David Broom: Sweeping a Path

Spirits writer Dave Broom has a long pedigree. Hamish Smith caught up with him at the Havana Club Grand Prix 2014

GLASWEGIAN IS ABOUT THE ONLY ACCENT IN THE WORLD that can plausibly marry the words “gang warfare” and “entertaining”. Through his low-set, gravelly tones, that’s how Dave Broom describes 1960s Glasgow. Broom’s childhood in the then “smog-filled” city probably looks a fair way back from where he is now, at the apex of the drinks industry, but he retains his roots. Like the whiskies and rums he writes about, Broom projects a sense of place. 

You can take the boy out of the city, as the saying goes, but you can’t get the smell of the place out of his head. “Those smells of old Glasgow are still with me – they are locked away in my mind,” says Broom. “I once nosed an Ardbeg whisky with Bill Lumsden and said it smelt of the old Glasgow underground – a weird tar, pipe-smoke, funky kind of smell. The underground used to be considered a free treatment for bronchial children. You used to be dragged to the entrance and forced to inhale to clear your lungs.” 

There hasn’t been a lasting effect on his senses. To the contrary, Broom’s forensic palate has taken him to the level of whisky notoriety that few others have attained. But few ascend to the top purely off the back of a prize nose. Broom’s path was through the back streets.  

“Drink was always around – not that my parents were alcoholics – but my uncle worked for a division of Black & White whisky,” he says. 

In between school and university Broom took his first step into whisky. “I worked on the packing line, lifting cases of whisky and gin on to pallets. It was great fun. “On your break the only place to go was the gents’ toilet. There was no staff room for workers. You would start at 7am and by 8am you would be in the toilet having your first drink. The old guys would say ‘do you want a dram?’, or in other words: ‘You will have a drink.’ 

“A bottle would have been nicked from the lines and hidden in the cistern or under the skirting
board. Everybody drank all day. By the afternoon the place was a complete mess. The forklift truck drivers were the most dangerous because they were pissed as well. That taught me about the sociability of whisky.”

Broom’s ability to intellectualise the habit of drinking would become a career theme, but studying English at university in Stirling came first, as did his schooling at Oddbins in Edinburgh. “I saw a sign, walked in, got the job and stayed behind the counter for seven years,” says Broom. “Oddbins was brilliant. It trained you and encouraged you to taste everything. In six months you knew most of the bottles in the shop. 

“It even put you through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust qualifications. Nick Blacknell [international marketing director of Havana Club] was the manager in the Brighton branch and look at him now. Oddbins was the university for the drinks trade.”

By 1984 Broom had moved to Bristol for a promotion. “It was the last career-oriented thing I’ve done in my life, but I also moved because of the phenomenal music scene in Bristol at the time.” 

He eventually quit Oddbins for a stint as a pub landlord but by then had decided it was writing that called loudest and managed to land a regular column on jazz for a local listing magazine.

His breakthrough, though, was at Drinks International’s sister UK title Off Licence News in 1988. “My wife spotted an ad in The Guardian saying: ‘Reporters wanted, company car (red or blue) and free pencils.’ I think it was a joke,” says Broom. “They gave me the job – more because of my WSET than my writing ability. But I was made features editor almost immediately and was there for seven happy years. 

“I would always recommend to someone who wants to write about spirits or wine to write for the trade first – if you understand the mechanics your understanding of the industry is much better.”

But journalism, for all its theoretical vigour, can be voyeuristic compared to the real thing, and so, in 1994, Broom worked a vintage in Margaret River, Australia. “I wanted to stay and plant grapes then realised that would take money so came home.” 

Freelance wine writing ensued – mostly Iberian and Australian – but also spirits. “I realised pretty early on that there were lots of wine writers but only Michael Jackson, Charlie Maclean and Jim Murray writing about spirits.”

“You have to remember that even by 1990 single malts sold in pretty small volumes. The range in the average UK supermarket or pub was really limited. It was a great opportunity to be in there just as distillers realised there was an opportunity for premium spirits. 

“I think I also realised that wine writing had become calcified. It got into a rut… rolling hills, verdant slopes, a bit about food – that’s what editors asked for. But with spirits there was no tradition, you could make it up on the hoof.” 

One of Broom’s first commissions for Whisky Magazine was the recreation of a historical smugglers’ walk from The Glenlivet to Royal Lochnagar. “We dressed up in kilts and walked the 44 mile smugglers’ trail with highland ponies. I could not have done that for a wine magazine.” 

Broom had never intended to be a spirits writer per se. It was more that the wine tastings and commissions dried up as a corollary of his notoriety in spirits. But Broom, the grounded ex-trade journo, insists he always played second fiddle to the big names in spirits writing. 

“Michael Jackson was the pioneer,” says Broom. “I was honoured to have carried his bags on trips. David Wondrich is one of the great writers. There’s Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller, and my old friend Charlie Maclean, who I used to sell vast quantities of wine to in Oddbins in Edinburgh – now I just drink vast quantities of wine with him.”

Broom has written 10 books, though says that doesn’t make him an expert on spirits. That word should be reserved for the guys who make the stuff, he says.  “John Ramsay, Jim Beverage… all I have done is ask ‘why?’ – I’m just the intermediary.” 

These days Broom does a lot of spirits lectures and consults on what companies that pay decent cheques call ‘liquid development’, but his 11th book, or perhaps 12th (Broom can’t remember exactly as “they haven’t all been successes”) is also underway. 

This time it’s gin, but tequila and mezcal are the latest areas to pique his intrigue. “Apart from maybe clairin in Haiti, mezcal is the last ritualistic spirit,” he says. “It harks back to a very ancient way of thinking about spirits. It’s that cultural sense of place that interests me.”

With the humbleness of a boy from smoggy 1960s Glasgow who ended up working the lines, stocking the shelves and writing the trade news, there can’t be anyone much better placed than Broom to understand and tell the spirits industry’s stories.