When Mark Stephen told his friends he was leaving his job of 24 years to open a whisky shop in the middle of lockdown, they thought he was mad.
But it turned out to be a risk worth taking for Mark, who has quite literally put the spirit back into the local Turriff community with his small independent shop Barrels and Botanicals.
Pouring his lifelong love of whisky into his venture, Mark now has a loyal customer base from Aberdeenshire to London and beyond.
Priding himself on stocking exclusive whiskies that won’t be found on supermarket shelves, Mark also has a unique selection of local craft gins, beers and rums.
“I’m a huge whisky buff to be quite honest,” said Mark, 52.
“I’ve been collecting bottles of whisky for ages and I own a few investment casks too so when we found out the shop was up for lease in July 2020 that was the turning point.
“I said to my wife, “look I’m not going back to work, I need to do something different as I’m not getting any younger and I need to spend some time at home with the kids so I’ll try something different.”
Born and bred in Turriff, Mark left school and like hundreds of other people, he worked in the local meat factory until it closed.
“I think it was in 1995/1996 when BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopath) hit the place and it closed down,” said Mark.
“So about 350 from Turriff were all out of work at the same time which was a lot of people when you’ve only got a population of about 4,500.
“It was a tough time but that really gave us the motivation to go into Aberdeen, get our survival tickets and head offshore.”
Change in direction
Extremely driven and determined by nature, Mark thrived in the oil and gas industry, working as a self-employed logistics co-ordinator for 24 years.
But after doing a job he loved for so long, he finally reached the point of no return.
“Personally I got disillusioned, said Mark.
“Too many short cuts were being taken plus the fact that you were away for three weeks at a time and Coronavirus meant you had to isolate in hotels for sometimes nigh on week before you got to the rig.
“Then when you go home, you weren’t allowed home until you tested negative so a lot of guys were stuck in hotels.
“I was quite fortunate because I’ve got a six-berth caravan sitting in the driveway. So I would go and do my test in the drive through in Aberdeen and then go home and stay in the caravan until I got a negative test.
“It got to the stage where it wasn’t fun going off-shore anymore.”
“Taking the bull by the horns”
With the support of his wife Carla and his children Maria, 12, and Emily, 10, Mark “took the bull by the horns”, opening Barrels and Botanicals in November 2020.
“We opened during lockdown and to be quite honest, a lot of my friends were turning round to me saying “what are you doing”.
“But to me there was a flip side as you couldn’t go to the pub, you weren’t allowed to go and socialise with your pals so everybody was drinking at home and when every other shop was closed we were told to stay open to provide a service to the public.”
With bottles of whisky ranging from £35 up to £2,500, Mark has drams to suit all palates.
“We stock a lot of the major brands, whether that be from Speyside, Islay, the Highlands or the lowlands,” said Mark.
“Glendronach is the closest distillery to us, just seven miles away, so we stock that,” said Mark.
“We also have GlenAllachie, which is based in Speyside and Balvenie.”
Independent bottled whisky
Championing independent bottled whisky is close to Mark’s heart.
“What we try and do is get a better appreciation for independent bottled whisky,” said Mark.
“This is where a small company will buy a cask from a broker, or at auction or straight from distillery and what they’ll do is they’ll take it down to their warehouse and they will then finish it in a different cask.
“So it might be an oak barreled whisky that is finished in a barrel that’s had sherry in it so that adds flavour to it.
“We try to give people a better appreciation of how whisky can be improved and how it can taste differently to what mainstream brands offer you.”
Barrels and Botanicals whisky
Mark is on the cusp of releasing his very first Barrels and Botanical whisky.
“We’re also in talks to release a Barrels and Botanicals exclusive whisky which is hopefully going to be in the next three months which will probably be a run of 60 to 80 bottles and we’ll be the only people who have it,” said Mark.
Paying homage to his wife Carla’s love of craft gin, the shop also stocks an array of local brands.
“My wife was adamant that if we did open a whisky shop that we’d stock Scottish craft gin so that’s what we’ve done,” said Mark.
“With the craft gin we try and keep it as Scottish as we possibly can.
“The majority is small batch, family run distilleries such as Caorunn from Cromdale, House of Elrick from Newmachar, Gordon Castle from Fochabers.
“It’s all bespoke, small batch gins and when it comes to whisky, it’s all the non-supermarket stuff.
“The more exclusive, higher end types of whiskies.”
Since opening, Mark has had a few famous faces sampling the delights of his labour.
“Let’s just say a few political heavy weights have visited,” said Mark who remained tightlipped.
Together with the pride he gets from working in the community, Mark is also delighted to be back on dry land to spend more time with his family.
“Our hours are based around kids – 10am to 4pm – so I’m home for the kids getting off the bus from school which is great,” said Mark.
For those of us who would like to make a career change but are not sure how, Mark says it’s simple.
“It’s all got to do with what you want out of life,” said Mark
“There’s no point in getting up every morning and going to a job you detest because you’ll end up with problems of your own.
“It’s up to you to change your own life for the better.”
A round of questions with Mark Stephen
It’s the end of the day, what do you pour yourself?
It all depends on my mood, if I’ve had a busy day, nothing beats a nice cup of tea.
Frustrating days at work sometimes call for a beer and something a little stronger.
If you were a drink, what would you be and why?
I’d be a single malt for sure – sophisticated, complex and smooth.
Most unusual drink you’ve ever tried?
I’m not one for trying unusual drinks, I prefer sticking to what I know, then I’ll know I’m not going to be disappointed.
What’s the most under-rated drink?
Blended whisky is highly under-rated, there are some stunning blends out there that get overlooked mainly due to single malt snobbery.
What’s in your drinks cabinet at home?
I currently have over 30 bottles of whisky open and quite a few more unopened.
Best food and drink pairing?
Whisky and dark chocolate – what’s not to love?
If you were stuck on a desert island, what three drinks would be there with you?
Fresh water (you’d die without it), Scotch Whisky for sure and a cheeky rum for a Friday night on the GBX (dance music radio show).
You have to make a drink to represent Aberdeen/Aberdeenshire. What would that be?
Drinks need not be complicated, simply buy a good whisky and add a little water, however Aberdeenshire has a coastal area so a dark and stormy would fit quite well. A nice dark rum with ginger beer and a twist of fresh lime. Old salty sea dogs swear by it.
You have to serve your favourite superhero or celebrity a drink. Who is it and what do you serve?
I’ve only ever had one true hero, Seve Ballesteros – a true gentleman and a genius with a golf club in his hand. Having a dram with him of the 19th hole would have been amazing.
Tell us a secret trick of the trade?
Don’t drink your whisky straight away, let it breathe in order to appreciate its full potential and never put ice a single malt.
To find out more about Barrels and Botanicals, visit their website, www.barrelsandbotanicals.com or check out their Instagram page @barrelsandbotanicals or their Facebook page www.facebook.com/TurriffWhiskyShop