Richard Foster interviews Amy Seton

Congratulations on twelve years of the Birmingham Whisky Club and a decade of your festival, Whisky Birmingham last year. You also celebrated 6 years of your bar, Grain & Glass in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter last month.

1) First question then, what was it that made you want to establish your whisky empire in Birmingham and how has the City changed as you've grown over this time?

Thank you! It’s certainly been a journey. I have been in Brum for a really long time and when I started my first post-uni job and it was more about the city than whisky actually. Many moons ago the city was quite a different space and I wanted to create interesting experiences that I’d like to attend. It really came from a place of me being sick of Brum bashing and thinking I could do something about it. 

2) Examining the three different elements to your business (club, festival, bar) what do you find the most challenging and equally the most rewarding across them all?

They are all fairly linked together in terms of customers, and all have different challenges. For example, a challenge I have at the festival is making sure no one falls into a canal after one too many good whiskies! The Club is where it began, so the challenge back then was not knowing anything about running a business and having to learn as I went. Having a physical space with a team is definitely the most challenging though I’d say. But it also signalled the start of real growth of the business and us establishing us as a brand. And then of course there was covid…

3) How did the pandemic affect the business and are there any lingering impacts that have prevented you from achieving goals / expanding / hiring more staff etc. since then?

We opened the bar in late Jan 2018, so in the six years of the bar being open, due to covid we have only had three full years. Each other year we weren’t able to open for a full year. That’s a lot of disrupted business time, which of course had an impact. Lots of our customers were hugely supportive in many ways and it really gave us a deep and lasting appreciation for them. Many people felt worried about coming back. Getting on trains, being in a smaller space with people they don’t usually hang around with. There was a general feeling of disquiet right up until early 2023. And even when we could fully open, on a weekly basis would have people rearranging their tasting sessions. If one person out of a group of four is ill, the whole group can’t attend. No one ever asked for a refund and we just moved those bookings. But, that’s four people who were expected into a tasting and would also spend on the bar. Even though those people came back, that was repeated constantly over the years of covid. The impact on admin, moral of staff was also very tough. And the worry if we got it, we’d have to close for the weekend as we’re a really small team.

4) 12 years ago there weren't as many female founders of whisky companies / distilleries / bars etc. as there are now. Have you experienced any challenges as a woman in the whisky world or has it had any benefits?

Like all women in the industry, I’ve had the comments (and other things) over the years. My personal philosophy is to just crack on with growing my business and challenge directly if I think they are being inappropriate - verbally or personal space. I do realise this approach isn’t something everyone is comfortable with, so it becomes more important as I age to be assertive to pave the way for younger woman to understand what is okay and what is not. On the flip side, it has drawn interest over the years and I have had more attention for what I have built as I am female. I’m also conscious of that aspect as I really do just want people to look at the business I’ve grown, the great space and team I work with, and have that be what shines. 

5) If you could go back and give yourself any advice when you started out, what would that be & why?

I’d give myself a slap and tell myself to stick to my job with a stable income! Mainly joking. There’s no advice I would give past me. It would be seeking to deny the experiences that have led me to this point, and I’m very happy to have got to this point. In business, and life, I’m a future thinker and likely wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning if I rehashed every sliding-doors moment. Actually, that’s the advice. To just crack on with the huge amount of naivety every new entrepreneur has. Know you’ll learn as you go, and it’s as much about journey as the outcome and to stop looking for new sparkles in the corner! 

6) Staffing is a big issue in hospitality these days. What would be your advice to other bar owners - and equally to potential staff - to help them navigate this aspect of running a successful bar business?

Know that wages of even 5 years ago do not apply now. Pay as well as you can, invest in training and make sure they understand and are clear about your mission as a business. Ask them their opinion of how the business should grow, make sure they feel included. It’s easy to keep all this to yourself but you’ll be better off bringing them into your story. Lastly, know which fires to fight with them. 

7) You're hosting the 11th Whisky Birmingham festival this March, what else does 2024 hold for your business that you'd like to share with the world?

We’re a bit like Glastonbury as we’re having a fallow year. We have a venue upgrade planned which will look lovely once completed in April/May. Apart from that it’s about doubling down on what we do well and bringing even more people into the venue for our whisky experiences. Hosting some great members events and likely our first group trips to Scotland. Actually, it’s not really a fallow year is it! 

8) We share a passion for English Whisky (and talk about it a lot!) but what are your predictions for the category this year and which distilleries are you looking at with excitement for inaugural releases or other major milestones?

We certainly do! It’s been so exciting to see so many more distilleries start producing over the last year or so. We’ve been pushing English whisky at the bar since we opened when there were about three distilleries to discuss. I feel this year we'll see English whisky taking a more global stage. As scotch continues to rise in price, I think drinkers will look to other categories and English whisky could fill that gap. I’m also loving the diversity coming out of production. Producers are working with putting out very young whiskies straight to market so the attention to detail of flavour is present in every part of the production process. Lots of innovations and creativity happening. Ones to watch? I have to champion local, so I’m very excited about West Midlands Distillery and Spirit of Birmingham. I’ve been talking with them for years now, so can’t wait to see what 2024 holds for them. I also think a honourable mention has to go to you. Someone else starting a business from scratch is always to be admired, and your passion for what distilleries are doing is very authentic. I was very impressionable with the festival in 2023 and the turnout of both customers and distilleries was very exciting, so a general milestone would be a 2024 even bigger event!

9) Finally, do you see yourself rooted in Birmingham forever, or could the wild coast of Scotland (somewhere I know you love to visit whenever you can) one day draw you up there to start a new adventure?

Birmingham is a very important place for me as it had given my this business, so I will always have something here. I do have growth plans for life and business which will take me more to Scotland but the roots are very strong here.