Off-Licence of the Year — the good, the bad (part 2)….

As judging continues in the National Off-Licence Association’s Off-Licence of the Year 2016, in the second of our two-part series we take a look at some of the Mystery Shoppers’ comments on outlets from previous years – both the good and the bad – to help this year’s hopefuls on their way to picking up the 2016 title.

Firstly, “The Good”


Outlet D

Mystery shopper graphiclow

“Entering, you feel as if you’re nine years old and making your first visit to a library. It has a special hush and a lovely sense of rows and rows of wine and beers all waiting to be discovered like books. It’s spacious and well laid-out but manages to feel intimate as well and is a lovely cool space on a warm Summer’s day.

“Behind the counter I’m greeted by the owner. He’s serving another customer and I listen to how he deals with her, which is exceptionally helpful and friendly. He leaves me to browse – and what an opportunity to browse! – but the minute I ask for help he’s engaged.

“As I oooh and ahhh over his stock, he explains to me that he brings a lot of it in himself directly from Italy, Spain and France. He has lovely eye-catching POS including one for Pinot Grigio at €9.99 a bottle or a case of six for €50.00. He has wines I’ve never seen before such as a €60.00 Pomerol and a nice Primitivo from Puglia which he brings in himself and which isn’t available anywhere else. A range of “celebrity” wines catches my eye.

“He has an outstanding collection of craft beers on light wooden shelves…. Beers from Germany, the US, Belgium, England and the Far East. He’s as knowledgeable about them as he is about the wines

“I love this off-licence: there’s a sense of flair here and passion. And a deep knowledge. It manages to combine both the classic and the contemporary. It’s a pleasure to visit. I will be back.



Outlet E

Mystery shopper graphiclow

“Having recently popped in here and having been roundly ignored by both boss and staff, I must confess to a slightly jaundiced attitude towards it. In addition, other customers on that occasion were given ample assistance despite having come in after me – this just rubbed salt into the wound.

“So it’s with some trepidation and a bit of emotional baggage that I return as the Mystery Shopper. But even given my previous unpleasant experience I can not deny the beauty of this gorgeous-looking shopfront, this long, comfortable and handsome off-licence.

“My cover story is a dinner where they’re serving mackerel and the young assistant makes some excellent suggestions… He describes the various characteristics with real passion and flair. His use of language is great: Summer in a glass.

“Their range of craft beers is outstanding: from Germany and America, the UK, Belgium and of course Irish craft beers, about which he knows a lot. The selection of spirits is non-pareil. They have everything here from Glenfiddich to Ardbeg, Irish Mist to Glenlivet, Crystal Head vodka (with the striking skull-head bottle), Armagnacs and a premium range of gins

“They have succeeded in bringing together a high-functioning layout with ease of movement and accessibility. Clever lighting creates a mood music for browsing and the use of bottles turned on their side for the upper walls is very attractive.”



Outlet F

Mystery shopper graphiclow

“With its colourful World Cup jerseys and Teelings whiskey window display, there’s a lot going on in this shop; the staff buzz around me like bees, busily re-stocking the beer coolers and shelves as I continued to browse. There’s a great sense of industry here. Two staff members are stocking the beer cooler. I ask if they sell Brooklyn Summer Ale and the young man says they only have cans: how many would I like? He’s a good salesman. This leads to the best beer conversation I’ve had in any of the shops.

“He introduces himself and we discuss German wheat beers, IPAs, Cornish craft beers with their Centennial and Citra hops – they drink like a big American IPA in his words – and at 7.2% they pack a punch.

“He has an outstanding knowledge of all aspects of craft beer and is happy to spend the time explaining the intricacies to me…. He is truly outstanding and a hugely important presence here.


Now, “The Bad”


Outlet I

Mystery shopper graphiclow

“I have driven past this impressive-looking shop many times and am glad to have the chance to stop inside but I notice some peeling paint on the façade as I enter.

“The proprietor leaves me to browse for at least 10 minutes before I ask him for assistance. My cover story is that I’m going to dinner at a friend’s house and she’s cooking an Indian roast chicken: this elicts a suggestion that I buy a €200 bottle of white. He’s joking, of course, but it strikes a slightly patronising note. He then suggests a Loire Sauvignon for €12.99 or a more expensive Gruner Veltliner and says both would be good with a spicy meal.

“He leaves me to browse again and I look at the collection of beers. I ask him about an Irish cider and he explains in a slightly dismissive way that this is made by the owner just collecting the juice from the apples and making ‘a big deal of it’.

“I ask him if he has tried it himself and he assures me that he hasn’t. Similarly, when questioned about Hendricks Gin and the whole resurgence of gin-drinking, he says no, he doesn’t like gin, it’s a depressive drink. But he then goes on to describe in glowing terms the entrepreneurial skill of the ‘genius’ who came up with the idea of making ‘specialist’ tonic/mixers to go with the new generation of gins and he does allow that a freshly-made G&T is one of the great drinks.

“After our discussion about Hendricks Gin he says that you used to only have to stock lemons and limes; nowadays you need oranges and cucumbers – in fact you practically need to open a greengrocers… I think this is an interesting and revealing comment from a proprietor who’s watching the march of time and the change in people’s drinking habits with a somewhat weary eye.


Outlet J

Mystery shopper graphiclow

“This off-licence shares an entrance with a restaurant and is a cautionary example of how high fences make good neighbours. In this case it’s an olfactory fence that’s needed: the entranceway smells of fish.

“On a hot Summer’s day the shop wis doing a roaring trade in commerical beers and ciders: indeed there are quite a few gaps where they must have sold-out. Because of its small size it has no POS or specials, only shelves and coolers. But on the plus side its counter is clean and uncluttered.

“The young man working there clearly would prefer to be elsewhere and on a day like today I can’t blame him. I say I want a bottle of chilled white wine to bring to friends in Athlone for dinner but he doesn’t really engage until I choose my own bottle of Sauvignan Blanc and bring it to the till to pay for it. I ask him if he knows it and he says it’s ‘fruity’. But I have to work hard to get him to eventually thaw a bit towards me. He seems uninterested in the craft beers and has never heard of the gin I mention although this does rouse him a little and he shows a presentation box of Bombay Sapphire with its special ornate glass.

“All in all, because of its small size, its location and the rather unengaged young assistant, this is a somewhat underwhelming experience.


Outlet K

Mystery shopper graphiclow

“The young assistant greets me warmly. Using the cover story of a dinner of spicy chicken I ask him if he could make any suggestions. I realise that he’s only learning the ropes but he offers the information that his mother cooks spicy chicken and she drinks both red and white. Using his mother and aunt as a touchstone underlines his lack of real knowledge but he enterprisingly offers to ring his boss to find out what might be good.

“He then suggests beer might work well with the chicken. Again his knowledge is limited… The shop has good value promotions of four craft beer mix-and-match for €10.00, half-price Sauvignan Blancs and Reserve Malbec, eight Amstel for €10.99 and good promotions on slabs of Heineken and Corona as well as a Beer of the Month.



Sign Up for Drinks Industry Ireland

Get a free weekly update on Drinks Industry trade news, direct to your inbox. Sign up now, it's free