Over the past few years, interest in whisky across the globe has truly blossomed. While the drink used to be seen as an older gentleman’s tipple, it now features in the coolest bars across the globe and has a wealth of younger ambassadors in the form of bloggers, celebrities and, well, whisky brands’ own ambassadors.
When Eddie Ludlow founded whisky tasting and events company, The Whisky Lounge, 10 years ago, however, the whisky scene was not as solidified as it is now. Back in 2002, Eddie was a whisky fan working for Oddbins who had a passion for the dramming side of life. He started the company – with the mission of ‘Bringing Whisky to the People’ – having no idea how well it would take off.
Now, on the verge of the company’s 10th anniversary festival in York happening on the 13 October, I spoke to Eddie about his years in the business, what has surprised him most and what he envisions for the future of the company.
And, if you’ve not yet had the pleasure of coming across this great whisky championing company, then check out their site here for more information about upcoming events near you or this piece I wrote on The Whisky Lounge back in the spring when I was working with the team for their London show.
Wow! 10 years. How does that feel?
Not like 10 years! It feels great to look back at what we have achieved and all of the people who have started their whisky journey with us.
Looking back to 2002, what were some of the early goals for the business?
Ten years ago I still worked for Oddbins and didn’t really have any long-term ambitions for a whisky tasting/festival business. It was only really when I met Amanda [Eddie’s wife] and she pointed out that there might be something more than a hobby in what I was doing. The early goals I suppose were to present tastings and events in a fun and informal setting and to try some great whiskies along the way. Not much has changed really!
Do you think the increasing interest in whisky in the popular domain has helped accelerate things?
It definitely has in the last few years. When I started, whisky was not nearly as cool as it is now and I like to think we were championing its cause when it was far more difficult to do so. It has also helped counter-act some of the effects of the recession, although I am looking forward to when that comes to an end. Perhaps when I’m first sampling some Kilchoman 10 year old…
What moments stand out for you as favourites since you started the business?
Actually this weekend provided me with a real highlight – not that there haven’t been loads. I finally got to see through one of my long-held ambitions of putting together our ‘Whisky School‘. Our first was this last weekend in Newcastle and it was fantastic. We are rolling them out across the UK from January and I am very excited!
My first whisky festivals in new areas are always exciting and nerve-racking and of course another highlight was becoming a judge on the IWSC spirit panel.
And, general acceptance by the whisky industry as a whole has also been a big one. Without them (as well as the lovely customers of course) we simply wouldn’t have a workable business model.
What’s the most difficult part about running The Whisky Lounge?
Money. But isn’t that always the case?
Other than that, it is difficult to juggle all of the intricate aspects of putting on events where you have exhibitors and lots of customers. To keep everyone happy and make the whole operation appear (reasonably) smooth is a challenge. Plus I’m not getting any younger (I’m 40 this year) and the physical stresses of these days are starting to take their toll!
What has been the biggest surprise in terms of operating the business?
That we still are doing so! Even when we started full-time in 2008 I had so many doubts and actually was tempted to give up on several occasions. Again, Amanda stepped in and really kept me going until she finally joined the business full-time herself last year.
Where do you see the business moving over the next couple of years?
I’d like to go somewhere hot. We’ve talked about guesting in the South of France and Australia but whether these are realistic plans or not is another matter.
The Whisky Schools are, for me, probably the most important development for us. They will give us even greater legitimation and credibility and offer a huge amount of personal satisfaction too.
What aspect of the business do you enjoy most?
The festivals are great in that you get a huge amount of people and exhibitors offering thanks and congratulations, which is lovely. But I have to admit I love more intimate settings and the opportunity to convey my feelings for whisky to a tight group. Tasting great whisky is a given these days – we are spoiled in that respect.
Why would you recommend someone come to a Whisky Lounge event?
Why wouldn’t I?! Speak to (almost!) anybody who has been to one of our events. What seals it for me is that we have so many regular, returning customers who all enjoy what we do. We like to think of ourselves as inclusive, rather than exclusive, and we genuinely want everyone to enjoy whisky in the same way we do.
What will you be doing specially to celebrate the 10th anniversary? Will there be any additional perks for attendees to this year’s show?
I am doing a special Scotland vs The World class – which was one of the first tastings I did all those years ago. We sold our first 100 tickets at the 2002 price of £12.50 – crazy I know!
We have also bottled a York 800 blended malt whisky especially for the festival, which also coincided with York’s 800 years celebrations.
Name one standout dram that you’ve found over the years? What was it so amazing?
Ouch. Knew that was coming but it’s still difficult. It could be any number!
I guess in terms of being blown away unexpectedly it would be the first Yoichi 15 year old I tried that I bought for a tasting nearly 10 years ago. I thought at the time that surely Japanese whisky had no right to be so good!
Other than that the trio of Springbank 21yo, Talisker 20yo and Ardbeg Provenance was pretty hard to beat.
Your motto is: Bringing Whisky to the People. Do you feel you’ve achieved that over 10 years?
I like to think so. I don’t believe whenever we set out on the journey that we thought it would last as long as it has and actually grow into a national business. The people have had the whisky brought to them on literally hundreds of occasions and are still voting with their feet. Long may that continue!
Tickets to the 10th anniversary York Whisky Festival on the 13 October at The Park Inn Hotel are £25 and can be purchased here.