The office and warehouse of Specialty Drinks Ltd is in the kind of sterile business park in which terrible things happen in Scandinavian crime novels. Located in the Park Royal suburb of north-west London, miles away from any parks or royalty, Space Business Park is located on Abbey Road (not that Abbey Road).
When I go to meet Sukhinder Singh on a cold, windy December morning, there is no sign whatsoever, at least initially, that I am anywhere near the offices of the most successful, respected and sophisticated online spirits retailer in the UK. Maybe even the world. At any given time, Singh’s website, The Whisky Exchange (TWE), www.thewhiskyexchange.com, sells around 2,500 different whiskies. And an equal number of other spirits.Though Singh later informs me that they have around 8,000 whiskies or so in their catalogue.
Sometimes, he says, TWE gets its hands on a case or two of some exotic bottling. Which then promptly sells out in 15 minutes. “I have no idea how people know that we’ve put something on sale,” he says. “Maybe they sit all day with our website open in a window on their computers.”
Things become more evident as I approach Singh’s office block, the seventh in a line of a dozen or so brutal, prefab warehouses. Outside, employees seem to be unpacking, or packing, cartons of spirits. I spot a case of Talisker out front. And then behind them, cases upon cases of the good stuff.
Singh buzzes me in, makes me a cup of tea, and then escorts me into an empty, unlit conference room.Through windows and glass doors, I can spot employees in jeans and sweaters scuttering around with papers or hunched over computers. At first glance, it looks like the office of a tech or gaming start-up that is slaving over an idea, in a humble office, sitting on a tiny pot of VC funding that is being spent judiciously.
But the posters on the walls are a give-away: prints, photos and etchings of distilleries, and old promotional posters for brands such as Dewar’s. As he switches on the lights in the conference room, I fully expect to see a standard issue beige, brown, black and wood varnished room with a dirty whiteboard in a corner.
Instead, I walk into a massive room with almost every inch of the four walls covered in bottles of whisky. There are hundreds upon hundreds of bottles: old, new, rare, common, small and large, and containing whisky in every hue from blond to the near-ebony tones of Bowmore Black.
Singh has a mild, restrained manner about him. He is dressed in a thin sweater over a plaid shirt, and jeans. He wears a no-nonsense turban, and sports a well-used Rolex Explorer II on his wrist. But the conference room, golden light everywhere, is pure statement. A reminder of the fact that Sukhinder Singh is, in many different ways, a master of the single malt. Besides TWE’s dominance of the online retail business, Singh is also an avid collector, evangelist and ambassador for Scotch whisky. Singh’s company even independently bottles its own brand of single malt, the rather popular Port Askaig, available in four expressions, including a 30-year-old that costs £150 a bottle.
Sukhinder Singh’s association with spirits in general, and whisky in particular, starts with his family’s old business in Hanwell, around five miles from his current office. The Singh family ran an “off-licence”—or convenience store that sold alcohol— called The Nest. Started in 1973, Singh describes it as a labour of love. Several times during our conversation, he talks about how his father, brother Raj and he himself ran the store with a commitment to keeping their customers happy. “We had a great selection of spirits, considering we were an independent store, and people came all the way from central London to buy from us,” Singh recalls.
The Nest enjoyed tremendous loyalty. In much the same way TWE operates today, customers depended on the Singhs to keep their finicky thirst quenched. “People would walk in and immediately we knew what they were looking for.”
It was a relationship that, years later, Sukhinder and Raj would come to be very thankful for. In 1992, The Nest won the Off-licence of the Year award. “This was remarkable. We were an independent store. Competing with the chains. And far away from the city. And still we won.”
Singh’s personal fascination with whisky began sometime in his teens, when he first began to collect miniatures. It all started with a customer who introduced him to a club of miniature collectors. Singh, still a teenager and a non-drinker, was hooked. But what truly tipped him over the edge was when one day he got a call from someone desperate to offload a massive collection of thousands of miniature bottles. Singh was sure he didn’t have the wherewithal to make a competitive bid. “I was sure they would ask for several thousands of pounds, a huge amount of money in those days.”
Nevertheless, on the day bids were being opened, Singh called the seller and asked him what the bids were like. “‘Nothing’, he said. They hadn’t received a single bid. He asked me to bid anything at all.”
A shocked Singh bid £1,000. And closed the deal for a few hundred more. “Now, I had no idea what to do with these bottles. I didn’t have enough space at home.” So he decided to trim the collection down by focusing on whisky.
This brought the collection down to a few thousand. Still too large for Singh’s bedroom. He had to filter it down further. “In the shop, we always kept the single malts on the top row, right in front. They were the highlights of our stock.”
Thus, Singh decided that he would only keep the single-malt miniatures. The rest of the bottles he sold or gave away. With a starter collection of some 700 bottles of single-malt miniatures, Sukhinder Singh was caught hook, line and sinker. Eventually, he would graduate to bigger bottles and serious, adult collections. In October 2010, Singh paid £100,000 for a bottle of 64-yearold Dalmore Trinitas whisky, one of only three bottles ever launched of this whisky. At the time, this was a record.
Today, Singh reckons he has over 20,000 bottles in his collection. He still keeps an eager eye on spirit auctions and private sales, but with business booming, there is little time for leisure.
Things started, however, in much more humble circumstances. TWE started in his bedroom. In 1999, Singh convinced his parents to sell the store and retire. Competition was building from chains such as Tesco, and he didn’t think the family was equipped to last the onslaught. But before selling everything, Singh set aside a little stock.
A seed stock, if you will, for his new venture—a mail order spirits retailing business from home. “That first year was very, very hard,” Singh recalls. He did everything: buying, packing, billing, working the phones, and walking to the post office to send the bottles. But thanks to some loyal customers of The Nest, he was able to keep things going.
“I can’t tell you how much I owe to those guys. Just a handful of them kept us going month after month.”
Many of these early tipplers, Singh says, are still friends.
When I ask Singh why TWE became so successful—it is not uncommon for the website to pop up right on top if you type in the name of a whisky in Google—he points to luck and timing. “We were the first, in 1999, to set up a website and sell whisky online. And things just took off from there.”
But on pressing him a little more, Singh admits that customer service and design play a big role. “Every day, I open the site and look at it as if I am someone who knows little or nothing about whisky.” Also, he adds, they spend a lot of time on the design and content. He takes the example of one of the newly highlighted sections on the site: the Top 20 whiskies of 2011.
“We spent three hours drawing up that list. Some of them were my suggestions. And some of them were made by my guys. But each whisky on that list was chosen after a lot of thought.”
Which is probably why the TWE website is so welcoming and, comfortingly, posh in an accessible way. Browsing it is somewhat like eating at one of Jamie Oliver’s gourmet restaurants. Everything is of the highest quality, but somehow, even as you dive into a pulled pork shoulder main, you never feel conscious of yourself.
Besides, there are whiskies here for everyone and every budget. From light, oaky bottles at £20 each to big, heavy, punch-in-the-stomach peaty Islay malts that cost five or six times as much. But most of all, Singh seems to care about his whisky. Educating the consumer, he says, is crucial. People need to know not just what the good brands are, but what makes them special. Which is why Singh has started to organize master classes and tasting sessions at the store, and even an annual event, the TWE Whisky Show.
And this is also why he now has his eyes trained on doing something in India. Singh is tight-lipped about his plans. But his passion shows. “It is such a pity that for a country that has a culture of drinking, we are perhaps the only that does not have a traditional spirit that is sold internationally. The Japanese have sake, the Scottish have whisky, the Americans have bourbon, the South Americans have so many spirits...but India still doesn’t have one.”
To make things worse, he says, most of the spirits made locally are poor. So there is much that needs to be done. “Perhaps I am saying this because of emotional connections. My family is Indian, of course. But I’d rather go to India right now than buy my own distillery in Scotland.”
Sukhinder Singh sells some of the world’s best whisky to drinkers and collectors from the US to Japan. His next stop is home.