Birmingham's new whisky shop is promising to be the biggest and best in the UK. Mary Griffin takes a tour of the tartan-clad store which opens today in the heart of the Jewellery Quarter.

If the red tartan carpet of Birmingham's newest shops doesn't knock your socks off, some of the price tags on its shop shelves certainly will.

With bright red Wallace clan tartan underfoot, spun from the wool of Isle of Skye sheep, this Jewellery Quarter shop makes a striking first impression.

Crammed of cabinets, stacked high with golden whiskies, the owners are as eager to tempt passers-by in off the street as they are to attract whisky connoisseurs from across the world.

A passer-by might be persuaded to part with £1.95 for some whisky liqueurs, or £25 for a bottle of the favourite tipple.

But the top shelf goods – with several price tags stretching to quadruple figures and the shop's most expensive bottle, a 50-year-old Macallan priced at £35,000 – are the domain of the serious collector.

"We are here for the anoraks," says Justin Bourne, "the whisky intellects, the real whisky finders and collectors.

"And we're also here as somewhere people can grab a quick gift for mum or dad."

Justin, the sales director at Hard To Find Whisky in Spencer Street, has set out the shop floor as a tour of Scotland's major whisky producing regions.

The cabinets are divided up with whiskies devoted to: the islands, the Highlands, Speyside, the Lowlands and Campbelltown.

Splintering from the islands section, four extra cabinets are devoted to the whiskies of Islay.

More shelves are given over to bourbons, with an alcove devoted to whiskies from foreign shores and two cabinets at the entrance, each devoted to customer favourites, Johnnie Walker and Jack Daniels.

Alongside the usual suspects and the rare and collectable bottles are gift sets of miniatures.

One shelf stocks little bottles of water from specific regions of Scotland at £3.99 to add to your Scotch.

 

And there are pots of Macallan honey, Bowmore marmalade and a whisky bath gel for anyone who wants to smell of Scotch all day long.

"Being in the middle of the Bullring wouldn't have worked for us," says Justin.

"It's important to us that people can park outside for 70p and pop in and grab a bottle.

"There are very few places you can go to view anything of this calibre.

"A lot of people have already knocked on the door while we've been fitting out the shop saying ‘I only drink Bells', or ‘I only drink Famous Grouse'.

"Well, those supermarket blends are made up of several single malts so we are working to find out what goes into Famous Grouse and Bells so that customers who drink those whiskies can sample the tastes behind them and we can hopefully find a single malt they'll like."

Encouraging customers to sample the whiskies is a key concept at the new shop, which started as an online business.

Established in 1991, the Hard To Find brand initially focused on selling rare and collectable vinyl records from a shop behind the Mailbox.

Eventually the business went online, where it's still operational with a library of more than a million vinyl records, making it the biggest of its kind in Europe.

Its director and owner Jason Kirby has been an avid whisky collector for years and having hit a peak with vinyl he saw a gap in the rare and collectable whisky market.

Hard To Find Whisky was launched online three-and-a-half years ago, buying personal collections, before Jason saw a market for a bricks-and-mortar store that customers could visit.

Justin says: "We were in a warehouse full of bottles set up as a mail order business and we had customers turning up on the doorstep wanting to have a look around.

"That was fine until it became more regular and we realised there was demand to see the bottles and to try before you buy.

"The problem is that you can't taste whisky online and taste is a hugely important part of buying whisky.

"That doesn't mean I'm going to give someone a £35,000 whisky to taste! We can't offer "try before you buy" on everything, but a certain distillery will have a certain taste profile and we can gauge what a customer likes and doesn't like and advise accordingly."

Bar stools are being installed along the curvy black cashier's counter where customers can sit and sample the tipples.

In a corner of the shop two red leather Chesterfield sofas invite more sitting and sampling.

And 14 masterclass menus have been devised to give customers a tutored tasting through a series of different tipples.

Starting at £20 for a beginner's class they go up to £1,000 for a masterclass in the rarest and most wanted, including samples of a £3,000 Port Ellen and a £4,000 Macallan.

And they're available all day, every day, on a drop-in basis for one person or ten, with no need to book in advance.

"You don't have to book or be in a secret club," says Justin. "If you just stumble across the store and have £20 and 30-40 minutes to spare you can sit down on a Chesterfield and we'll go through the beginner's choice of five drams – one from each region of Scotland.

"We'll teach people how to nose so that they get something other than alcohol burning their nostril hairs, and also how to taste."

Each masterclass comes with an A4 sheet to work through, encouraging the taster to make notes about each dram, with full taste profiles of each whisky on the back that customers can take home.

They're also working on early evening tasting sessions for staff to indulge in ahead of their Christmas parties.