Whisky Behind the scenes #2- Thomas Aske: Dragon’s Den Contenstant, Founder of Blank Canvas Collective and Co-Owner of Black Rock Group, Surfside and Whisky-Me.
Hello Thomas! Thanks for agreeing to take part in our current blog series: Whisky Behind the Scenes, giving our readers some inside scoop into the Whisky Industry. You have worked with some industry leading brands, including Johnnie Walker and Tanqueray, opened multiple award-winning bars, and won investment from not only 1, but 3, dragons for your whisky subscription service. What initially attracted you to the alcohol industry?
I started working in hospitality way back in 1998 as a glass collector during college and it really stemmed from there. The energy and vibrancy of the nightlife scene at that age was exciting to me, although no doubt affected my academic progression. The enjoyment of the industry drove me to progress within it, and I made my way through nearly every hospitality role, before joining Diageo back in 2005. I have found that each new challenge of moving through from bartending, to ambassadorship, then into business has driven me personally and ensured that I have never been bored or felt stagnant in my career. That said, the pressures of running successful hospitality ventures and subscription business have been challenging, especially over the last few years with Covid. I am 25 years in the industry this year and I am just as excited by it now as I was when I first started.
How did you find working as an ambassador for a huge brand like Diageo?
I loved it. Coming from a bartending background, the change was massive – corporate life being quite far from what I experienced previous. What it allowed me was a different perspective on how the alcohol industry works, and gain invaluable experience and contacts that helped enormously when it came to setting up my own businesses back in 2009. It really gave me the platform to start thinking about business. It had been my goal to start my own business and own bars since the age of 18 and this put me in the right mindset to achieve this. It is also where I met my business partner, Tristan and we continue together in multiple businesses today.
What do you enjoy the most about working in the industry?
Working within an industry that is geared towards providing people with enjoyment is great. The ability to be part of that and enjoy the amazing experiences it brings has been fantastic. I have been lucky enough to travel the world, educating and being educated on spirits which is something that you find rarely in other industries. The social element that comes with the work is also rewarding and the close network of like minded individuals that work within our industry create such great experiences.
With several successful bars under your belt, do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to enter the hospitality industry?
I think there is a tendency to underestimate how challenging bar ownership can be, especially from a financial standpoint. The margins are tight, the hours long and the chance of success slim. So you really need to be in love with what you do, otherwise it can become challenging. The main advise I would provide is to ensure all due diligence is done on the financial projections of the business. Make sure all areas of the potential customer and revenue stream are understood. Be sure to factor in plenty of cashflow for operating over the first six month as it will likely take this long to turn profit. That said, when I started I did none of these things – had I, I probably wouldn’t have started. Over the years I have been lucky enough to have a series of successful venues, but equally there have been a few that haven’t worked – it is from the failures that you take the learnings.
It is great that you are so positive, and I totally agree in that is from our failures that we do learn the most. In 2021, you appeared on Dragons Den, what was that experience like for you?
Dragons Den was incredible. We were asked to pitch for the show and for us there really wasn’t any downside. We would either go and the show and do terribly, in which case we would still have over two million people talk about our business, or do well and get amazing publicity. Fortunately we managed to secure the three investors and the exposure alone was enough to triple the size of our subscriptions so game changing for our business.
How did it feel to be the sixth company in the show’s 16-year history to receive a shared investment from three dragons, and the first time that a whisky brand had been successful?
We have always believed in our business and still believe we are just getting started, but securing the three dragons gave us some reassurance that we had something interesting. To have three successful entrepreneurs believe in the concept and back you financially to grow it gives you the feeling that you could be treading the same path that got them where they are. The support they provide and the experience in certain circumstances is invaluable too.
At GlenWyvis, we pride ourselves on being an environmentally friendly distillery, can you tell us a bit more about your choice to kick the glass and use pouches to package your whisky samples?
The pouch has become our unique selling point really, without the pouch we wouldn’t be able to provide the amazing whiskies we do at the incredible pricepoint we do. The weight of them means we can ship at a very low cost, something which is also represented by the low carbon footprint of shipping the pouch. Granted they are plastic, however they can now be recycled at most supermarkets thanks to the advancement of local recycling schemes. More recently, we are now aware of fully recyclable pouch options and will be transitioning over to the in due course.
I know you mentioned Covid-19 and the pressures it had on business, but, given the nature of subscription services, do you think the Pandemic had a positive impact on your subscription service, Whisky-Me?
During the pandemic, we grew around 60%, which was partly related but also our bars were closed and so it meant our focus was much more on Whisky Me. We were very fortunate to have been diversified with whisky me during that time as it ended up being our sole income for around 18 months. It was during the pandemic that we were asked to pitch for Dragons Den and so it seems every cloud has a silver lining.
That is fantastic! Do you think your presence in the industry changes your perception on whisky, or does it deepen your appreciation for it?
I have been fortunate to be exposed to some incredible whiskies over the past two decades, the sort of whiskies ordinarily our of reach. Single cask samples, distillery exclusives and occasionally very rare drams are presented and they always leave a memorable mark. That said, one thing that has become clear over the years is the incredible craftsmanship of well established whisky brands. The way they are able to transcend the category and remain relevant, whilst also innovating is fascinating to see and also very difficult to replicate. I am a huge fan of traditional distilleries but occasionally come across new liquids that really make you stand up and pay attention.
With so many amazing whiskies being so accessible to you, what would you say your top 3 whiskies are?
Choosing from drams readily available – Talisker 10, Glenfarclas 25 and our exclusive Glasgow Distillery Marsala Cask.
To find out more about Whisky Me Whisky Club and join the subscription service, click here.