I have always considered myself very lucky that I have met so many interesting people in my life and Angus Ferguson is up there as one of the most engrossing and personable people I have had the pleasure of spending time with. I was invited to pop in and visit him one day at the store in Byres Road and whilst trying to schedule a convenient day I found it delightful (and a sign of things to come) that he ruled out one day because he and most of his staff, were picking Sloe in Galloway.
I walked into the shop on Byres Road, just down from the Great Western Road and the brick walls and simple wooden shelves serve to highlight the glass bottles full of colourful liquids. I thought to myself “tremendous things are in store for you! Many wonderful surprises await you”.
Angus came out to greet me and within moments of meeting him you know he has a passion, and a deep belief in the products he sells. For him provenance is everything, well perhaps deliciousness first, but then provenance. He literally bounces around the store, eager to tell me about the origins of the Blackcurrant Gin Liqueur or the Sloe Gin. Angus was keen to tell the story of how he came up with the idea for Demijohn whilst a student in the 1990's working in Southern Italy. He would be allowed to go to the local winery, sample those on offer and then fill up his own jerry-can with wine. He likened it to filling up with fuel at a petrol pump, except a lot more fun and a far more pleasant taste I'm sure. Aided and abetted by his wife Frances, Angus made it his mission to bring back some of the food and drink experiences they had had across Europe, but highlight the range of quality British produce. Demijohn takes the jerry-can philosophy, but replaces it with a selection of glass bottles and cork stoppers, in a range of shapes and sizes. The fact that you buy your glass bottle and can return time and time again for refills is recycling at its best. The hands on (literally) sourcing of traditional British produce is not just a gimmick, it's about preserving some of the unique flavours from fruit and plants long since forgotten by the multinational companies. When I said to Angus, there wouldn't be another shop in the world selling a Wild Bullace Liqueur, he laughingly pointed out that I was wrong, there were definitely three more...
It was whilst Angus was dancing around his shop, surrounded by the various bottles of bright coloured liquids, with a sparkle in his eye that I realised how much he reminded me of Willy Wonka. Demijohn is his chocolate factory. When Angus is working to perfect a liqueur in his kitchen, I suspect the following description of Wonka in the Inventing Room is just as true of Angus. “Mr Wonka himself had suddenly become even more excited than usual, and anyone could see that this was the room he loved best of all. He was hopping about among the saucepans and the machines like a child among his Christmas presents, not knowing which thing to look at first. He lifted the lid from a huge pot and took a sniff; then he rushed over and dipped a finger into a barrel of sticky yellow stuff and had a taste; then he skipped across to one of the machines and turned half a dozen knobs this way and that; then he peered anxiously through the glass door of a gigantic oven, rubbing his hands and cackling with delight at what he saw inside.”
It is obvious that Angus is a perfectionist, he will never sell anything that he is not 100% in love with. I asked him if there was anything he was missing and he almost ruefully told me about how he would love to have a pear liqueur, but can't find the right flavour. He also launched into another story about how he was looking for a Strawberry liqueur to occupy the shelves of his first shop, but failed to find one that remained true to Demijohns beliefs. He explained how he could have stocked one, but it was sweetened and coloured and flavoured and as desperate as he was to fill the shelves, he chose quality over quantity and said No. That's where Demijohn is head and shoulders above your local faceless supermarket. Yes, Tesda or Morrisbury's may well sell you a bottle of posh olive oil, even the odd flavoured gin, but you try and find a member of staff that will tell you the name of the farmer who picked the olives. Angus can, so can his staff. They know where the Elderflower for the vinegar was picked (Yorkshire), they know the lady that makes the Limoncello (Hilary Blackford from Gloucestershire, if you're interested). Next year if you ask about the Sloe Gin, the staff will proudly tell you that they picked them themselves, in Galloway, on an October day.
This insistence on only the finest ingredients and natural production leads to a shop full of fantastic flavours and Angus and his staff are only too pleased to offer you the chance to have a taste of whatever you fancy, before you commit and fill your bottle. You'll find a Gooseberry Vinegar nestled next to an Apple Vinegar across from an Apricot Brandy Liqueur and the flavours, oh the flavours, the Morello Cherry Brandy Liqueur tastes of Morello Cherry, the Raspberry Vinegar tastes of Raspberries, the Snozberry Gin tastes like Snozberries.
Once you have picked one of the products, which I tell you now will be a struggle, you then have an almost as bewildering a task to pick your glass bottle. They are available in a range of shapes or sizes if you mange to pick just one, it'll be filled up for you, sealed with a cork and the name of the liquid will be written on the bottle. You could even get a message added if you are buying it as a gift. When you come back for a refill (and you will) the bottle will be re-filled, re-corked and re-labelled.
I asked Angus if he had a personal favourite and he pointed out the Seville Orange Gin, offering me a try. It was sublime, like warm liquid marmalade as it runs down your throat. It could very easily have been my favourite too, but then I discovered the Elderflower Vinegar. The flavour took me back twenty years reminding me of my grandfather's home-made Elderflower wine. The vinegar was so smooth it was like a cordial, in-fact I have had it since my visit served over ice with tonic water and it is so refreshing.
"What's next for Demijohn?” was my last question and Angus mentioned the possibility of a fifth shop, maybe even a foreign expansion and interest in Hong Kong and the Chinese Market. This was eclipsed however by the mention of a soon to be arriving Walnut Liqueur. Not content with the unique Wild Bullace Liqueur, Angus has been tinkering with a liqueur using the Walnuts him and his team collected in July. Imagine that with some slices of apple and a nice Scottish cheddar...
Demijohn owes it's success to not just Angus' passion and commitment to quality, but the support he has from a similarly minded (and I imagine very tolerant) wife, Frances. A loyal and dedicated staff who share in his vision and years of building up trusting relationships with suppliers. There may have been challenges over the years, but Angus has met them head on. The new carrier bag tax means he has to charge five pence for the recycled paper bags his recycled glass bottles are sold in. So he's decided to spend the money planting trees, to replace those that originally made the bags. Take a problem and make it a solution. On their tenth birthday Demijohn continues to go from strength to strength and I for one shall be a regular customer.
As for Angus, don’t forget what happened to the man who got everything he wanted.
He lived happily ever after.
382 Byres Road, Glasgow, G12 8AR
32 Victoria Street, Edinburgh, EH1 2JW
11 Museum Street, York, YO1 7DT
20 Little Clarendon Street, Oxford, OX1 2HP
And a quick mention for Roald Dahl, a far better writer than I could ever hope to be. Obviously his fabulous book Charlie & The Chocolate Factory is liberally quoted throughout this review. I don't think he would have minded.