He Turned His Whiskey Tasting Hobby Into A $200K Business

Published: May 19th, 2022
Ed Leigh
Founder, TopWhiskies
from London, UK
started May 2016
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hello! I'm Ed, one of the co-founders of TopWhiskies. We're an eCommerce store celebrating the best independent whisky brands.

TopWhiskies started as a hobby back in 2016. I was working in Financial Services in Hong Kong at the time and wanted a project I could share with my best friend Evan in London. We had both enjoyed going to whisky tastings before I'd left for Asia, so a whisky blog seemed like a fun idea. We focussed heavily on social media, Instagram in particular. It was a way to share bite-sized info on the whiskies we were enjoying while connecting with other like-minded people.

Original website, as a blog

Over the years, TopWhiskies grew organically. Instagram remained a key channel, and we also started posting video reviews on YouTube. And, as the years rolled by, Evan and I became increasingly... geeky... about whisky. We were drawn to small independent brands, producing artisan spirits. As we posted about these indie brands, our audience would ask "where can I buy these?". This was a pivotal moment.

We launched our eCommerce site in October 2020. It specializes in those unique independent whisky brands we fell in love with. There are around 30 independent bottlers, as well as 7 small distilleries. You'll find lots of single-cask releases. Like those from Chapter 7. You can read about bottlers with fascinating approaches to making whisky. Like The Firkin Whisky Co, which uses custom-made double wood casks seasoned with a soulmate wine. And brands led by industry masters. Like ex-Macallan Dhavall Gandhi who is now creating superb whiskies at The Lakes Distillery.

The Firkin Whisky Co, one of the independent whisky brands we feature

Social media remains important to us. We have over 100,000 followers on Instagram and nearly 10,000 subscribers on YouTube. The eCommerce site has started well, the average monthly turnover for the past 12 months is around $17,500. And, it's growing, with sales up around 50% year on year.

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

My background is in Financial Services. I studied Design, and then Business, at University, before starting a career in an FTSE 100 insurance company. Over the years I've held a variety of roles, largely in Digital. I've been fortunate that my career has taken me around the world, working in the UK, Indonesia, Singapore, and Hong Kong. The job was all about making regulated products simple for customers to understand online.

Build through tools. Keeps startup costs low, and often structured as simple monthly payments - rather than big upfront costs.

Starting TopWhiskies as a hobby was an ideal way to get going. Beyond registering a domain and paying hosting fees, there were no costs. It was low risk, low time commitment. And, most importantly, it was fun. As TopWhiskies grew, it became clear there were opportunities to monetize. Initially, this was through social media promotions. Helping whisky brands connect with our followers, and charging a modest fee for sponsored posts.

Lockdown arrived at the same time our followers started asking us where they could buy the brands we featured. It felt like a clear opportunity. We already had a simple website that we ran as a blog, but we decided to pivot to an eCommerce site. We started small with a few brands to test the concept in the lead-up to Christmas 2020. The key things we needed to nail for this initial test were largely around licenses and logistics. Alcohol is a regulated product, and international logistics are complex. We secured the correct licenses before starting, and one of our first jobs was to secure a warehousing and shipping partnership. Complex to begin with, but once in place, we were free to look to the future.

That initial test went well. We were able to translate social media interest into purchases. And we felt Christmas trading had been successful. So, we spent 2021 building out the eCommerce site. We brought more brands on board. We added products. And we continued to build out content, particularly on the blog.

So far, TopWhiskies is a side hustle that we run in parallel with our careers. We've built as much automation into the business model as possible, and the 'everyday' workings run smoothly. That leaves us to focus on business development, buying stock, and resolving any problems that come up.

Ed and Evan, co-founders of TopWhiskies

Describe the process of creating the website and launching the business.

Launching the eCommerce site, which was in essence the start of TopWhiskies as a business, was quite an experience. There was so much to think about.

We needed to make sure we had the right licenses in place. To sell alcohol in the UK requires a Personal Licence and a Premises Licence. I studied for the test required for the Personal Licence and applied. One box ticked. Then, we needed the Premises Licence - which had to go hand-in-hand with the warehouse.

We explored different warehousing options in the UK. We choose a solution that is, admittedly, on the premium end, but which offers a high-quality service. The warehouse system integrates directly with both Shopify and international couriers. And, importantly, the warehouse holds a Premises Licence.

Developing the website itself was, in comparison, easier. We had past blog content that we could reuse. So we simply had to build the new eCommerce interface, and add the products. True to our origins on social media, we used high-quality images throughout the site and kept a heavy focus on storytelling.

The TopWhiskies website today

The stock was funded personally. Evan and I put in funds to buy stock, at around £25,000 this was our biggest expense. By keeping the number of brands at Day 1 manageable, we limited our costs to that figure. Since then, we've been able to scale at a sensible pace, reinvesting funds and profits.

Shipping any kind of product can be a challenge. Especially a regulated product, like alcohol. So this was the final element to get right while setting up the business. In the UK, postage is relatively easier. We use a mixture of Parcelforce and a smaller courier which specializes in alcohol, APC. We can ship almost globally - at least, wherever it is legal to ship alcohol direct to a private consumer. International orders are delivered through a number of the major couriers, including FedEx, DPD, and DHL. International shipping rates are calculated automatically at checkout, based on my weight (key for glass bottles full of liquid) and destination. The warehouse system Mintsoft then generates a commercial invoice with all the correct disclosures required to pass local custom checks. Finally, once dispatched, a tracking code is then sent back to the customer, so they can keep an eye on the parcel’s progress.

Launching in the lead-up to Christmas was, as it turned out, a smart move. Whisky is a seasonal product, and launching during peak season helped us grow our customer numbers at a fair pace, despite it being early days.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

We have four broad approaches to attracting and retaining customers.

The first is social media. This is where we started, and something that remains close to our hearts. There's a big whisky community on all the major platforms. And social media lends itself well to explaining what makes independent brands and their artisan products so special. Instagram worked especially well for us between 2018 to 2020, when we grew from c.30,000 to c.100,000 followers. While we still use Instagram, we have avoided becoming over-reliant on it. They have tightened their approach to alcohol, and content does not gain as many impressions as it once did.

Second, paid to advertise. We tried paid promotions on Facebook, but this didn't seem to work. Google Ads were more successful and helped speed up our growth through 2021. But it is a competitive market, and the Cost Per Acquisition ate heavily into our margin. Worth it to get started, and grow our customer base in the early days. But, again, not one to become over-reliant on, and we've reduced paid advertising in 2022.

Start small, start simple. Just start. It’s too easy to keep putting things off. Once you’ve taken the first step, the second and third steps are far easier.

The third is organic content. Again, this is close to our hearts - having started as a blog. The artisan whiskies we sell lend themselves well to review style blogs because people like to read about the products before purchasing (especially as they are, relatively, more premium than supermarket buys). For example this review about Firkin Islay. Listicles tend to perform well, and can often be written in the hope they’ll be reshared. For example, this article about the Top 10 Best Whiskies Under £50 performed well, as people love recommendations for well-priced artisan products. And of course, there's a whole range of content opportunities about whisky-making - people love reading about their hobbies and interests. For example, this guide about sherry cask whisky. We want to spend more time on organic content in 2022.

Relevant listicles perform well

Fourth, collaborations. This is, in some ways, the hardest to scale - given the time investment required. But, collaborations have proven very effective at raising awareness and generating sales. During the lockdowns, virtual tastings were a great way to introduce whiskies to new customers. And, in 2022, we're looking forward to in-person tasting events. We've also done a few partnership bottlings. A charity release we did in collaboration with a Facebook whisky group was a great way to welcome new customers to TopWhiskies while generating funds for a good cause. We'd like to do more of these through 2022 and 2023.

A collaboration between TopWhiskies, Chapter 7, and Whisky Adventures

A tasting event at a local London jeweller

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Today, we're doing well. Topline growth is around 50% year on year, Q1 2022 versus Q1 2021. And, we are profitable. As we increase sales throughput and dial down Google Ad spend, the margin is improving.

Our goal for Q2 and Q3 is to increase the number of indie brands we feature and add further products. Whisky remains the key focus, but we are diversifying into artisan rums. We're also keen to diversify into other international markets. We currently sell worldwide, but we want to make this more considered. Ideally, picking two or three international markets and then working on localized content and tailored customer experiences.

Q4 will be peak season, as people buy whisky in the colder months - and during the run-up to Christmas. So the focus for October, November, and December will be on making and fulfilling as many sales as possible!

The longer-term future looks bright. As we scale and grow the business, new opportunities open up. A goal for 2023 would be to launch our independent label whiskies. We can bring our audience along for the ride, immersing them in the experience of choosing and bottling a cask. Photos, videos, and polls through our social media and blog should make this process interactive and engaging. And then when the product is ready to sell, there would be a ready-made market for it.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Our eCommerce site is built on Shopify. Shopify suits large product catalogs well and is a user-friendly way to scale an eCommerce business. We have a range of plug-in Shopify apps that support a variety of tasks, including:

Social media remains an important way to drive awareness, and we use Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter in particular. Now we're out of lockdown here in London, we want to start filming again so will post more frequently on YouTube. The videos will likely generate fewer impressions than, say, Instagram. But, we feel they’ll help during the customers’ consideration phase, and drive higher conversion rates.

Klaviyo has been useful in growing our email database and marketing new releases directly to existing customers. Between Shopify and Klaviyo, these also act as our CRM solutions.

Xero is our accounting software, which we've synced directly with Shopify using another app: Xero Sync by A2X.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

YouTube and Twitter are powerful resources.

Whenever I need to understand how to do a particular task, or I'm researching a new platform or tool, I'll often turn to YouTube.

And, if ever in need of ideas or inspiration, following fellow entrepreneurs on Twitter always gives me a boost. For example, @yongfook, @levelsio, and @justinsaas.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Start. Start small, start simple. Just start. It’s too easy to keep putting things off. Once you’ve taken the first step, the second and third steps are far easier. And by starting small, you can keep things manageable, particularly in the early days. You can then grow at your own pace.

Specific principles I’ve found to be valuable include:

  • Use social media. No cost. Opportunity to start growing a following, and connecting with potential customers and partners
  • Start a simple website with a blog. Minimal cost. Starts building a domain history, and an opportunity to validate whether your content will bring in traffic (even if modest to start).
  • Network as much as possible. No cost. It’s amazing how much one can learn from others in any given industry. Learn what to do, and what not to do. Find inspiration. Explore potential collaborations.
  • Build through tools. Keeps startup costs low, and often structured as simple monthly payments - rather than big upfront costs.
  • Bootstrap for as long as possible. This will be easier, or harder, in different circumstances. But for me, while getting investments or loans could allow fast growth, I like being without the added pressure.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!