread of distilleries followed with the creation of blending and branding to make each one unique.
Grain whisky is generally distilled in the central belt of Scotland in large industrial-sized sites whereas malt distilleries are smaller operations found mainly in the Highlands.
Wooden casks started to be used in the mid 19th century and are a big part of whisky production. They are always made of oak which is porous, allowing the whisky to react with the wood. This determines some two-thirds of the flavour; the rest is down to the ingredients and ageing process.
New Spirit is a rough-and-ready young whisky with little colour, but the deepest colours come from using old sherry casks. Most distilleries use American oak casks which initially contained bourbon from Tennessee. Following the end of Prohibition in 1933, the US government introduced a Federal Law insisting that bourbon casks could only be used once, in an attempt to encourage work in the lumber industry and cooperages. This law is still in force, so rather than throw the casks away when the bourbon is bottled; casks are bought by distilleries to mature whisky in – an early 20th century form of recycling! Evidently Scottish whisky drinkers love the bourbon cask flavours and Adrian’s trio of own brand Wee Dram whiskies are matured in this way.
Whisky became especially popular in the late 19th century after the phylloxera bug from America killed off all the European wine stock so there was no claret or brandy, which was then the favoured drink of the aristocracy and upper classes. Brandy and soda was a particularly fashionable drink in gentlemen’s clubs at that time. As a result, blended whiskies were in demand, especially if the naturally colourless liquid was matured in sherry casks to give it the appearance of brandy.
Ageing – how long to leave it in the cask before bottling – is all important in whisky production. It’s like owning an investment that can be harvested at a later date. Some distilleries have a 50- or 75-year programme. Adrian’s oldest bottle is a Macphail’s from Elgin priced at £550. From a family business, this particular whisky was created by grandfather George Urquhart and allowed to mature for 50 years before being bottled by his grandson, Stephen Rankin.
In a locked cabinet in The Wee Dram is a line-up of specialist whiskies and limited editions, the crème de la crème to whisky collectors and connoisseurs. However, not all whisky is expensive. My personal favourite is a liqueur whisky called Atholl Brose that sells for just £21.95 and one bottle provides me with occasional tots of warming, honey-flavoured happiness for several weeks – as compared to a mediocre quality bottle of wine that costs half the price and can somehow empty itself in an evening. Some whisky drinkers like heavy peat flavours and smokiness. Ardbeg and Laphroaig are 45-50 phenols (parts per million of smoke) but at 208ppm, Octomore is most definitely an acquired taste.
The Wee Dram stocks a small range of gin. Because whisky takes time to mature, some distilleries also make gin which can be sold straight away. Forest Gin is made in the Peak District by a small family concern based in Macclesfield Forest. It is hand-distilled in small batches using botanicals from the forest and is described as being an exceptionally artisan gin.
The shop also sells fruit cakes baked by Peak Feast in Youlgrave, flavoured with Wee Dram labelled Speyside whisky. There are lots of lovely ideas for Christmas presents from limited edition bottles in presentation boxes and gift sets to around 80 miniatures lined up beside bottles of jam, marmalade, mustard and honey, all laced with whisky.
I was particularly attracted to a bottle of Signet from Glenmorangie – a chocolate-flavoured whisky. To create this the barley is roasted in an oven which gives it the distinctive chocolate flavour, similar in taste to a coffee cream. Dr Bill Lumsden evidently thought up this idea when at college, but it took him some 30 years to perfect.
Every year in October The Wee Dram puts on a Whisky Festival in Bakewell Town Hall supported by 22 exhibitors and 150 whiskies. ‘We advise anyone attending to be selective and not try them all,’ said Adrian. ‘Our motto is quality rather than quantity!’ Festival day is evidently manic but thankfully Adrian and Alison have a pool of dedicated family members and friends who are eager and willing to help out. ‘It’s the busiest day of the year in the shop,’ remarked Andrew, ‘a queue soon develops out of the door, under the archway and into the car park. It’s a ticket only open day event from 11am to 4pm and tickets are limited to 300. They go on sale on 1st April and sell out well in advance.’
The Wee Dram also hosts taster events at various locations. On 10th December The Peacock Hotel at Rowsley will be hosting a taster event and most months there is a taster evening at the Rutland Arms Hotel in Bakewell. This will also be the venue for a Burns Night celebration on 23rd January with haggis supper, different whiskies to sample and Jess, a local medical student, on the bagpipes – kilts are optional, as are claymores!
Whisky has long been associated with family celebrations. Bottles are bought for birthdays, anniversaries and special events. Adrian and Alison have three daughters, Jade (13) Erin (10) and Daniella (8) and a cask was purchased at each of their births to mature and be bottled under the Wee Dram label. Hopefully the profits from selling them will help to pay for the girls’ prom dresses and university fees.
Such is his knowledge and passion for whisky, Adrian is now officially recognised as a member of the Keepers of The Quaich, an exclusive international society founded by the leading Scotch whisky distillers.
His advice to all budding whisky lovers and appreciators of this fine alcoholic tipple fit for king, countryman or commoner is simple – ‘store your whisky upright so it doesn’t react with the cork, and never leave your best bottle alone in a house where teenagers are having a party!’