Many people in the whisky world or who attend events will know Eddie and Amanda Ludlow, who run The Whisky Lounge. For 10 years, Eddie (and, for just over a year, Amanda) have run whisky festivals around the country.
Last year, the team decided to get involved in another project: whisky distribution. One-year on, that venture – the Great Whisky Company – now distributes whisky from Berry Bros & Rudd and cult Texas producer, Balcones with promises of more to join the portfolio soon.
I spoke with the pair recently to get their thoughts on the year just passed and to uncover what the Great Whisky Company is looking to for the future.
Looking back to June 2012, why did it seem the opportune time to set up the business?
Amanda: “We had been approached by several companies over the years but Eddie didn’t feel it was really his bag. But our experiences of other distribution businesses hadn’t always been a positive one so we wanted to up the ante and do a better job for people.”
What were some of your early focus points?
Amanda: “We were trying to be a go to for smaller niches brands that wouldn’t necessarily get featured in big portfolios like Cellar Trends or Eaux de vie. And we wanted to do a hand-to-hand selling on every brand we took on. We’re not just hired guns, we won’t take a project on board just for the fee; it has to be something we think has quality that fills a gap in the marketplace.”
What have been some of your biggest successes thus far?
Eddie: “Given we were never looking to enter this side of the market I think we have done a stunning job. The fact we have overachieved anything that has been set for us by our brands and surprised them with the level of customer service I think scares them a lot of the time because we challenge them and do push them.”
Amanda: “We’ve doubled the turnover for whisky sales at Berry Bros & Rudd in the UK inside a year, which is amazing. I’ve never done this within the whisky sector and I was a whisky hater up until a year ago, and Johnny who works with me hadn’t done any work in the drinks field at all so Berrys was taking a big chance on us. We’ve also brought Balcones to the UK market. We’re now at the tipping point because we’re talking to five other brands.”
What is one of the most satisfying parts of running this business?
Amanda: “Getting a new customer that someone told me I couldn’t get: I love that, I love people saying, ‘You won’t be able to do that’ but then still being able to. As a challenge it is even more rewarding.”
What are some of your goals for the coming year?
Eddie: “I think we would like to have had more brands on board by now but we have some hopefully exciting news for the coming weeks. We have no pretensions to grow into a massive conglomerate but we would like to have rich, varied and eclectic whiskies in our portfolio. I believe it’s going to grow quite quickly, I think it has to, in terms of number of brands and the size of our sales so we’re quietly confident and if all comes off in terms of the new brands we’re talking to then it could be a really interesting year.”
Amanda: “My expectation is the business will quadruple by this time next year. And the reality is taking the turnover to where we want to, we’ll be looking at a staff of eight to 10 by next year so we’ll be an SME rather a mom and pops operation. It excites me and scares me, both of which are good because if you’re not a bit nervous you’ll not do your best. But it is also about servicing the people who have had faith in us and growing their distribution and revenue in the UK.”
Eddie, how does it feel to look back on the 10 years you’ve had in the industry and see where you’ve gotten to?
Eddie: “Sometimes I have to pinch myself and think about how far we’ve come since TWL was first conceived. But we have done a lot of hard work and continue to do a lot of hard work, and if we keep pushing ourselves and the industry to a degree it makes our lives more interesting. It is amazing to look back on my Oddbins days, to think about selling whisky over the counter; I still miss that sometimes but I don’t think I could go back to it simply because too much water has passed under the bridge and I like the challenge…most of the times.”