Off-Licence of the Year — the good, the bad….

As judging continues in the National Off-Licence Association’s Off-Licence of the Year 2016, in the first of a 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 that 2016 title.

Firstly, “The Good”

Mystery shopper graphiclowOutlet A


“A full wall of craft beers on your left creates a sense of bounty but the layout of the shop is light and airy….. When I mention my cover story – friend having me over to dinner for her spiced chicken curry – he instantly calls over his colleague to help me with the wine selection… He’s clearly engaged in making the right choice for my friend…. Would it be creamy? I hesitated and finally plumped for my fictional dinner being creamy….. His decision is very food-oriented and I’m not surprised to learn that he’d started as a chef…. At the counter I discuss spirits with the third man: the Hendricks/gin phemonenon. These three guys are totally up-to-the-minute and at ease with the contemporary drinker. A small glass larder on the solid wooden counter holds an enticing array of cheeses and other touches such as olives, sardines, paté and crackers which give the place the aura of an upmarket tapas bar….”



Mystery shopper graphiclow

Outlet B


“Set amongst a rather nondescript row of shops in what initially presents as a slightly unpromising situation, this bright off-licence with its red shopfront instantly makes a good impression. It also benefits from having its own parking spaces. It has a good window display of Heineken beer on one side and craft beer and whiskey on the other…. After a few moments of leaving me to browse, the assistant comes over and asks if I’m OK. I give him my cover story of going to a barbecue, probably having fish. He asks what grape do I like. What country?

“Moving on to craft beers, this is where he excels having tasted most of them himself. This is probably the most in-depth chat of all the off-licences I’ve visited. The beers are categorised here by country of origin including a World Beer Section….. I buy four for €10.00 and love them. He’s able to take me through all the beers: their characteristics, where they were brewed, the varying degrees of hopiness in the IPAs etc. He mentions a local 4th of July/Independence Day barbecue party nearby where they try out a lot of their beers, a great strategy for wooing potential customers.

“As I pay I notice that this off-licence boasts the cleanest counter I have seen. Its selection of spirits is impressive and the assistant says he’s involved in doing neat vodka tastings. He explains that although this is a Summer job, he’s immersing himself in it and is clearly knowledgeable. He’s helpful and charming, not just to me but to all the customers who come in. This shop really offers up a wonderful selection of craft beers and some lovely wines: an excellent resource for this suburban community.”


Mystery shopper graphiclow


Outlet C

“Walking in out of a hot Summer’s day feels as if you’ve died and gone to beer Nirvana. Over 400 beers cover the walls of the ground floor, both big brand names and craft. It’s magnificent.

“And then you look up. On the mezzanine floor above, a huge mural leads your eye to the wine selection and you must follow.

“I’m warmly greeted by the assistant and tell her I’m on the trail of a nice rosé to go with the weather. Would I like the sweeter Californian rosés such as Gallo and Blossom Hill or a drier Spanish one like Campo Nuevo from Navarra? I’m plumping for the Campo Nuevo when she goes off to serve another customer but comes back with a bottle of Prosecco rosé beautifully chilled.

“The ambience here is quite unique: like an eccentric millionaire’s private library. Good tasting notes for food matching are written on black crepe paper and look like slate: an ingenious design touch.

It would be easy to describe this boutique off-licence as an anomaly but this strikes me as missing the point. This shop would stand out wherever it was: San Francisco or Berlin. It just happens to be in a smallish town in Ireland.”
















Now, “The Bad”

Mystery shopper graphiclowOutlet G


“Large coolers are a welcome respite from the heat outside, however the first impression is of a place that needs a little attention: shelves are slightly higgeldy-piggeldy and there are many gaps in them.

“A woman assistant is behind the till which – again possibly because it’s up a step and quite busy – makes her seem very far away from me and there’s no assistance offered as I browse. A man I take to be the boss is buzzing in and out dealing with a supplier. He does not acknowledge me either.

“I ask the assistant about a bottle on the shelf, a white wine called Secretes with a Robert Parker recommendation of 93 points: what’s it like? She has no knowledge of it but says that the boss says it’s good and leaves it at that.

“There’s an excellent craft beer selection and when I ask about the Rye Ale the assistant says she isn’t a beer drinker but she has ‘heard that it’s good…’.

“I bring my choice of wine up to the till to pay for it and while completing the transaction ask the assistant if she has heard of Hoxten’s Gin. She says they didn’t have any but she kindly produces a Monkey 47 Gin and gets me a price for it.

“In summary I’m sorry to say I feel a lack of interest in my needs as a customer and the shop could do with a good tidy.

“The place seems all of a piece: a general lack of interest both in regards to the place and to me as a customer. It feels slightly anonymous, with things left in corners, gaps on shelves. In her dealings with me she’s efficient but cool. When I leave she says ‘Thank you’ and by now the boss has disappeared.”


Mystery shopper graphiclow

Outlet H


“This is a truly beautiful shop, perhaps trop belle pour moi. Like a fine study: a fireplace with a painting above it and a handsome leather couch. Mahogany gleams from the shelves. Their range of wines comprehensive, their spirts range excellent but the craft beer selection rather piecemeal.

“I enter a little timidly and the young man behind the counter greets me warmly. I suppose I‘m the one who makes the mistake of trying to engage an older gentleman (perhaps the patron?) in my puny quest for a cheap bottle of plonk. I ask about one of the shop’s forthcoming events which is advertised and after what seems like a lifetime he responds. In fact after quite a while he comes over towards me…. I rather suspect he prefers dealing with customers seeking something from the top shelf rather than the humble bottle of white wine I have requested help finding.

“To be fair to him he does recommend a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet which is in my price range of around €10.00 but his froideur towards me is palpable.

“I ask if they know a particular gin and the gentleman very kindly looks it up. Apparently it can be sourced on Dawson Street. He says he’s suspicious of anything with coconut in it. Bounty will be disappointed…


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