‘From Cask to Glass’ is a slogan that naturally fits our approach to whisky. We are there for the whole life of a whisky; while it matures in its cask, right up to figuring out which vessel will best capture its fine spirit. From Cask to Glass is a philosophy we want to spread far and wide – letting people know that they can become active participants in the life of a Scotch whisky by purchasing a cask and steering its fate. We have many customers, and many whiskies, at different stages in their story.
In my last post, I told the ‘From Cask…’ story of Mr. Gao, who has bought casks to hold for 18 years before he presents them to his children as they fledge into adults. These casks still have many years of maturation ahead of them. Plans for the kind of bottles the whisky will eventually inhabit are vague at this stage. There are still 15 years to plan for that.
But bottling is indeed the fate of every whisky cask – the debutante’s ball event for a new whisky to be presented to society. Now I’d like to share the ‘…to Glass’ vision of Amy Seton – founder of The Birmingham Whisky Club, who has purchased a cask with a view to a bottling in the very near future…
The Birmingham Whisky Club
Ten years ago, there was no Birmingham Whisky Club. What there was was Amy Seton, who had adopted Brum as her home and was looking for a way to give something back to the town she knew and loved. She was familiar with whisky, to a degree, from relatives drinking it at family gatherings; but she hadn’t yet had that moment when whisky came to mean so much more.
She wanted to organise an interesting and enriching event for the city, and decided on a food and drink festival. It was multifaceted, with many consumables showcased – but one aspect of the festival seemed to inspire a bit more attention than others:
The other events did well. I did some stuff for English wine, for beer, but none of them really took off as much as whisky. It was the whisky that just worked. We were on to something.
This was a vindication for Amy’s fresh new project; The Birmingham Whisky Club – a members’ group for discussing, sampling and appreciating the finest of all distilled spirits. There really is something about whisky that encourages being talked about!
Seven years later (the last two of them spent hunting for exactly the right spot), in 2018, The Birmingham Whisky Club opened the doors to its bar and tasting rooms, in a museum annexe in Birmingham’s charming Jewellery Quarter. They knew their stuff – the opening took place on Burns Night and construction was even accelerated to hit this date. Amy arranged for a piper to play outside in the street, to help people navigate the tight alleys and closes to find warmth and whisky sanctuary. Indeed, things have gone well enough, that Amy has now united her whisky ventures under the name ‘Grain and Glass’ – perhaps a sign of more ambitious projects yet to come?
A Bar of One’s Own
The bar benefits enormously from having Amy at the helm. By her own admission, she doesn’t have her own collection of whisky at home. She doesn’t need to: once again whisky proves itself to be an excellent marriage of hobby and profession.
I collect [bottles] for the bar, to open at the bar. I don’t have a personal collection. I think that releases me from a lifetime of poverty!
Owning a whisky bar is probably more tricky than Amy Seton makes it sound… but she does make it sound pretty magnificent:
There’s nothing like being able to sit in your own bar with your mates on a Friday night, and then go behind the bar, help yourself to something and not have to pay […] Whisky is the social lubricant, and the great connector.
Since the B.W.C. formed, Amy has been a regular up in Scotland – going on distillery trips multiple times per year – exclusively for the benefit of her business, you must understand.
Following formative experiences in Auchentoshan and Oban, her heart settled (as many do) on Islay, where she’s yet to meet a whisky she doesn’t like. Bold, peaty and red wine matured – that’s a Seton-pleaser in a nutshell. Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain are her particular favourites – right down to the less showy aesthetics of the distilleries:
There’s something about Bunna that is a bit worn… like an old jacket.
The recipe for success is all there. An impressive knowledge and love of whisky; a great bar in a nice part of town, well stocked with hand picked whiskies; a loyal club membership and an ability to unite work and pleasure into the same package. Everything was going swimmingly.
And then 2020 happened.
A Cask for the Hard Times
I’m not going to go over this in much detail – 2020 was a bad year for very well established reasons. We’ve all spent a year talking about it. But I’m going to tell you what was different for Amy Seton.
Businesses that work face to face with customers, like The Birmingham Whisky Club, simply couldn’t function normally, and the UK government stepped in with financial aid – loans that were designed to keep struggling businesses on life support until things went back to normal. For Amy, borrowing money to keep plodding on until the end of the pandemic seemed needlessly grim. As the owner of a whisky bar, she had a very unique opportunity open to her – one that had the potential to make the club more exciting, and make back more money than was put in.
She got in touch with us at Cask 88 and used a portion of the maintenance loan to buy a cask of Single Malt Scotch whisky, in order to create a unique bottling to celebrate and serve to patrons of The Birmingham Whisky Club. This special cask of whisky is not just going to be for the pleasure of the consumers: it may well be the saviour of the whole enterprise!
Using money that is intended to keep a struggling business afloat to invest in a cask might at first look a bit risky, but when you take a step back it makes sense. To quickly get back on their feet after the pandemic, the B.W.C. would do well to grab attention and provide something unique and exciting, and completely in character for the club. A great cask of whisky easily has the potential to grow the investment into something larger, and Amy Seton knows this:
Everyone I know is part of at least two whisky clubs. And the clubs that are doing well – they’re bottling! It’s those interesting bottles that you can only get via a whisky club that are a massive draw.
The Fateful Cask
You’ll have to forgive me for going a bit dramatic back there. Buying a cask of whisky is a big commitment at any time. Doing so when the business has lost 90% of its custom, and is hoping to explode back onto the scene with a knockout cask of bespoke whisky: that raises the stakes still further.
For Amy Seton and the team at The Birmingham Whisky Club, the cask and the whisky had to be just right. And whisky geeks know exactly how to make a difficult decision when whisky is on the line – they organised a blind tasting.
Samples were sent and from a lineup of big, ballsy whiskies, three favourites emerged among the team. A Bordeaux finished Benriach, and two Caol Ilas – one also finished in a Bordeaux cask, the other in an ex-Sauternes hogshead. There was no clear champion at this stage – everyone’s personal preferences were locked in combat – but the team at the B.W.C. know their audience. They knew which cask would most please the loyal customers of the whisky bar, many of whom were more like friends.
The final choice went to the Ex-sauternes six year old Caol Ila. An intense dram, roiling with smokiness and sweetness. In Amy’s words;
It had this candyfloss nose that really leapt out. Caol Ila is one of those whiskies that responds well to different types of casks – sweeter casks especially.
The chosen Caol Ila is not going into bottles right away. Nobody’s yet allowed back to the bar to drink it, but besides that, the team at the B.W.C. judged that the liquid has a slight edge to it that would be softened with a few months more of maturation – a definite perk of having a cask of whisky under your control. The current goal is to bottle the whisky just before Christmas 2021 – in time for the 10th anniversary of the club’s founding. This will give the auspicious event a little extra oomph.
We can’t say much about how the bottle will look just yet – only that it is likely to take its aesthetic from the club’s colours of maroon and white. Cask 88 are on hand to help, if need be – we have our design team and we have done our share of bottings. Customer’s choice, of course!
It’s an easy process. The fact that you guys do the whole thing – I know that if I wanted, I could call on you with some ideas. It’s a nice approach.
When all’s bottled and done, it’s going to be a fine addition to the whisky bar in Birmingham’s old Jewellery Quarter, and even more of a reason for people to come and visit. When a whisky club and bar have their own unique malt, you know that they’re serious, and you’re in for some good drams.
We wish Amy and all of The Birmingham Whisky Club great success with this venture. She could have quietly bided her time through this miserable pandemic, using the life-support loan to keep the business alive. Then slowly, cautiously, opened back up, hoping that people return to their normal patterns quickly enough to get the B.W.C back on its feet. If you’re keen to help this process, or eager to try a Sauternes matured Caol Ila – find the bar and club info here: https://grainandglass.co/
Buying the cask was a bold move, but the whisky is excellent, and Amy Seton’s nose for whisky has proven itself over 10 years of club management. This unique bottling could light the fire that powers the club’s glorious rebirth – and proof that if you look after the spirit, then the spirit will look after you.