Tomoka Spirits Boutique, St Albans

In 2012 Jass Patel and two friends teamed up to open a retail outlet specialising in unusual spirits. Patel tells DRN how it all began and where it’s heading:

Why did you decide to set up Tomoka?

I used to own a cocktail bar in St Albans and we made a point of not stocking regular spirits brands such as Bombay Sapphire, Jack Daniel’s and Smirnoff. Instead we focused on smaller producers and unique products. We found that increasingly our customers would ask where they could buy these drinks to have at home, so when we opened the shop we started out stocking those types of products you couldn’t buy in supermarkets – Japanese single malt whiskies, Scottish small-batch gins and vintage Caribbean rums.

We knew there was plenty of interest – it wasn’t just one or two people coming into the bar and asking about these, it was quite a few, and we had a loyal customer base who came in frequently to try new things, so we were confident about opening the shop.

Tomoka is named after the ship of Bill McCoy, a legendary rum smuggler during US Prohibition in the 1920s. His liquor had a reputation for impeccable quality and his shipments soon became known as the Real McCoy.

What is your local area and competition like?

We are in the main shopping area of St Albans and in terms of other specialist retailers there really isn’t anything in the area. Oddbins closed and there are some other independent wine shops, but they are slightly out of town, so there’s not much competition.

People don’t come in expecting really low prices. They like to come in because it’s about the knowledge and stories we can share. We know the people behind the gins for example, and we can offer tastings and samples. We give recommendations and ideas about how you can drink it, and what it might go with. So we might suggest that a smoky whisky goes well with blue cheese, or with gins we can recommend tonics and garnishes that we know work. It’s much more than you could get online, and customers often get to try the product.

A lot of our customers come from St Albans and they have a bit of knowledge about food and drink. We get people coming from the surrounding areas as well.

What sells well in BWS?

We were lucky in that we set up just before the gin boom. Gin is still really big and we have more than 100. Over he last couple of years I would have said gin was the biggest sector, for example in 2017 we sold more gin than whisky at Christmas, which is amazing.

But over the past 12 months we have seen a lot more people interested in whisky and rum. Gin is still up there but we have definitely noticed more people coming in for whisky.

Because we are a small shop we tend to rotate stock a lot, and we chop and change the line-up.

In addition to spirits we also have a good collection of Champagne.

What do you do to keep customers coming back?

We do a lot of consumer tastings and this brings us a kind of partnership with a brand. So even if we don’t order from that supplier for a couple of months we still have that connection.

We aim to do at least two events each month. We mix up the products and these are ticketed events. Because our shop is small we tend to book a local restaurant or bar that has a space big enough for 15 to 30 people.

We would like to increase the number of rums we stock.

People are increasingly asking for spiced and aged rums. A lot are from the Caribbean but we also see a lot of interest in the French island rums.

We have launched an online craft gin shop (craftgins.co.uk), with the plan for promoting craft gins. We are looking for investment for this now so that we can really ramp up what we are doing there.

The other thing we want to move into more is our private tastings of whisky, rum, gin and port.

We think there is a big market for offering that personal experience. Retail is getting harder and harder and even though we have a niche business we do face the challenge that if people aren’t on the street shopping we have to work out how we can go out and find them. This concept is something we mainly run in people’s homes, but it can also be in a hired venue. It’s been popular so far for birthday events or dinner parties. Basically we are the pre-dinner entertainment.

We are seeing a slight rise in interest for this from corporate events but mainly so far it is consumers who want a private tasting experience.

We can offer a discount for any products they like at the tasting. We can’t sell to them direct in a consumer’s house but they can fill out an order form and then we can arrange for it to be delivered or picked up.

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