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Tipple: The Dram Shop / Le Bon Vin

by Now Then Sheffield

21 Commonside, S10 1GA.
0114 2683 117.
Website

For those of you who have never been to the Dram Shop, located on Commonside near Walkley, this is the home of one of the widest ranges of good quality ales, whiskies, wines and liquors in Sheffield. Steeped in the wooden decor of ages long past, the shop itself is just magic. I spoke to Tony Ellis, also the owner of Ellis Butchers (RIP Castle Market), who has owned the Dram Shop with his wife Sandra since 2005.

Tony and Sandra, like many independent traders in Sheffield, have been stalwart supporters of Now Then since its inception in 2008, yet in all that time (shame on us) we have never done an interview celebrating their good work. With the commiserative post-NYE need for intoxicating distraction at our door, it seemed like a good time to speak to them about our landscape of booze and their place in it.

Tell us the story of moving into the Dram Shop.

My wife used to actually work here about 20 years ago, probably about ‘96-‘97. Our kids had gone off to school and she had time on her hands, so we got her out working of course! [laughs] We saw the advert in The Star for the job and it went from there really.

At the time I had the shop in Castle Market, but knew that was going to come to an end, so when we brought the Dram Shop in October 2005 it was a great alternative for us. We bought the shop from Colin Taylor who built all the shelving and fitted the shop, which is why it looks so oldy worldy, like you’re stepping back in time. We love it.

What appealed to you about this industry? Did you have any prior experience?

Not really. Basically, I needed a job because Castle Market, even back then, was going, and we got the opportunity to live above the shop as well. At the time I didn’t really drink that much. There was only really cheap lagers available – Carling, Fosters and the like – and I don’t drink crap. But once I started at the Dram Shop my drinking has suddenly gone through the roof [laughs]. All for the job, obviously. But there is nice alcohol out there and at the time I didn’t think there was, so working here has really opened that world up to me.

The first beer I really enjoyed was Marstons Single Malt. Perhaps it was the connotations of whisky, but that was a great beer. It was what today would be called a pale, which interestingly is a term that has only really appeared in the last five years. It’s taking over the world now.

What’s your own favoured tipple?

If it’s a whisky, Benromach 10. Going back three years since it’s been released, it’s my favourite. It’s just got a bit of everything – a bit of smoke, a bit of peat and a bit of sweetness. I also actually tried the Carlos the other day. I’m not usually a fan of brandy but that was fabulous.

What is it about the shop that customers enjoy, do you think?

It’s homely. We don’t ram anything down people’s throats. We try and help people if they want help and if not we leave them to it. Virtually everything in this shop I’ve tried too so I’ve a good basis for giving advice and I enjoy it.

How have you found competing with supermarkets and chains? We heard there was a Tesco’s planned for Commonside in the past.

The land next to Rajput is up for sale and Tesco have had a crack at getting it. We have a Sainsbury’s down the road now as well. We can’t compete on price with the supermarkets. I may as well bin the small number of identikit cans we have. Good riddance.

The problem nowadays with phones and internet access is that people will come here for advice and then work out they can get a product cheaper in the supermarket down the road or online. I mean we don’t rip anyone off, our prices are fair, but we have bills to pay and we offer our products at the best possible price we can, with advice to boot. Hopefully customers will see value and return.

What’s the most unique item in the Dram Shop?

Difficult to say. Perhaps the Shackleton’s whisky. Ernest Shackleton was on an expedition to the South Pole about a hundred years ago and he took a crate of whisky with him, but they had to abandon the expedition and get back as quickly as possible, so they left the whisky behind. A hundred or so years later the crate of whisky was found, so the top man at Dalmore had to sit with it on the plane and take it back to their master distiller, who managed to extract a small amount of the liquid and replicate it. They’ve now rebranded it and called it Shackleton’s.

How do you source your products?

We’re always on the look-out for new products. Often people find us and come and show us, we taste it and go from there. We’re always looking for unique brands that are well produced. Wellbeck Brewery recently got in touch and it turns out their sales rep is an ex-student from Sheffield who used to come to the Dram Shop.

What’s your favourite thing about Sheffield?

I’ve lived here all my life. I grew up here, born here. People are friendly. It’s a welcoming city compared to a lot of other places. I remember the first wine tasting we went on after we’d taken over the shop in ‘05. We went down to London and walked into this wine tasting room. Not one person spoke to us that day. We felt we didn’t belong. It was horrible and we swore we’d never go to one again. A few months after that Sheffield’s Le Bon Vin were in touch about the wines they have on offer and they were amazing. The staff are brilliant. We’ve never looked back.

How have duty changes affected you over the last few years?

It’s just made everything more expensive, probably doubling the expense each year. I don’t smoke, but look at cigarettes, for example. When we first opened you could get a pack of 20 for just over £4. Now it’s over £9. A 2.5% rise each year is a lot of money to a small trader. Hopefully they’ll freeze it again on beer as it’s a big employer at the moment. We used to be able to offer any four beers for £5, whereas now we’re struggling to do two beers for five pounds. I’d be interested to see if minimum pricing worked. It would affect the ability of super markets to under-price local traders.

dramshopinterior|

340 Brightside Lane, S9 2SP.
0114 2560 090.
Website

The independent wine merchant is an increasingly rare breed. Most people will buy their wine from supermarkets this Christmas with no informed advice from staff, no awareness of the process of production and ultimately no real idea of value for money. There is an alternative.

I recently interviewed Patrick Jouan, managing director of Le Bon Vin, to find out a little bit more about the wine industry, his own business and recommendations for purchases ahead of the Christmas rush. Assuming of course that ‘objectivity’ is beyond the human psyche, I’ll say now I can’t recommend strongly enough heading over to Le Bon Vin, located on Brightside Lane on the way to Meadowhell. Value for money does not mean the cheapest option. As Patrick might say, ‘trust in your wine merchant’. I would say, first go and meet them.

Tell me about the inspired beginnings of Le Bon Vin in Sheffield?

We started in 1986, from humble beginnings, working from home, and then a few years later I took on a business partner. Things have been going from strength to strength and we now employ 22 people.

Where does your love of wine come?

Probably from my family. My grandfather was a wine merchant back in France in the 1950s and I’ve always been in contact with wines from a young age.

Do you sell the majority of your wines online?

Restaurant trade is still the majority of our business. The retail shop is also growing all the time, largely due to the poorly discounted wines you can buy in supermarkets. A wine discounted to £5 in a supermarket should really be discounted to around £3.99 if you were looking for value for money. At Le Bon Vin we have discounts all year round. We don’t discount at Christmas for just one week in the year. In fact we often have the lowest price in the UK for well-known brands.

I’m aware that you have a range of other alcoholic beverages available for purchase as well. How do you select those?

We sell wine and champagne but we also do liquors and ciders as well as some premium beers from France. We import the liquors from all over Europe, largely from a company near Venice called Bottega. They are a very fashionable brand and taste good without being too expensive. Their best grappa often has something unusual in it like chocolate or lemon as well.

I hear on the grape vine (oh yes) that you have a particular love of French wine. Can you tell us a little about how that came about?

I just believe in the French wines and the Italian wines. Both of them have just got it right. I know more of the French of course and I’m talking to wine producers all over France. They are very keen to give the customer a product which is genuinely well made. The majority of decent producers coming out of France make genuine quality produce. They are not full of chemicals. It’s not the volume they are interested in, like so many other parts of the world, but quality.

It’s easy to produce a lot of wine in one hectare by adding a lot of chemicals, but respecting all that is natural from the land is what’s important. A bottle of wine should be made as naturally as possible and that’s what a lot of wine makers around the world are forgetting. They produce more to make it cheaper. The only way we will have a decent quality wine is by producing quality ingredients. Everything has to be clean with no hidden chemicals.

It’s scary in some parts of the world. I would not want to name a country in particular, but the amount of chemicals used, particularly in factory produced wine that is sold direct to supermarkets. The wine maker should in a sense do the bare minimum to the wine. They are a keeper, a person who looks after the grape, who lets the root go deep into the soil. In France you can have a root that goes down to 15 metres. In other parts of the world like Australia you will have a vine which is rooted no deeper than 30cm. This is not wine anymore and is often dangerous for the human body.

At Le Bon Vin this is the most important thing to me. It has to be made by producers who respect the natural way of growing the vine. Organic is great, but sometimes you don’t get a wine that tastes like the wine of the region from which it has been made. A Muscat should taste like a Muscat. What’s most important is trusting your wine merchant, which the French are very good at. There is a better relationship between the merchant and the customer, where the customer feels confident to ask the merchant their opinion on the wines. The customer in France is less interested in the brand and more interested in whether that particular wine maker is making a decent quality product.

That’s an interesting comparison to the British style of purchasing wine, which is largely through supermarkets whose staff are often ill-informed.

Yes, informing the customer is paramount. The price of wine doesn’t have to be expensive. We start at £5.50 and we have around 60-70 wines which are between the price of £5.50 and £7, which is what you should be spending for everyday wines.

The connoisseur will always know his wines, but the general public tend to buy on price or recommendation and often use big corporate retailers. Who are the independent wine merchant’s customers and how can you compete with the big boys?

We are growing all the time. It comes down to what the customer wants to drink. They have to look at the quality and we fit in by providing better quality wines than at the supermarket at affordable prices. So for me it all comes down to what it tastes like. Don’t buy wine from supermarkets because it’s easy. Make that effort to visit us once and you will see a difference in your glass.

By the way there is never a bad vintage from France and Italy, just different opinions. Often it comes down to things like when are you going to drink it – in a week, in a month, in a year? What are you having it with?

How do you rate the very new wine countries, like Turkey, Israel, and old Soviet bloc nations?

I don’t know very much about those wines. I’d like to introduce some of their wines going forward, but we do already have around 800 bottles of wine in store. We have some good Lebanese wines, which we have been importing direct, though it is difficult to market them. We used to import Tunisian wines though we are now slowing this down as customers are often interested in certain ranges, particularly the Italian, the French and the Chilean wines.

How have duty changes over the last few years affected the wine business?

On a bottle of wine you’re talking £2.20 not including the VAT, which is added to the duty. After that you have the VAT on the wine sale itself. The duty is essentially a double tax.

Now we can’t go back to 50 years ago, when there was no duty. The UK is a drinking nation and we’ve got to get our tax from somewhere. But what I would say is that the duty is so high that year after year we have around another 10% tax added to it. It’s becoming impossible to have value wines at £5 anymore in this country. I would say if you were to buy a bottle of wine these days I’d start at £6-8, but again I don’t trust the supermarkets, because a £6 from them, because of how they price it, would mean you’re unlikely to get value for money.

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by Now Then Sheffield

Next article in issue 70

Our pick of the bunch.

615 London Road. 0114 2551500. One of our favoured Sheffield drinking establishments the White Lion has this month increased its program…

 615 London Road.
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