New Year wouldn’t be complete (at least in Scotland) without a wee dram. If you’re looking for expert advice when buying a tipple, there’s no place like JL Gill. The traditional grocer and bottle shop is a local business with a global customer base, and has become famous around the world as one of the must-visit attractions in Crieff.
At quite possibly the busiest time of the year for his business, we were lucky to be able catch Andrew Cuthbert for a brief taste of his worldwide whisky adventure…
How did you get started in the grocery/whisky business?
I left school in 87 and began work with BMW, at a time when car technology was moving away from the old-style mechanics. We were the new breed of motor engineers being trained to take the industry into the future. I trained in London and was stationed in Perth and became the best trainee in the UK. Garage politics didn’t agree with me however, so I decided I wanted to go to university instead.
My training wasn’t wasted though, and has come in very useful. Before I got to university, I discovered that Gibson’s meal store at 51 Comrie Street needed a manager. My parents started this shop many years ago, and had been given the option to buy it back. It wasn’t the opportunity that my parents wanted at the time, but I said I would take it on for a year, so that I could raise money for my future education or travel.
So, this is where it began. After about three years I moved around to the High Street, to a shop across the road from where I am now. At this point I was concentrating on Scottish foods. My father (a very talented man) fitted out my shop as an old-world-style shop with replica gas lighting and panelled walls. He worked late at night doing this as he was Head of Chemistry at Crieff High School during the day.
When I moved to the High Street my father suggested that I should try selling whisky and other Scottish alcohol. It meant a bit of a financial outlay in advance to buy the case. Taking a risk on the first order of £360 for 12 bottles terrified me, but I spend £30000-£50000 a month buying products these days!
I stayed at my new premises for a couple of years until the owners of J L Gill decided to retire and had no family to pass the shop on. They asked if I could take it over on one condition – that employee Alan Forbes came as part of the package! So here we are now, 20 years later.
Why is Crieff great for your business?
I am a local lad and well known. Crieff is my hometown and my grandad built a lot of the houses here. I could possibly be somewhere else and be more successful than I am now, but despite Crieff’s rural location we are famous worldwide. Our visitor book is filled with people who come to see us from far and wide.
I think it’s the fact that we are a traditional local shop in a small town that is so attractive, especially in countries where they might have lost this community. It’s great that so many people travel to the area to visit the shop, but I would not survive without the wider community and other shops in Crieff.
We are stockists for some of the local suppliers such as Strathearn Distillery, Strathearn Cider Company and Madderty Micro
What makes an enjoyable day at work for you?
I love meeting people. I love hearing about their lives and what they do and have had all kinds of visitors, from actors to spacemen. We even had a ex-spy in last week.
I meet famous people and heroic people, people who deserve my respect like the WW2 pilot who had the Victoria Cross. The guy who invented the Black and Decker work mate. I am lucky that a common love of whisky gives me a chance to talk to people like this.
I love talking about whisky and I love Scotland. As far as I am concerned, I am not selling a whisky. I am selling a product that took 12 years to mature. A product that keeps a community at work.
What are you most proud of achieving with your business/product?
I am very proud that we are a family business that is famous worldwide. My cousin met someone in Brisbane with a JL Gill bag. I am proud that we are one of the biggest whisky shops in Scotland, but we are still a community hub, with such a variety of customers. We are just as happy selling a daily pint of milk to our locals, as we are making a sale to a Chinese business man, who flies into Scotland just to buy his monthly whisky from a wee shop in Crieff.
What product do you recommend we try?
Everything I sell! The J L Gill experience is more than just the products, however. Tell your friends! Even just popping in for a photo and sharing the shop on social media helps spread the word about who we are.
On your day off, what do you love to do?
On my days off I build custom motorcycles. I am as well known in the custom bike world as I am in the whisky world. If I was not a shop keeper I would be building motorcycles for a living. Having this other community in my life has helped me a lot. I have many famous biker friends who help support my business and recommend us.
What’s the next step for JL Gill?
There is no stopping J L Gill the brand. J L Gill will truly be worldwide in 2018. Hong Kong is calling and there are plans to open a shop and tasting bar in the East. I am going out to Hong Kong and Shanghai to run whisky schools, and we will also be launching our independent bottling company in 2018.
For a little taste of the large variety of bottles and Scottish produce for sale J L Gill visit www.scottishproduce.co.uk
images: courtesy of Fraser Band