Offering the best range of whiskey and craft spirits
Small Business Inside Track Q&AAlly Alpine, The Celtic Whiskey Shop
Ally Alpine of the Celtic Whiskey Shop: “We put a lot of effort into ensuring we have knowledgeable employees.”
What is special about your business?
It’s a bit like a sweet shop for adults as we offer a very wide selection of drinks of all sorts – not just whiskey. Whiskey is one area of expertise and a passion for us but we’ve also become a bit of a mecca for those interested in craft spirits, fortified wines and wine.
What sets your business apart in your sector?
Our warm, welcoming, well-informed staff and the fact that we stock the most comprehensive range of whiskeys in the country. We take staff training very seriously and put a lot of effort into ensuring we have knowledgeable employees who really know and have a passion for their products.
We opened a new outlet in Killarney in March and I took people on six weeks beforehand to bring them around Ireland and Scotland to teach them about whiskey, craft beers, wine, and how to make really good cocktails.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Contending with Luas works outside the shop for past three years and continuing to do so with no compensation, support or recognition of the major disruption this has caused for retailers. Our second biggest challenge is competing internationally (we sell online) when the duty on alcohol here is among the highest in the world. What has been your biggest success? We won the Best Whiskey Shop in the World award in 2013 and 2016. It’s presented by the international industry bible, Whisky Magazine. I’m also proud of the fact that the business now employs 20 people in Dublin and a further 16 in Killarney. This is a significant jobs boost to the local economy there.
What’s different about the new Killarney outlet? It’s called The Irish Whiskey Experience and Celtic Whiskey Bar & Larder and it’s designed to be a destination stop. The Experience offers daily master classes, workshops and tasting events while the Bar & Larder stocks a vast selection of Irish, Scottish and international whiskeys as well as an extensive range of craft beers Irish gins and vodkas, cocktails and wines.
What piece of advice would you give to someone starting a business?
If you’re self-employed you’re going to work long hours so choose an industry that gives you a buzz. Secondly, if you don’t have an accounting/ finance background, hire someone who does. It will save you time and stress. Don’t be scared to ask for help. I’ve used consultants Hugo Arnold for food, Seaneen O’Sullivan for whiskey/food pairings, Josko Babic for cocktails, Leo Phelan and John Marrinan for historical whiskey advice and they have all hugely contributed to the high standards the new venture has.
Who do you admire most in business and why?
Probably the Teeling family whose name is synonymous with Irish whiskey. When John Teeling founded the Cooley Distillery in 1987, it was the first new Irish whiskey distillery to open in 100 years and I really admire his unbelievable energy, insight and experience.
They say timing is everything in business. How was yours?
Pretty good. We opened in 2003 before the renaissance in the appreciation of Irish whiskey took off around 2008. To some extent, I feel we played a part in that and helped distilleries shape some of the products we’re now selling.
Have you any particular unique selling point?
We have our own whiskey brand called Celtic Cask. It’s a single cask whiskey and each one is slightly different with its own distinctive flavour made by ageing the whiskey in wine barrels from exclusive vineyards.
What I hadn’t expected was that people would collect them and that they would appreciate in value. For example, a bottle from Celtic Cask Dó sold for €90 at the time and it’s now worth around €600. Celtic Casks were awarded the best independent whiskey bottling in the world by Whisky Magazine.
Are you active in the area of corporate social responsibility?
Yes. We set up the Irish Whiskey Awards three years ago to recognise excellence and innovation by producers and distillers and also to raise money for charity.
What two things could the Government do to help SMEs in the current environment?
They could reduce employers’ PRSI especially for start-up businesses. Specifically in my industry, I would like to see the duty on alcohol come more into line with the rest of Europe.
In your experience are banks lending to SMEs?
Yes. Ulster Bank has been extremely supportive of our new venture in Killarney. We have banked with them since 2003 so they know our track record.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business?
Adding a wholesale arm to our retail business without having a direct debit facility for getting paid. It was tough going until we put a system in place that uses an intermediary to collect money from customers directly.
What is the most frustrating part of running a small business?
Getting bogged down in emails when you should be talking to customers.
What’s your business worth and would you sell it?
Truthfully, no idea about its value. I’ve never even thought about it which I imagine means no!