Stewart Smith (Whisky Expert) & Kirsty Harris (Business owner extraordinaire)

Mulberry Bank Auction House, Glasgow

Ever wanted to go to an auction, maybe not just to buy whisky, but to buy anything, but been too scared? I speak to Stewart and Kirsty from Mulberry Bank in Glasgow to find out, well, all things auction related, with a large dash of whisky too.

Mulberry Bank are located in St Vincent Crescent, Glasgow, with over 60 years’ experience our knowledgeable staff offer a professional service with a friendly and personal approach.  They have general sale auctions, but also fantastic whisky (and fine wine) auctions too.

You can bid on the phone and online using live bid, you can find their website here.  If you think auctions are stuffy and boring, trust me, they aren’t the way Mulberry Bank hold them.  The staff are profession but fun, Molly the dog is often the star of the show.

One of my favourite things, are the whisky tasting that are held the night before the Whisky (and fine wine) auctions.  Which gives you the chance to try some truly exceptional whisky, that you otherwise wouldn’t get the chance too.

The next Whisky auction is Tuesday 18th November, and even more interesting a pre-sale whisky tasting, Monday 17th November and tickets are still available.

So now less of me talking and on to someone far more interesting.

Hi Stewart, thanks for sparing the time for this interview, let’s begin.

Stewart with some of this sale's whisky
Stewart with some of this sale’s whisky

Are you new to the company Stewart?

I started with the company in August, so still a relative newcomer, but I am certainly not new to whisky.

What was your background?

I worked in hospitability as a restaurant manager and chef.   I also owned and ran my own whisky shop (Angel’s Share Whisky shop), unfortunately though the financial crash happened and I sold up.  I went back into the catering trade, and it’s taken a few years to get back into the whisky side.  I wanted to take my time getting the right job for me rather than just take anything.  I have always loved whisky and would also hold whisky tastings too.

What’s a typical day like for you?

I don’t really have a typical day, I can be at the computer cataloguing, or dealing with people that come in with whisky to value, or I travel to give valuations.  I travel.  I can do 1400 miles in about three weeks.  Lots of research into whisky all the time and that all the information is up to date and everything is catalogued in the best way, for the collectors and gives the collectors information. Fill level, box etc.

Do you deal only with whisky?

Predominantly I deal with all the spirts, but I help out with the furniture, and being a smaller team we all work together and we can all help each other.  Even if it means moving a snooker table across the sale room and reassembling!  If I’ve had a long day doing valuations then the others will help me bring everything in and of course help set up for auctions too.

How you do you find whisky to auction?

We have collectors that will send whisky over for pretty much every single auctions, especially from abroad, we let them know when to send the whisky in by, and we also have local people that come in, either regulars or people who have heard about us.  We have regular emails and telephone calls requesting a valuation, we also advertise valuation days as well.

What do you take into consideration during valuations?

I try and get as much information as I can, we don’t like to just take anything, and we want good quality products to sell.  We need to make sure that the customer is getting the very best service possible, from the seller to the buyer.  We try to make the process as easy as possible for people.  I travel to the customer for valuation, this saves them having to travel to us, and pack all their whisky up to do so, plus it allows us to have more of a personal touch.

What makes your job difficult?

Making sure that we don’t have too many of the same bottlings in, as it would then dilute the market. We need to make sure that our customers are getting the best price and the best way to do that is make sure that there isn’t five of the very same bottle in.  Some customers have very preconceived ideas as to what an item will fetch, and you have to explain that sometimes it just doesn’t work that way.  You have to be able to read people and manage their expectations, so that they aren’t too disappointed if an item if worth lower than they thought.

Is it more difficult being a general auction house, as opposed to specialising only in whisky?

It’s harder to raise your profile, but we don’t want to have as many sales, as we don’t want to take filler stock.  In my opinion it’s better to have four good sales a year then to have six average ones.  We look at what we have coming in, we want to get the best price for the customer (both seller and buyer)and that’s arranged by having the personal touch, getting to know the customers, know the product, and being able to talk face to face, as opposed to just being online.  It’s fantastic to be in the sale room, seeing the bottles, the excitement factor when it comes up and the bidding itself.

What’s your favourite whisky?

It changes on the mood, the weather, the day of the week.  I love sherry cask, cask strength whisky.  I’m not a fan of any whisky that’s 40% really.  Glenfarclas 105 is a great dram as is the 15 year old too.

What’s your favourite whisky memory?

I remember drinking a 25 year old Bowmore on a peat bog in Islay. The whisky was fantastic, but it was the experience that really made it special.  It’s a moment I won’t ever forget.

Worst whisky you have ever had?

I don’t know about the worst whisky but I am not a fan of Glenfiddich, I had a bad experience with one once and now its stuck.  It evokes that memory, and that’s what is great about whisky, it’s so much more than a drink.  I’m personally not a fan of blends and don’t really drink them, I like to drink my whisky and really enjoy it, whereas blends for me, make me think of whisky just to drink, rather than savour.

What do you think of NAS whisky? 

Its fashion, a trend, there are some great NAS out there, but it’s definitely become more common place because of a stock and quality of casks problem.  I think this is why there are more and more finishes to whisky these days, to make it more palatable.

How do you know the estimates and what to expect?

A lot is from auction history, and not just our auctions, you keep an eye on all of the auctions, the latest ones and some of the historical too.  I watch and know the market.  Also anything that’s newsworthy that may change the pricing of a whisky for short period of time.  It’s about doing your research and knowing what is happening in the whisky world.

What was your best whisky find for auction?

A single grain can be lovely, they are so underrated that it’s great when you find a really good one. Finding something that is so rare is always a special moment, or if I find a bottle that I would like to own, it’s an exciting moment.

Kirsty Harris

Kirsty with some of this month's sale whisky
Kirsty with some of this month’s sale whisky

We actually conducted this interview at a wake table, which is beautiful but a very interesting piece, it is up for sale this December, so if you fancy a lovely bit of furniture, with a lot of history and that had this very interview written at, then go for it.

Boring, and predicable perhaps, but what’s your job title?

Co-owner, director valuer of jewellery, silver and all things that sparkle.

What are you favourite items?

I like the things that come into us and really tell a story. The ones that require a lot of research, making them give up their story and finding the history of it all.

It’s so interesting and to give an item more worth, but more than that you give it something exciting, a story.  I love it when we have an item come in and you just don’t know what it is.  Sometimes you research it, and research it and you finally learn what it is, but there are times that you just don’t  know what the item is, and we sell it not knowing.

I love it (we all do) when there is an item that just flies off the shelf, and you don’t expect it.  Suddenly something that you expected to fetch maybe a £100 suddenly hits the £4,000 mark and there is a hush over the sale room, it keeps everyone on the edge of their seats.  I remember we had an old lion statue that came to us in pieces, it had been stuck back together, and I really didn’t expect it to go for much at all, but it was incredibly rare and it reached a fortune!

What’s a typical day like for you?

We don’t have such a thing, you never know what’s going to come in to the sale room, or who might just walk through the door, and what they will bring with them.   There are parts of the job that we always have to do, such as cataloguing, promotion, office admin.  We give talks to different groups about antiques and collection.   We also have valuation day and mini antique roadshows, which are always great fun.

What impact has social media had in your industry?

It was a bit of a slow burner at the start but now that it has got going it has made us so much more accessible.  The antique and auction business is a very traditional business, but it has allowed the industry to open up to a younger crowd, that maybe would have been afraid to come to an auction before.  It lets people see that the prices aren’t always crazy and many things are really good value.  Many items of furniture are cheaper than Ikea, even though they can have so much age and history.  It’s a good tool to remind people that we are there, it helps to spread our name and you can also bid online, live on auction day and join in that way.

When did you know you wanted to work in this field?

My parents are big fans of antiques, I would go to auctions with them and remember them and some of the pieces that we purchased.  Then it came to the time at school that we had to pick our work experience and I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do.  My mum suggested an auction house, and I thought it would be fun, and that was that.

How long have you been working in the auction industry?

I did my work experience at Christies in London at 16, I did lots of part time work within auction houses, which is a good way to gain experience, then I got a full time job at McTears and worked there for a few years, and then we set up Mulberry Bank and we have been running for four years.

Why go for it yourself?

We wanted a new challenge, we had become slightly disillusioned where we were, so the timing seemed right, and it seemed like a natural progression.  We knew the business and we had the contacts, so then the question became why not?  We knew how we wanted our business and auctions ran, we wanted a good, relaxed atmosphere for both customer and employee.  And I think we have created the right atmosphere. People really responded to us which was great, and continue to do so.

Why did the whisky tastings come about?

The idea was to get people more involved in the sales and also get people in the door, people who maybe didn’t realise that you could buy whisky from an auction house, or that it could be affordable.  The whisky tastings are always a great social event.  It gives people the opportunity to try whisky that they may otherwise not.  It also allows the people who come to the tasting to see the whisky that will be in the morning’s sale.

What was the hardest part of starting the business?

The time was the hardest part, we started with 12 hour days, every day.  The mental energy you have to invest is so much.  Everything was done from scratch, it was so all encompassing.  You are aware of the financial side of things, but we don’t dwell on the financials.  If you think about it too much then you would never have the courage to start up.  I wasn’t convinced it was going to work, there are no guarantees and you can’t be sure, but we just went for it.

What’s the strangest item you’ve ever sold?

A coffin, somebody brought it over from America along with the traveling case for it back in 1991, as they had hoped to use it for their brother, but unfortunately were unable to.

Is there anything you can’t or wouldn’t sell?

We are quite careful with anything that may be considered to have things to do with sectarianism particularly due to our location, and we can’t and wouldn’t sell non decommissioned weapons.

Do you have to turn many items away? 

It does happen fairly regularly, mainly because a customer’s idea of worth can be very different to the actual market value, sometimes there just isn’t the market for it.  We have to understand that people can be really attached to an item, and sometimes we know that people aren’t ready to sell this item and have to say to them, that they maybe just aren’t ready to sell it yet.

Do you find you by lots of the items yourself?

We all do, all the time, you see things and you love them, and then you bid along with everyone else and hope to be successful.

Do you have any funny auction anecdotes?

A woman, in the middle of auction, lay down on the floor, we checked if she was ok, and she said she was a bit tired and just wanted to lie down, people were having to step over her.  She got up and left the auction, went out to the car park, got into her car and lay with her feet out of the window of her car.  We also had someone once tried to stab one of our colleagues with a Tiffany letter opener, because he swore blind it wasn’t Tiffany, once restrained we proved it was, however he was immediately barred from our auctions and was not allowed to buy the item.  We occasionally ran police auctions and we even had someone try to steal from that.

Do people ever buy something because they scratched their nose, waved their hands etc?

Genuinely no, we will always ask if someone is bidding, if we aren’t sure then we check.  You need to make your bids obvious to us, so there is no need for people to worry they will end up bidding on something when they aren’t.

What next for Mulberry Bank?

There is a limit to how far we can change our industry really, but we want to keep the fun and make it more accessible, and move with the times.

Great interview guys, thanks for your time.

Monday 17th 7.00pm see’s this fantastic pre-sale whisky tasting:

With this stellar line up, including pre World War II Macallan.

Whiskies for the tasting are:
Macallan 33yo – 1937
Macallan 1959 80 proof
Macallan 18yo
The Singleton of Auchroisk
Arran 15yo – Amontillado Finish
Bowmore Devil’s Cask (if it arrives on time!)

Tickets are available, priced at £49, from Mulberry Bank direct, either online or via phone: 0141 225 8181

Kirsty Clarke (@kirstyclarke29)

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