Q1 - 'Keir'. I don't think I've ever heard that name before. Is it Scottish?
 
I don't really know the exact origins of my name, although I know it is Scottish.
It is more common as a surname and in fact it was my mother's maiden name. Until recent years the only other person I had heard of with Keir as their first name was Keir Hardie who founded the British Labour party. Many people assume my parents were Labour voters, but this is not true. It seems there are a growing number of Keirs these days though.

Q2 - So, your mother's maiden name is Keir as well. That means that if your mother had been your father (and vice versa) your name would have been Keir Keir, wouldn't it? Have you ever thought about that?
 
No, I've never thought about that - I suspect my parents would not have been that cruel. However, my brother's wife was called Philipa Wilkinson before she married my brother. If they had used the same naming formula as my parents did with me, my nephew would be called Wilkinson Sword. Possibly he would have been eligible for a lifetime's supply of free razors, but I think he is happy that he was christened Tom Sword instead.

Q3 - Indeed. Nature plays enough cruel tricks on us - we don't need our parents adding to our misery. Anyway, on to more serious matters now.  You bought Royal Mile Whiskies a few years ago. How (and why) did you get into the whisky trade?
 
I had a round about route into the whisky trade.
When I left school I worked for 6 years as an insurance underwriter, before packing it in to go traveling. When I ran out of money I returned and went to University where I did a Tourism degree. I immediately became fascinated in the wine & spirits aspect of it and also studied this to diploma level. I tried to get summer work in vineyards, but didn't get any offers. An advert appeared on the university notice board for a summer job at Royal Mile Whiskies. I worked there for the summer, and although I left a couple of times kept coming back. When the business came up for sale I found a friendly bank manager.
I bought the store on 27th June 1997 and haven't looked back since.

Q4 - Well, let's 'look back' for just a moment longer...
Can you tell us something about the history of the store?
 
Royal Mile Whiskies had been established in 1991 by two brothers who owned The Cashmere Store - our next door neighbours. They were businessmen as opposed to whisky enthusiasts, and the shop was emphasis was on tourism rather than whisky. I worked in the shop as a student and realized that it had great potential if it was to focus on whisky and quality and to get rid of tartan tea towels and other Scottish souvenirs. This is what I have done, and our business has grown year on year ever since. In 2000 we set up our web site (www.royalmilewhiskies.com) and two months ago we opened a second Royal Mile Whiskies - this time in London.

Q5 - Congratulations. That's good news for international travellers. And I've heard that's not the only good news that has been coming your way lately.  You have been 'crowned' as Keeper of the Quaich in October 2002. How was it for you?
 
It was a great honour. I was surrounded by people who have spent their lives promoting whisky and felt very proud to be in their company. The evening itself is a wonderful ceremony and one I will always remember. It was a very special week, as two days later at the annual Specialist in Habanos conference, my shop was nominated as UK Havana Cigar Retailer of the Year.
Only four were nominated, and we were the first ever Scottish nominee.

Q6 - Wait a minute... Havana's?
 
Yes. In 1999 we opened a second shop to satisfy another of my passions - Havana Cigars.

Q7 - Ah, cigars are another one of my passions as well. I'm sure the readers won't mind a little detour into that direction. I can't afford to smoke Havana cigars exclusively, but when I do indulge myself I tend to go for Partagas or Cohiba. What are your personal favourites - and why?
 
I do enjoy a Partagas (usually Series D No.4) or a Cohiba (Siglo I, II or Robusto) also. However I generally choose a Cigar to compliment the whisky I am drinking at the time. I find that with a cigar, the rich, sherried whiskies really come into their own. Bowmore Darkest for example is great with the Partagas. Royal Mile Whiskies has an own-label Dufftown at present that is hugely sherried and is the ideal accompaniment for a Ramone Allones Specially Selected (another of my favourite Robustos). However I am still seeking the perfect partner for my most regular smoke, Hoyo de Monterrey (Epicure No.2 or Double Corona when I have the time and the money).

Q8 - Due to budgetary restrictions I'm forced to smoke Dutch stink sticks most of the time but ever now and then I go for a more exotic cigar like a Brazilian Pimentel or the 'Toscani Extra Vecchi' I recently bought in Italy. Any thoughts on non-Cuban cigars?
 
I find the Toscanis a bit powerful at times, and we haven't sold any Brazillian cigars for a few years so I don't know too much about them. On average I probably smoke only two cigars or so a week, so I stick to hand made cigars. I really like some Dominican brands such as Cuesta Rey, Davidoff and Arturo Fuente, although my favourite is Avo (Domaine), which are just about as close as you can get to Cubans for flavour.

Q9 - Anyway, let's get back to the topic at hand: single malt Scotch whisky.
Can you remember your first dram?
 
I would love to remember the first time I tasted single malt, but would be lying if I said I did.
My parents are both whisky drinkers, but tend to drink blends. I remember as a child using blends for medicinal purposes - to rub on my teeth when I had toothache, and hot toddies when I had a cold. I do remember the first bottle of single malt I had. When I first moved into my own flat in my late teens, two of my old school chums gave me a bottle of Edradour which we made short work of.

Q10 - So, your first bottle was an Edradour. I have to admit my first association when I hear the name is 'batch variation'. A bottle of the 10yo I bought last year was particulary nasty, but others tasted just fine.
Any thoughts on the recent purchase of the distillery by Andrew Symington?
 
Edradour has had inconsistent quality levels in the past, however I think things look very promising for the future under Andrew's control. He has demonstrated over time that he is a real whisky enthusiast and has managed to source some excellent whiskies for Signatory. I think some of Edradour's inconsistencies in the past stem from a poor selection of casks for filling. Obviously, the change of ownership cannot fix this overnight, yet I would expect that Andrew's attention to detail will mean that poor casks will not find their way into Edradour bottlings.

Q11 - I share your hight hopes - I haven't tasted a 'bad' Signatory Vintage bottling yet.
Now a more complicated question to get an idea about your personal taste in malts.
Please name a couple of malts you personally find suitable and enjoyable for each of the 4 seasons.
 
OK, let's start with Winter. To me whisky was created with the Scottish winter in mind.
The ideal time to stoke up the fire and sit back with a warming dram. As Scottish Winters are more severe on the West, the whiskies from the west are stronger and more suited to the cold. I have always loved Islay and its whiskies, and these are clearly the ideal winter's drams. Laphroaig 10yo Cask Strength has great character, with a real blast of sweet peat and smoke. Ardbeg has similar qualities, and I prefer the younger expressions. At the launch of the 25yo 'Lord of the Isles', I got to sample a four year old - from one of Glenmorangie's first distillations after taking over Ardbeg. This was stunning.
I cannot wait until it reaches ten years so we can have it on our shelves (and in our glass!)

Spring is more a time for lighter malts. I have found some stunning Ardmores recently and am a big fan of this hugely under-rated distillery. Signatory's unchilfiltered offering is light with some creamy vanilla character, not dissimilar from the Gordon & MacPhail bottling from 1987.

Summer is all about Hedonism - in more ways than one.
Obviously it is a time to have fun and enjoy the sunshine, and Compass Box Hedonism is the perfect accompaniment. Light refreshing, vanillan, creamy toffee. It is a new way of drinking whisky and enjoyed by non-whisky drinkers also (people will all see sense one day). A blend of grain whiskies, it may not appeal to the traditionalists. Not until they try it anyway.

Autumn is when rich sherried whiskies come into their own. I would generally choose something like a Mortlach, although a sherried Springbank with reasonable maturity is hard to beat - but also increasingly hard to find.

Q12 - Ah, you're a  fellow Islay lover! Excellent, Ardbeg and Laphroaig are two of my favourites as well. I noticed you didn't mention Lagavulin. The 16yo has been my number 1 malt for almost a decade but the last two years it doesn't seem quite as powerful and complex as before. Any thoughts on this matter?
 
The sixteen year old Lagavulin is a stunning whisky, with lots of finesse for a southern Islay malt. I do like the raw harshness that younger Islay whiskies have, and would love to see Ardbeg for example bottling something younger than the ten year old (however unlikely this is). As for Lagavulin I think it is perfect at sixteen years, but is for different occasions than the more youthful Islays. As for it being less complex than previously, I have not noticed it myself although I have heard it said before. I think it has suffered from its own success in that supply does struggle to keep up with demand.

Q13 - So, now we know what you personally like to drink.
Does 'the general public' seem to agree with you when you look at the big sellers at the store?
 
The whiskies I have mentioned are not necessarily our best sellers, but all of them sell steadily throughout the year. Our biggest seller at the moment is Highland Park 12, as it is currently on offer with a free copy of Michael Jackson's Malt Whisky Companion. Over the year our biggest seller is generally Old Pulteney 12 as the distillers put on regular in-store tastings.
Mortlach 16 is a staff favourite and sells particularly well as does Glenrothes 1989.

As independent bottlings tend to be limited in quantity they are not generally top sellers over the course of a year although some do make good performances over a week or month period. Chieftain's Choice 19 year old Brora was a great whisky which we sold a lot of, when it was available. More recently Signatory's Glenallachie has got the staff excited and has been selling well accordingly. We have recently taken on Islay Mist as our House Blend having been amazed that it was not an Islay malt at a blind staff tasting. Since then I entered it in Scottish Field magazine's Scottish Merchant's Challenge, where at another blind tasting the panel awarded it higher marks than such great malts as Ardbeg 1977, Bruichladdich 17 and Port Ellen 1978. At only 12.99 it is selling very well and looks set to overtake Old Pulteney as overall best seller in 2003.

Q14 - Can you tell us roughly how many bottles pass through your store annually?
 
Just over 30,000. Internet is important and a growing side of our business.

Q15 - OK, Keir. When some other maniacs learned I was doing this interview they chimed in with a few questions of their own. Davin from Canada likes to know where in London your new shop is located. With the loss of Milroys as a reliable source I'm sure lots of readers would be interested to know of an alternate source when passing through London.
 
It is at 3 Bloomsbury Street, WC1B 3QE.
This is only a few minutes walk from Millroys, near the north end of Shaftsbury Avenue and the East end of Oxford Street. If you follow signs for The British Museum, we are just around the corner from there. As we opened in the run up to Christmas, we have not had time to get our name above the door, so the sign still says "Bloomsbury Wine & Spirit Co.", the name of the previous owners.

My contact information is:

Keir Sword, Royal Mile Whiskies
www.royalmilewhiskies.com
keir@royalmilewhiskies.com

Q16 - In a recent issue of Scotland Magazine, you were part of a tasting team that blind tasted and ranked the ten best selling malt whiskies.  I've had some experience myself lately with very surprising results when tasting whiskies blind, but for Glenfiddich 12yo to rank number 3, behind Aberlour 10yo and Laphroaig 10yo and ahead of Highland Park 12yo is almost unbelievable.  What gives?
 
Blind tasting is very subjective. Difference in glasses and environment can make a difference to results and generally when you are dealing with good quality whiskies (in this instance Scotland's top 10 best sellers) of a similar age, there is often not much between them and one mark either way can make a big difference in terms of rank. Although the assessment is meant to be purely of quality, the distinction between quality and personal taste is sometimes difficult, and I suspect that if you were to get a panel of Islay distillers to do the same tasting as a panel of Speyside distillers, the results would be distinctly different. However despite these shortfalls,  the only better way of judging whiskies is to try them yourself and decide your own ranking. Ultimately it is your own taste that matters, so if you like a whisky, it doesn't matter whether a panel of retailers and writers don't think too much of it. However in narrowing down the choice for the average reader of Scotland magazine, the tasting panel hopefully provide some help.

Q17 - Now for a few questions that were keeping Serge from France awake at night. Some say that the distilleries try to take back the IB's market by launching many special bottlings. UDV isn't the last to do so, but those are much more expensive than the IBs. Are those new releases worth the extra bucks?
 
Yes and no. Sorry to be vague, but it really does come down to the individual bottlings. Also, although we would all like to think that whisky is all for drinking, I am sure that some of the readers have bottles they have bought for investment rather than to drink. The purpose of purchase is also a determinant in assessing its value. For example, the Chieftain's Choice 19yo Brora I mentioned earlier tasted great and was affordable as a drinking whisky. UDV's recent release of 30 year old Brora is not cheap and many of us would struggle to justify the expense as an evening's enjoyment with a few friend's. As a result, I have not tasted the 30 year old, and as such cannot comment on whether or not I think it is a good whisky.
However as an investment I would recommend the official bottling every time.

Q18 - Moreover, this trend of launching many special bottlings may lead to a decrease in the quality of the mass marketed bottlings, such as Laphroaig 10yo, Lagavulin 16yo, Macallan etc.
What are your thoughts?
 
Absolutely. This is a real concern.
Macallan for example have just launched a huge series of old vintages at incredibly high prices.
This coincided with a shortage, of 25 year old and 18 year old (in UK at present we cannot get either). I don't think I have tasted better Macallans than some of their 25 year old vintages, and this includes 5 of the expensive new releases that I tasted at the recent launch. If distillers get too caught up in bottling for the collector, prices get crazy and ultimately it damages the brand and its core products.

Q19 - Hear, hear... I couldn't agree more, Keir. This was pretty much the conclusion of our Macallan JOLT as well. Which brings us to our last question: What do you think about the new trend of launching more and more wine-finished malts?
 
There was some talk a couple of year's ago that the Bourbon industry would start re-using casks.
The effects of this on the Scottish (being Scottish I prefer this description to Scotch) Whisky industry would be huge. As a result I did think that the industry was right to experiment with other casks. I have not heard anything recently about Bourbon re-filling casks, so assume the issue is not as pressing as it seemed. I think that there are more wine finishes that I would like to see (Talisker in a Zinfandel cask would appeal to me), but I do think that some companies are too focused on wood finishes and the consumer is getting bored of them. I defended the industry a couple of years ago in a reply to a letter sent to whisky magazine, accusing certain companies of using wood-finishing for marketing purpose rather than to improve the whisky. Perhaps I would not take the same defensive stance if the letter were written today.
 

OK, Keir. Thanks a lot for taking the time to do an interview with us.
Best of luck with your enterprises.

Johannes van den Heuvel
 

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Keir Sword runs what's arguably the most famous
whisky store in Scotland; Royal Mile Whiskies in
Edinburgh. After interviewing some 'industry'
people for the previous issues of Malt Maniacs
we thought it would be interesting to pick the
brain of somebody who's involved in the day-to-day
distribution of bottles amongst the malt loving public.

During the course of the interview we discussed
a wide variety of whisky related topics.
Scroll down to read all about it.

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E-pistle #05/01 - An interview with Keir 'Royal Mile' Sword
by
Johannes van den Heuvel, Holland

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