We have all had a sliding doors moment where seemingly inconsequential actions nonetheless alter the trajectory of future events. When Cask Trade Director, Lee Tomlinson, left his homeland of Derbyshire for the bright lights of London to work for wine merchant Jeroboams, little did he know his career would be focused on whisky.
After deciding a degree in architecture was not for him, Lee moved to London at the age of 21 to follow his interest in wine. Like most people, he started on the shop floor at wine merchants Jeroboams at their Heath Street store in Hampstead, but within a year he found himself managing the company’s whisky shop – Milroy’s of Soho.
Lee says: “I quite liked the whisky side of the business and most people I worked with were more interested in wine. I moved over to Milroy’s as assistant manager and when my boss left I was handed the keys.”
As the manager of Milroy’s original store on Greek Street, now not part of Jeroboams, Lee was invited to visit a lot of distilleries in Scotland where he gained his great knowledge and passion for whisky. However, that hadn’t been his first taste of whisky. He remembers his grandfather drinking blends and the odd dram of single malt on special occasions. Lee also remembers his former manager at Milroy’s giving him a baptism into cask strength whisky.
“It was trial by fire. I was given five or six cask strength whiskies, something I had not experienced before,” says Lee, who remembers, whilst laughing: “The idea was to teach me about different flavour profiles but it was also to see how you could handle 60% + ABV whiskies. I had to taste and make notes and then find out if I was right, I think I was reasonably spot on.”
However, there was one dram Lee particularly remembers. “A Springbank finished in Barolo cask was the first whisky I remember thinking was different. It was a really interesting whisky, the one that made me think there is more to whisky than just regionality,” says Lee of the Longrow 7 Years Old Gaja Barolo 2000.
With his Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Diploma and six years of knowledge under his belt, Lee moved on to help a wine company develop its own range of bottled whisky. Lee explains: “It was working on this independent bottle whisky range that got me into cask trading. At that time I was buying in whisky to bottle and we were selling excess stock in casks not used for our own bottling needs.”
Lee first met Cask Trade’s now founder and Managing Director, Simon Aron, whilst dealing with a client who had sold him some casks. “Simon had been led up the garden path and miss-sold several casks so I helped him and tried to find some of his missing casks. When we got all of his casks we got them registered under a WOWGR (Warehousekeepers and Owners of Warehoused Goods Regulations) and then started to trade casks,” says Lee.
Now Lee spends his days buying all the casks that Cask Trade sells to its clientele of independent bottlers and private clients. “It’s about understanding what’s available and what to buy at the right time. There are a lot of casks out there to buy but I make sure they are the right casks to buy which is based on price, provenance, location and when it last checked and sampled,” explains Lee who says he says no to casks he is offered more often than yes.
“Essentially I keep in regular contact with key people in the whisky industry, be that independent bottlers or distilleries, and let them know we are here and I work on building those relationships,” he adds.
Another important part of his job is to keep on top of consumer trends.“Popular casks with our customers are peated whisky, ideally from Islay, and whisky that has been aged in sherry casks – both of which are extremely hard to come by,” says Lee, adding: “It’s all down to the flavour profile – these are two of the most extreme - which I think a lot of people gravitate towards to, especially our European, Asian and Scandinavian clients. Anything extreme gets a dedicated following!”
Another trend is cask rum. Much like how some consumers move from blended to single malt whisky and then cask strength, people are moving from rums, traditionally enjoyed with a mixer, to one served with just ice or a sipping rum.
“Rum is increasingly popular for us. Everyone thought it would get popular and it didn’t but now it is. People are seeing it as a drink like a whisky, not to drink with a mixer, and people seeing it as collectible,” says Lee.
Cask Trade has a selection of fantastic Guyana, Belize and Jamaican rums hitting the list in the coming weeks. However, Lee’s career in whisky hasn’t dwindled his love for wine. Top tipples in the Tomlinson household include white and red Burgundy, usually better value cuvees from good producers. The odd bottle or two of Champagne can often be found in the recycling too. His current dram of choice is SPEY’s Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival's latest bottling finished in Oloroso cask.
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