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Demijohn, the 'Liquid Deli'

by Gavin D Smith, 08/06

It may seem a far cry from the killing fields of Kosova to life in the rarefied atmosphere of Edinburgh's historic Old Town, but Angus Ferguson has made the transition successfully and profitably.

The former Black Watch officer saw service in Belfast, Hong Kong, Kenya and Germany as well as the Balkans before opting to open what he describes as "a European-style liquid deli" in Edinburgh, partnered by his wife, Frances. The business trades as Demijohn, and is located in Victoria Street, close to the capital's historic Grassmarket.

Prior to his time in the army, Ferguson had studied Industrial Design at the University of Northumbria, and as part of his degree course, he spent eight months on a work attachment with an architectural consultancy in Naples. There he soon became an enthusiastic convert to the Neapolitan way of life.

"The first seeds of the idea for Demijohn came when I was working in Naples," he recalls. "Then, later on, in Germany, we saw that locally-made liqueurs and spirits were being sold in markets. We thought we could do it better than the way the Germans were doing it, so when I left the army we decided to give it a go in the UK.

"Frances and I had met in Edinburgh, in fact we had our first date in a restaurant almost directly opposite the building in which Demijohn is now located! One of the reasons we chose Edinburgh was because it gets 12 million visitors a year - you can't go too far wrong!"

This is clearly a modest assessment, because after little more than a year's trading Demijohn is thriving, and a second branch opened in summer 2006 on Glasgow's Byres Road. The Fergusons' vision and passion is clearly one shared by a great many members of the public.

"A heady mix of booze and food" is how Ferguson describes his emporium - an old-fashioned term, but one which suits the concept of Demijohn with its emphasis on products of true integrity and personal service.

On entering the shop customers are met with shelf upon shelf of glass demijohns. The choice extends through a range of more than 20 liqueurs, along with spirits, wines, vinegars, spices and olive oils. "I see olive oil as a wine, because every region produces a different style and taste," says Ferguson. Customers are actively encouraged to sample the diverse range of products on offer before making their purchases, after which they choose from a wide range of Italian glass bottles into which the liquid is filled.

The item is then personalised by hand with a paint pen, and an important part of the Demijohn ethos is that everything is wrapped before it leaves the shop.

"Provenance is the key to it all," says Ferguson. "We go to small producers and each one has his own story to tell. They are very passionate people. There is an underworld of liqueur makers out there!

"The idea started with oils and vinegars, and then we met Robin Ford and Derry Campbell, former teachers who run Scots' Cheer in East Lothian, producing raspberry vodka and sloe gin and this opened our eyes to what and who was out there. We keep discovering more and more people who've given up their nine to five existences to do this. For example, a farmer's wife from Suffolk makes our lime vodka. We started with 20 lines and we now have over 50.

"We're very much a Scottish company, but our range of tastes is carefully balanced. We offer great gift options for the person who has everything."

Ferguson stresses that "It's all about the product, the packaging comes second. The consumer is not distracted by all the marketing clutter. Also, what we do is very environmentally friendly. The demijohns themselves are recycled wine containers.

"This way of doing it is perfect for the small producers, who sell to us in five litre containers. They don't have to worry about packaging, they can concentrate on the product."

All of Demijohn's bottles are refillable, and the shop itself is fitted with ash shelves from the Dynamic Woods charitable organisation, which 'rescues' native hardwoods that are felled but then rejected by the commercial timber trade.

This being Scotland, whisky plays an important part in Demijohn, with three eye-catching oak octaves being displayed alongside the ranks of demijohns. One currently contains a cask-strength Clynelish single malt, another a Caol Ila, while the third is filled with Demijohn's own characterful 'house' blended Scotch whisky.

Another spirit that is proving highly popular is cider brandy. "Julian Temperley distils it for us in Somerset," says Angus Ferguson. "He's the only person in the UK making it, and he also produces Somerset Pomona, a light, fruity brandy. The cider brandy is ten years old and is similar to Calvados, but we were able to find it here, in the UK.

One of the few Demijohn suppliers whose products are well known in other outlets is the Shetland-based Blackwood company, which provides Shetland Vintage Nordic Dry Gin and Vodka.

However, a second vodka is altogether more obscure, being distilled in Glasgow for the Glass brothers - Mark and Kevin - of Dysart in Fife. It is marketed as 'Markev', and according to Ferguson, "It's quite a coarse, Russian style vodka, ideal served straight from the freezer. We've even been selling it to Russian visitors!"

"It's been organic growth," stresses Ferguson, "and the most important thing is to keep our quality very high. We had our passion and we've learnt an enormous amount as we've gone along. It's been a fascinating and endless adventure."

32 Victoria Street, EdinburghEH1 2JW. Tel. 0131 225 3265.
382 Byres Road, Glasgow. Tel: 0141 337 3600


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