A Labour of Love: Sukhinder Singh and The Whisky Exchange

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The conference room at the main office of Speciality Drinks in London, England is an awesome sight that would make any whisky-geek weak at the knees. Lining the walls of this room are glass covered cabinets containing the most impressive collection of whisky I have ever seen. Arranged by distillery, the 4000 or so bottles represent a sizeable part of the vast and carefully curated collection that Sukhinder Singh has meticulously acquired over the course of his remarkable 25 year career. Every bottle here has a story and a special significance to Sukhinder whose genuine interest and passion for spirits, particularly whisky, is truly inspiring.

IMG_0412-001.JPGOver the past 14 years, he and his brother Rajbir have built The Whisky Exchange (TWE) from a small online retail business in the early days of the web to the world's largest and most respected online retailer of wine and spirits. 

A luminary in the drinks industry, Mr.Singh is approachable, professional and refreshingly candid about his career in the drinks business. Over the course of the interview we discuss his path to success, the challenges of bottle collecting, his views on trends in the sector and the upcoming prestigious Whisky Show being held this October 5-7 in London.

When we arrive we're told by Billy Abbott, TWE's web editor, that Sukhinder's teleconference is running a bit long. As we chat the subject turns to the Scotch Whisky memorabilia in shadow boxes and the framed advertising posters on the walls. "Sukhinder and his brother Raj have been collecting this stuff for years," he says gesturing at a massive vintage bar mirror emblazoned with the Johnny Walker logo. "Behind these doors" he says, pointing at the large wooden double doors, "is the warehouse. There are all kinds of beautiful old bottles, ceramics and earthenware back there too." 

Sukhinder has been collecting whisky bottles and paraphernalia in some form or other for most of his career. Early on, when he and his brother were helping out at their parents' wine and spirits business 'The Nest' in Hanwell, he began collecting miniatures as a hobby. The move from collecting whisky miniatures, a collection which once numbered well into the thousands, to online whisky retailer was, as he describes it, a natural process for him and his brother.  When their parents retired in 1999, the brothers decided to sell the family business and ventured into the then nascent online market.

"Because whisky was such a love for us we decided to give it a go. We weren't sure what we wanted to do...we looked at opening a shop in London and looked at buying a couple of places but, sadly, they didn't go through," smiling, he stops himself and adds: "Now, looking at it, I'd say fortunately they didn't go through. "

With the ubiquity of online commerce nowadays, it is easy to forget how big a risk this move would have been considered at the time. In 1999, Pay Pal had just launched, e-banking was still new and most people didn't have a reliable home connection to the internet or, if they did, they were most likely using dial-up.  Yet, the brothers saw an opportunity to do something different.

"We knew the first year was going to be really tough because we had no warehouse and only a handful of customers from my previous business and that, was it." In the beginning, he recalled, "we did everything, it was just the two of us in an apartment. We answered calls, we picked the bottles, we did the invoicing, delivery, the emails, updated the website and so on. It was constant work! You can't just leave it and expect orders to come in. That just doesn't work!  You have to spend a lot of time and energy doing a hell of a lot of work."

At the time, their warehouse was a mere 2,000 square feet and with such limited space, the brothers had to be careful about what they stocked. Their network of connections and referrals from their parents' business allowed them to be "picky-choosy" as Sukhinder says and so they selected quality products from reliable independent bottlers and choice distillery bottlings.

"A couple of years later," [as the online marketplace heated up] "all these companies were investing millions of pounds in building all these amazing websites and we worried we might get left behind."

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His worries never materialized as the reputation of TWE for its quality and range of products kept the brothers in steadily growing business. "Yeah, we did it right. We just took things in our own stride. We've grown organically and we've grown sensibly.

"After about 5 or 6 years we diversified into other spirits because growing up in the business we had a love for other spirits and we saw no one else was doing a good job of this online in the U.K.. I will say that we jumped the gun on this a little bit and we started too early and lost focus on our whisky which was a mistake. We lost a year on whisky and took our eye off the ball but" he said as he tapped the table twice with his finger, "touch wood- now things are working very well."

Despite the success of the business, Sukhinder remains involved in nearly all of its aspects but that's not to say he's micro-managing the entire operation. Rather, he points to the contributions of his staff as allowing him to work on more strategic projects while they ensure the day-to-day operations run smoothly. "We have great staff and we are very selective in who we choose. We're a family business so we look for people who fit in and who are interested, dedicated, enjoy themselves, learn something and most importantly deliver really good customer service."

When asked about challenges in today's online market Sukhinder is quick to point out the growth of the sector and how many new online retailers have setup shop. "Since we've been at the forefront and we're now the biggest, everyone looks at us and uses us as a benchmark for pricing. They always want to be slightly cheaper so that's a challenge for us now."

While others may nip at TWE's heels, the company's enduring strength lies in its enormous collection of old, rare or discontinued bottles of whisky, amassed from years of patient collecting and, perhaps more importantly, the company benefits from Sukhinder's near-encyclopedic knowledge of older bottlings. This is not an overstatement. The man knows whisky bottles and the history of the industry. In fact, if you have an old bottle and wish to determine its authenticity send him a photo via the site's "Wanted!" page and chances are Sukhinder will know the scoop!

Speaking about the availability of older bottles in the market, I asked if recessions were boom-times for collectors. I posited that people with old bottles tucked away and collectors alike might be feeling the pinch of hard times and may decide to sell their treasures. He thought for a second, leaned in and replied, "You're right there's a lot of stuff that has come onto the market in the last few years, absolutely." Resting his elbow on the table and gesturing as if holding an invisible pen, he continued, "I'm not joking when I say that I get literally hundreds of emails a week from people selling stuff, hundreds," as his mouth widened into a happy grin. "I'm always on the hunt for lost distilleries!"

He still does most of the whisky selection but he's not shy confessing that it's getting harder because there's so much more available now, especially due to the increase of independent bottlers. He explains that all these new players have made the selection process more complicated because he now has to track and maintain so many more relationships and compare more product than before. "There are certain bottlers and you know the quality of their stuff is good and you can safely take the not-so-popular or smaller distilleries and be quite comfortable that when you buy...the product will be good."

"Of course everyone goes for the obvious and looks for all the Islays and the Macallans or looks for Highland Park and Clynelish and all that...but the challenge for me," his eyes lighting up as his voice becomes quieter, "is looking for the 'not-so-popular' or big names and finding something really damn good from one of those distilleries and saying," now waving and speaking loudly, "Hey guys, look! We've found a really nice Imperial or a really nice Brae's of Glenlivet or a Balblair."

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In addition to buying bottles to add to his collection or sell online, Sukhinder and Rajbir also look for stock to be bottled in one of Speciality Drinks three whisky product lines: Single Malts of Scotland, Elements of Islay and Port Askaig. Recently, the brothers added Black Tot Rum to their portfolio of spirits.

"Really," he says with a laugh, "it's all about who's going to be the next to find something truly amazing ahead of everyone else and then source most of the stock!"

Through our interview I found it increasingly hard to concentrate on my note-taking as I couldn't help but examine the contents of the collection on display. My eyes darted from bottle, to bottle, to bottle and from display case, to case in the conference room. The back wall has nearly every Macallan single malt ever bottled. Behind Sukhinder appears to be the entire historical range of Springbank. Favourite distilleries' product lines appear in complete clusters on the shelves and I wonder aloud to Sukhinder, "Is there a bottle here in this amazing collection with a special story that you can share with our readers?"

Watching my eyes scan the walls, he leaned back in his chair and began by saying, "one of the most special bottles to me is the first full-size bottle I acquired. As you know, I started off collecting miniatures and that was really my passion when I was younger...this one time I went to Scotland to buy a miniature collection from a gentleman who lived near a town called Kirkliston. I went to his house, looked through the miniature collection and we pretty much did the deal right away."

Pausing for a moment, as if seeing it again for the first time in his mind's eye, he continues, "I was preparing to leave when suddenly I saw on his mantelpiece, a beautiful, old moulded two piece handblown glass, unopened, bottle of Kirkliston single malt from the Kirkliston distillery which closed in the early 1900s. I was like...'Wow!' And I asked him directly, "Can I buy this?"

"No you can't." the man replied.

Determined, Sukhinder pushed on, "Please. Can I buy it?" he recalls with a soft laugh.

It carried on back and forth like this for another "hour and a half trying to convince him to sell me that bottle, which in the end he agreed to do. It cost me a lot of money, I think I paid 700 pounds for it, and this going back twenty years...I just wanted it. And to this day, I've never seen another."

"I remember thinking around that time I would like to begin collecting big bottles but I didn't want to go crazy with it. So what I initially decided was that I was going to collect one bottle from each distillery that I could find [but] I didn't want a normal bottle. You know? I could've just gone to my shop, picked up 50 different malts and have a collection of 50 distilleries. That wasn't really interesting to me."

"At first, I thought I was going to buy one or two, three, bottles a year of something very special and old and rare and that was it. And I started like that for a couple of years and then..." shrugging his shoulders while looking around the room, "it got out of hand."

"When looking for these old or rare bottles, how many end up being fakes?" I ask recalling a recent article from the Dutch online magazine Whisky Passion about the appearance of counterfeit bottles at auction that had been picked up by several whisky bloggers.

There was a really bad patch about 7 or 8 years ago and it took us a couple of years to actually work out that there was something a bit fishy going on. There were all of these amazing bottles coming on to the market and we were all going: 'Oh, this is unbelievable!' and 'This is too good to be true!"

"Then we just left them alone, people started writing articles, and bloggers got into it to make people aware. We warned a number of our friends and collectors and said 'look these are available but I don't know if they are good or bad.' Some people decided to take a punt and buy some. I did as well and bought probably about 6 of them and all the ones I bought were lost distilleries."

"I remember thinking to myself 'I have to buy these' and I paid many thousands of pounds....and I am convinced that they are," he paused and in a serious tone said, "not good." "But I've kept them in my collection because they've got beautiful labels, they're nice but do I think they're genuine? Probably not."

Whoever was behind the counterfeits was quite clever, concedes Sukhinder. "The printing on the label was very good and I think they may have had original labels which they copied onto very old paper, and they used old lead to make the capsule (the foil-like cover over the cork). They must have got the old bottles at antique markets..."

Unfortunately for those collectors who suspect they have been duped, the only reliable way to determine with certainty whether or not you've bought a forgery is to have a research chemist analyze the liquid, the label, and the lead capsule.

Doubtless, the best safeguard against forgery is for the buyer to do their research before buying and this is where Sukhinder's vast knowledge of Scotch whisky and other spirits comes into play. "Someone can pick up the phone [call me] and say, 'I've got this Macallan and this is the date', and I can tell them straight away whether or not those dates are correct. If I'm not sure I'll ask them to send a picture and then I'll be able to tell them yes or no." "But," he says with a shrug, "people don't ask, they just buy it."

From collecting, our conversation turns to the trends in the current whisky-verse. I ask, "In your opinion, what's hot right now, what's coming up and who do you think is making good product?"

"Demand for Japanese whiskey is going ballistic!" he replied. "And I like to think that we had a part in that considering how much we pushed for it over the years. The quality of the whiskey is simply incredible." Indeed, Japanese whiskies have routinely occupied the top spaces in international spirits competitions as of late and often have beaten or shutout their Scottish counterparts in the rankings.

Specifically, "John Glaser over at Compass Box has been quite innovative with his approach to blending and the quality of the whisky has been superb. I think [their product] can sometimes be difficult to approach but, once discovered, people do fall in love with them."

We talk for a while about the big brands both domestically and abroad and the rise of flavoured whiskies geared to entice new and younger drinkers. There is however, a standout worth mentioning among the big name brands for Sukhinder, William Grant & Sons' Monkey Shoulder."It's quite interesting. I call it a bartender's whisky or a whisky for people who say they don't like whisky!" The smooth, easy-drinking whisky is a blend of three Speyside malts (Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Kininvie) and is without equivocation, a crowd pleaser.

"Finally," he adds, "Irish whiskey has also been very popular and there's a lot of interest in the range of pot still products. I feel they are very approachable for new drinkers and they're also great for someone who likes an easy-drinking whiskey. They are doing a fantastic job."

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All of these products and more can be found at TWE Vinopolis located within the stunning Victorian railway arches of London Bridge alongside over a thousand single malt whiskies, and some 800 other spirits. The brick walled, arch-roofed shop also contains an astonishing variety of Rum, Cognac/Armagnac, a wide selection of Vodkas and Gins, and one of the best selections of Tequilas outside of the Americas, as well as a plethora of exotic libations and all the liqueurs and bitters you could ever need for the most discerning cocktail cabinet.

The shop at Vinopolis is an obvious point of pride for Sukhinder and it has allowed him a place to experiment with stocking special "in-store only" casks and bottlings. Being part of the larger Vinopolis complex has also provided him with the opportunity to create and host TWE's annual Whisky Show. "It's different than the other festivals here in London," he says. "We looked at the target market in London and we decided to do a high-end show. Basically, it's a place where exhibitors can show off their crown jewels." Excitedly, he begins to run through the list of events and offerings, "we bring in a lot of exhibitors and tell them to bring their premium whiskies, there's also master classes, food pairings and access to a selection of rare and limited run products we're calling: Dream Drams."

This year, the all-inclusive, no voucher whisky fair runs from October 5-7 and Saturday passes have almost sold out at the time of publication.

Sitting with Sukhinder, you get the sense that he loves what he does for a living and his ability to transform his passion for whisky into a thriving business that spans online retail, wholesale, independent bottling, collecting, and festivals is truly inspiring. "We still do everything ourselves. For instance, we now have a web team and can do all that creative work in-house as well. At first it was hard, you know we were working 6 to 7 days a week just to get by and now 14 years later the business has really taken off and now we work just as hard trying to catch up!"

It is this commitment to quality of product, attentive customer service, and genuine enthusiasm for spirits that has made the highly-awarded TWE the whisky world's go-to retail destination.

Driven and focussed, there's no hint of lamentation or fatigue in his voice, and I get the sense that his busy schedule is borne from both necessity and passion. Reflecting on his time with TWE he says, "It's a passion. And when the passion stops and there's no longer any interest, it'll be time to pack it in." Smiling, he adds, "If it stops becoming fun, I'd rather do something else!"


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