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The Interview: Hamish Martin, Managing director, Inverarity Vaults

Published:  23 July, 2008

What did you do before setting up Inverarity Vaults?
I had always intended to join the army, but within seven weeks of arriving at Sandhurst I had torn my ligaments playing rugby and was medically discharged. So I applied for a place on the management trainee course at Oddbins and worked for them for two years. Then I joined Champagnes & Chteaux, selling their wines on a commission basis to hotels and restaurants. But I always knew I wanted to come back to Scotland, so when my father retired as production director of The Distillers Company Limited (DCL), he suggested that we create our own blended Scotch whisky. My passion is wine, so I started the wine business by importing a pallet of Domaine de Thelin's ros, which is still our house wine.

Why did you start by selling a ros?

I went along to Vinexpo to buy wines for the business, but after four days of thoroughly enjoying myself I realised I still hadn't actually bought anything! On the last morning I discovered M de Thelin's tiny stall. All he had to sell was the ros, but I thought that I'd better start somewhere, so I bought a pallet. In 1993 it was a lot harder to sell a Minervois ros than it is now, but I did it, and the business went on from there.

What was next on your list?

Our big break came when Jaboulet and Hugel agreed to let us represent their wines in Scotland. It was quite a risk for them, giving their wines to a one-man band, but I was then able to target the top end of the hotel and restaurant trade in Scotland and build up our wine portfolio, concentrating on independent wine producers.

Why did you focus on the on-trade?

I just felt comfortable with it. I found it very different selling wine here compared to London, where you were given 10 minutes and just had to get on with it. In Scotland you sit down for a cup of coffee, shortbread and a chat. That's how I like to do business - it's personal and it's not rushed.

How much has the business changed since you started out?

I used to do all the deliveries myself, travelling the length and breadth of Scotland in my Land Rover. Now we have two big lorries and three Transit vans. Our delivery drivers have all done the WSET foundation course.

Was it important to you to have your own delivery vehicles?

It has been crucial to the business. I wanted to keep total control, and if you start using couriers you lose that important finishing touch. We had a big snowstorm here two years ago, and it took the guys three hours to dig out the vans in the morning, but they still did all their deliveries.

Do you use any couriers?

We do for deliveries to England, but we've just bought a huge new lorry and we're going to have a go at delivering to the north of England.

Is it difficult selling in England?

I've made sure that we have our own brands: La Rareza from Argentina, the Veldt Range from South Africa, Francesca Bay from New Zealand. That means that, when we go south, we know that our wines are unique and will be delivered in our own lorries.

When did you introduce the own-label wines?

It started about five years ago because I wanted to have my own South African wine. As a Scottish merchant, I would usually be offered the Scottish agency for a wine and then find English companies coming up here and selling it. The only real way to protect yourself is to have your own brand. But it was a big step. When I found a wine I really loved and asked what would we need to take to have it as our own-label, they pointed to this great big stainless-steel fermentation tank. It was thousands of cases, but the wine was great and the price fantastic. I thought, If I don't do it now, I'll never do it, and it was a huge success. So we did exactly the same with wines from Australia, New Zealand, Chile and southern France. Although not all at once!

Why did you decide to set up your own bonded warehouse?

Again, it's all about control. When you use an outside bond, you are always at someone else's beck and call. This way, if we get an urgent order for 30 cases, we can deliver it the same afternoon. It allows us to offer consistency of delivery to hotels and restaurants. The bond was a big jump but a natural progression. We've had it for two and a half years, and we start building this month [January '06] to double the capacity because we've outgrown it already.

So, what's next?

I would definitely like to own a vineyard. Talk about total control - what more could you have? It would be amazing.