Amy Seton, Owner of The Birmingham Whisky Club
The recent opening of The Birmingham Whisky Club as a bar and tasting room is the culmination of a process that started roughly two years ago. A long-held dream, the reality of getting to the place where I could call myself ‘bar owner’ took many turns.
After running the whisky club as an events and membership company since 2011, it had got to the point where there were too many events to manage and too little of me! We were starting to turn private events away and see the brand-led events we were holding sell-out in record numbers. I was starting to feel like a bit of a nomad and the solution seems obvious: we needed a place to call our own.
Having a vague idea of the type of place I wanted, I needed to start my search for this imagined perfect place. But as someone whose property knowledge equates to once having bought a small flat, I felt slightly out of my depth. I thought the internet would be my friend but just gave me details of large industrial units totally inappropriate for what was needed. I think I thought there would be a magic list of small, beautiful looking buildings totally fit for what I wanted to do. A few months of this drew nothing good. I’m fairly imaginative, but a whisky bar was just not going to work in an old warehouse, by a roundabout off the Stratford Road. I don’t care how much parking there was! I’d wanted to keep the project a bit of a secret but decided to turn to one of the elements I love most about our city: its networks. I emailed a friend in property and generally started to open up about the idea and chat to people. There’s an idea in the world of entrepreneurship and creativity that it’s best to not give away one’s ideas readily. But I feel the opposite. People want things to happen, and want to give encouragement and help. Being open and communicative about what you need to have happen to your business, or creative endeavour, can bring in some excellent help. As soon as I started talking, the project started to progress. Through my friend in property, very quickly a couple of places came back. A lovely old art gallery and another, city-centre venue. At that point being in the city centre was the most important element. I thought I would struggle to bring people with me if I was somewhere else. However, neither venue was meant to be, and even though we’d had an offer excepted on the latter one, it sadly fell through at the beginning of 2017.
In the background, I had started a very informal regular get-together with other women who run their own business, or are in a public-facing role. For anyone who runs a business, groups like these are sanity-savers! Alex Nicholson-Evans, Commercial Director from Birmingham Museums Trust, was part of this, as was Anna Parker from Intervention Architecture, a friend and old neighbour who had just started her own practice. Anna was already on-board having presented designs for the previous space. And it was during one of these get-togethers that Alex queried, in a very cursory manner, if I was still looking for a place as she had one. This was back in April 2017. I dismissed it straight away as she was talking about a not-often-used events space at the Museum of the JQ, with its own front door. A space with obvious charm, stunningly light with many original features, plus an amazing history as a jewellery factory. But I still thought of the JQ as just too far out of the city centre for what I wanted to do, but something must have stuck. I went to see it again, then again with Anna, then again with members of my team, then again with Alex. I think by the time I was finished even the neighbourhood cat had had its say in the matter.
So, numbers started to crunch, my investors came on-board and suddenly a little, historic corner of the JQ started to take shape. The months leading up to Christmas 2017 was spent finalising designs, getting the correct planning in place and tentatively panning the launch event for Burns’ Night 2018 on 25th Jan – giving us a potential of only four weeks of build time. The most important element was getting the Listed Building consent which meant a lot of the work carried out needed to remain sympathetic. It was December 23rd 2017 when we finally got the all systems go from the Council over planning. It had become slightly problematic and I was becoming convinced that it would all fall through. I received word from Anna and had tried to get hold of Alex, then promptly went to the cinema (Star Wars called) for the rest of the afternoon. I exited the cinema to many missed calls.
January 2nd 2018 saw Alex and I meet at 1000 Trades in the JQ to sign the contract, which of course we did over a glass of whisky. Talisker if memory serves. The builders started the day after which left roughly three weeks to get everything almost finished so we could have our Burns’ Bar pop up. On the day of the launch we were still painting the walls an hour before opening time. But doors were open at 6pm and people led through the JQ by the sounds of our Bagpiper. It was wonderful seeing friends and acquaintances walk through the bar doors for the first time. It was a launch event that did us proud. And the rest as they say is history.
So, I’m glad to have a home. I am glad that we’re in the JQ – a friendly, welcoming and community driven sort-of suburb of the city centre. I am glad to have gone through the project with a friend and women I trust and who I have really enjoyed seeing it come to fruition with. This project is important for the city, important for the future of my business but also shows the power of networks and that all the expertise you need can be right under your nose.
Alex Nicholson-Evans, Commercial Director of the Birmingham Museums Trust
It might seem a strange idea to some, putting a Whisky Bar in a museum, but right from the start of my discussions with Amy at the Birmingham Whisky Club, there was a great deal of synergy between our organisations. The Whisky Club have a passion for heritage and they have an ambition to do something different and positive for the city of Birmingham – just like Birmingham Museums.
For those who might not already know, Birmingham Museums is an independent charity – a Trust set up in 2012 to manage the city’s collection and venues. One of these venues is the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, a site based around the Smith & Pepper jewellery factory. When the owners of this factory retired after 80 years of trading, they simply locked the doors and in doing so they created what is now a pretty magical time capsule experience for our visitors. It’s in the meeting room attached to this museum that The Birmingham Whisky Club has now made their home.
As many of you reading this will know, public funding for culture is declining. As such, organisations like Birmingham Museums have to become more and more creative at generating income in order to keep these wonderful museums open for the public to enjoy. With this in mind, Birmingham Museums has developed a number of shops, numerous cafes – including the popular Edwardian Tearooms at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery – and a thriving venue hire business. Working with the Whisky Club was, in a way, an extension of the latter.
We realised that in offering Amy a space we could create a new income stream for Birmingham Museums. Not only that, but we saw potential to drive increased footfall to the Jewellery Quarter and to raise awareness of the existence of the Museum. Amy and I have since put our heads together and created some fantastic joint packages, so look out for those in the future too!
It felt like a long journey ahead of us when we began conversations with regards to planning permission and contracts, particularly as we were doing something quite unusual, but thanks to the support of stakeholders, including Birmingham City Council, we were able to make it happen and now we’re living the dream!
When I sit in the venue, I admire the incredible work the designers have done; the space looks stunning but is also wonderfully sympathetic to the heritage of the space with many original features being showcased. What’s more it’s wonderful to see it being used and enjoyed on a daily basis. I’m excited to see what the future holds for us all and I’m sure this won’t be the last time we do something a little unusual.
Anna Parker – Owner, Intervention Architecture
It has been a joy to work with a Birmingham based project team of talented individuals, each providing specialists insights in their fields, to collectively deliver Birmingham’s first specialist whisky bar, and a sensitive restorative project for the jewellery quarter.
Our intention from the start of this collaborative project, was to sensitively enhance the beautiful heritage site of the Grade II Listed Museum of Jewellery,
In approaching the whisky bar proposal, we first began an investigation into the use of colour and its relationship with whisky tasting. Inspired by Amy’s insights into the process of tasting the whisky first visually through its tone and vibrancy, which varies greatly across alternate types, we became very interested in how we can provide a spatial experience through colour within our design.
The developed proposed layout for the bar creates three distinct zones, with three unique colours assigned to each; the ‘tasting lab’; the main bar; and front lounge. Comfortable seating and a clandestine atmosphere link each of the spaces, with acoustic glazed critter-style doors to allow flexible privacy within each. Bespoke joinery was designed throughout, to evoke a sense of an unravelled whisky barrel for the main bar, and series of warn timbers to reference the historic whisky making process itself.
Whilst the space was emerging in its reforming, it materialised that a new jewellery quarter destination was being created. The space achieves inviting and warm surroundings, with a balance of contemporary and heritage references in the design. The enhancement and reuse of the listed building, has imbued a renewed enjoyment of the museum, to be enjoyed for all.
Our team has really enjoyed working with Amy, Alex, Lucy, and the build team, we look forward to visiting and enjoying the bar and supporting fantastic local businesses.