Confessions of a retailer: The Oak Barrel, SydneyBy Owen Bellwood
Scott Fitzsimons, The Oak Barrel’s whisky and spirits manager, discusses the changing Australian spirits market and why it’s important to champion local products.
How would you describe Oak Barrel to someone who has never visited?
It’s one of the oldest independent bottle stores in Australia. We’re smack bang in the middle of Sydney’s central business district, so as well as offering a wide range of products we’re also a destination bottle store and a bit of a meeting place.
How has the store developed since it opened?
A lot has happened in the past 62 years. Wine, which the store built its reputation on, is still the largest part of the business, but spirits have exploded in the past decade. First whisky and more recently we’ve invested more in gin, Armagnac, mezcal, rum and botanical vodkas.
How do you select the products you stock?
Everything in store is there for a reason, and the first criterion is whether it tastes great. We’ve tried 99.9% of what we stock. I only got one bottle of a peated Ben Nevis and it sold before I could come up with an excuse to crack it open, so that one got through the net.
What trends have you noticed in spirits sales?
Whisky has been the runaway success in recent years, but rising prices are threatening to put it out of reach for many drinkers. The value you can get from Armagnac, the artisan culture you find in mezcal and the powerful flavours premium rums showcase are looking very attractive.
Are local spirits important to you?
Hugely. We want to work with local producers to build their brands and the wider categories. I consider education to be one of The Oak Barrel’s key mission statements, but we can’t do it alone – distillers around Australia are all brand ambassadors for their categories.
What is your current favourite spirit?
I’m a sucker for the Kilkerran 12 Year Old from the Glengyle distillery in Campbeltown, Scotland. I’ve come back to that every year since it launched. It’s such a great, complex, old-worldly whisky, and one of the best bang-for-bucks of the past few years. However, the Clairin white rhums from Haiti blew my mind recently.
What brings customers to your shop?
There’s an experience at The Oak Barrel that comes from our recommendations, discussions or events. I’ve been a customer of The Oak Barrel since I was 18, and to be on the other side of the bottle brings a serious responsibility to ensure that the experience is of the same quality that kept me coming back all those years.
What kind of events do you host?
We run introductory tastings for whisky, rum and gin, as well as masterclasses for these categories and Cognac, Armagnac and Tequila. At these events we drill down into a particular style, theme or producer. We also run bigger fairs, including Sydney Whisky Fair and Sydney Craft Spirits Fair.
What are the highlights of working at The Oak Barrel?
The buyers get a lot of freedom from the owner, Paul Downie, to back themselves, which is a responsibility we love but don’t take lightly. This helps fuel discovery and ensures that the shelves are never the same one week to the next. There’s also an incredibly strong community around The Oak Barrel, including the customers and the industry.
What challenges do you face in the shop?
We pride ourselves on being ahead of the curve, which sometimes presents its own challenges. We live the job and are out at bars most nights, involving ourselves in the scene to try and see where the trends are coming from and what punters are asking for.