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The joke that led to Crieff whisky specialist JL Gill opening Hong Kong store

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Whisky specialist and delicatessen in Crieff, JL Gill, is enjoying some Far Eastern promise with a thriving branch successfully trading in Hong Kong.

JL Gill, a popular shop in the small Perthshire town, is big business in the former British colony after a standing joke between owner Andrew Cuthbert and a regular customer about opening there became a reality.

As well as popping over to Hong Kong to offer whisky tastings and meet shop patrons, Andrew, 48, has also teamed up with another Perthshire business to produce his own malt whisky.

And the partnership will see a new distillery opened towards the end of 2021.

“What happened was I had a customer who used to come in and say: ‘I will buy all the your stock, I’ll buy this, I’ll buy that, I’ll buy your shop for a million pounds’ and I’d be like ‘What am I going to do?’,” said Andrews.

“This joke led onto us becoming good friends and he did start buying a lot of stock and always kept on saying that I should open up a shop in Hong Kong and I didn’t have time for it.

Andrew at the counter of the Hong Kong branch.

“But out of the blue one day he comes in and says that’s us got a shop in Hong Kong. He had gone out and bought one!

“He opened up the shop in Hong Kong, copied the shop front with JL Gill signage and basically the deal is that I supply the whisky to the shop and it is known as JL Gill Hong Kong. It’s a complete copy of this shop in central Hong Kong.

“I was out at the opening and I go out and do whisky tastings. It’s good, I enjoy it. I love going out there and for some reason they all seemed to know me as they had visited this shop. We have done whisky tastings for the guys that own HSBC Bank and things, so great times.”

Andrew at the opening of the Hong Kong shop.

Distillery plan

Andrew is also working with Summer Harvest Oils in Perthshire to make their own single estate malt whisky called Inchaffray. The first bottle will be ready in four years and there is already a waiting list.

He explained: “Mark Bush who owns Summer Harvest is married to one of the Cameron daughters who farms at Ferneyfold at Madderty where they basically grow barley.

“Someone joked one day ‘Why don’t you make your own whisky’, so in conversation with Mark, him not knowing anything about whisky and me knowing everything about whisky, we decided to go for it and build a distillery.

“It was a mad conversation that led us down this road and we plan to have it open for next October.”

The JL Gill shop in West High Street, Crieff.

Keeping things local

Keeping things as local as possible is Andrew’s ethos and the whisky project follows that.

“The whole concept is grain to glass, with everything made on the farm,” he said. “Barley is grown on the farm and we will distil that barley. If you see barley on that farm it’s going to end up in a bottle of our whisky.

“Everything will be done as local as we can, even the transfers are getting put on the bottles in Crieff. In fact the only thing we aren’t doing local is the malting and that’s done in Glenrothes which is pretty close. We are trying to keep it as close as we can.

“We have already done a distillation, but as we didn’t have a distillery we put it out to licence and we already have 2,000 litres distilled and that should be ready in about four years’ time.

“This was a five-year plan to get a distillery built and then we thought there was no point in paying another distillery to distil our product so we decided to invest all our money into building our own distillery. Planning permission is in and we should be in our building by October.”

After 4 months of hardly any deliveries we are finally stocked up again. Whisky shelves are looking great. Now to make spaces in them again.

Posted by J L Gill Whisky Shop and Speciality Foods. on Thursday, 13 August 2020

Scottish produce

Andrew’s parents opened a grocery shop in Crieff in the 1970s, the store’s success tempting them to sell to a company called Gibson’s in the ‘80s.

However, a year later, Andrew was given the opportunity to buy it back and, with the original plan to travel the world, he began crafting a business built on Scottish produce, an ethos he still sticks to today.

Soon after taking over his parents’ former shop, he was given the opportunity to buy another shop a across the street – a family grocers and delicatessen business, JL Gill.

Andrew never did travel the world, instead choosing to bring both businesses together, taking his father’s advice to “get into whisky”.

Alan Forbes, employee at JL Gill, Crieff.

He added: “I started my business as one of the very first refill shops about 30 years ago before it became fashionable! We do whiskies, bulk supplies, herbs, spices, flours and I specialise in Scottish products. I try to do as much Scottish produce as I can, cheeses, oatcakes, biscuits, all sorts of things.”

More than two decades later, Andrew and his wife, Evelyn, and Alan Forbes, an employee of the store before Andrew took over, still run JL Gill with more than 100 whiskies, gins and plenty of very fine Scottish produce.

Alan was 79 in October and is going strong!

With so many exciting projects on the radar, Andrew has no idea what the future holds.

“If you asked me this question 30 years ago I would never have said I would be standing in Hong Kong serving whisky. If you had asked me the question last year I would never have said I would be building my own distillery so I don’t know what’s around the corner – retirement! I’ve been at for 30 years, I am the youngest, oldest shopkeeper in Crieff!

“Hopefully a bigger whisky shop and tasting rooms in the very near future If all goes to plan.”