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.”