Sukhinder Singh, owner of the hugely successful Whisky Exchange, recently helped to organise the Old & Rare Whisky show in Glasgow, we caught up with him at the event to discuss everything from how he got into whisky to the future of the industry.

The softly spoken man who sits in front of me holds a whisky in one hand, I’ve yet to ask him which of the excellent range of drams on offer at this event it is, but I can rest assured it will be something good.

This is because firstly, we are at the Old & Rare whisky show in Glasgow – meaning there are some truly exceptional drams on offer – and secondly because this man is Sukhinder Singh, one half of the sibling team who founded one of the world’s most successful online spirits retailers and also one of the world’s leading authorities on whisky collecting.

The subject never really comes up anyway because as soon as I ask Sukhinder about the Old & Rare event, his eyes light up and before I know it I’m caught up in the passion he has not only for the event itself, but the industry as a whole.

“Once you are into whisky there’s no leaving, the only time you are going to leave whisky is when the doctor says no more, otherwise it’s there for life”

Sukhinder describes the new show as a “unique chance for whisky fans to discover great whiskies produced in bygone eras”.

He said: “Our other event in London [The Whisky Show] is a premium show, we’ve tried to keep the level to a very high standard, but it is a show for the enthusiast, whether you a beginner or a connoisseur you’ll enjoy it.

“For me, this show adds another level to that experience, these are the old and rare whiskies that people see at auctions, and on the website, and wonder what they taste like.

• READ MORE: ‘Old & Rare’ event in Glasgow set to showcase whisky from a bygone era

“Some of the whiskies on offer range from the 1990s all the way back to the 1920s, and our exhibitors are charging really fair and reasonable prices for these drams. We want people to have the opportunity to try things that are very rare.”

So why did Sukhinder choose Scotland and Glasgow in particular for the event, when surely London would have been easier for him?

“Why did I do it in Scotland? Well, I’ve been going to fairs all over the world and one thing that’s always shocked me is that the Europeans always seem to do it better than us.

“Scotland is the home of whisky and I always wanted to do something here, I wanted to prove that it could be done here.

“Then when my dear friends Angus [McRaild] and Johnny [McMillan] came and spoke to me about it, we decided to just go for it.

“From there we contacted our friends and put together this list of exhibitors with guys like Mr Ardbeg, who has one of the biggest collections of Ardbeg in the world and is probably one of the most knowledgeable people on the brand, and Mr Springbank who in the past has had stands with 150 open bottles of Springbank.

“On top of that, we had guys like Emanuel Dron from Singapore, whisky bars like Dornoch Castle Hotel and the Bon Accord, Auction houses and independent bottlers, all bringing these wonderful whiskies for people to try.”

Some of the bottles on offer at the Old & Rare Show. Picture: The Whisky Exchange

The event itself is busy but not bustling and the atmosphere is very relaxed, in fact it’s one of the least hectic events I’ve been to. When I point this out Sukhinder nods sagely.

“That was our aim, whisky needs to be enjoyed in a very relaxed atmosphere, I’ve been to a lot of shows, where it’s ‘How many people can we get in?’ and it’s really difficult. It’s tight, you don’t get a chance to talk to the exhibitor, to talk to other people, the noise level gets too high.

“So, for us that the balance is important, it was a case of let’s do it but keep it exclusive, keep it small. With the first year it’s always hard to know how many people you can put in without making it tight, so in our mind 300 was our target, but we’ve managed to push that to appease people on the Saturday where we extended it to 350 and then on the Sunday we had a further 250 people.”

The initial response for the event was fairly muted as it was a concept few organisers had really ever attempted before, and the high asking price for tickets had more than a few people raising their eyebrows, but Sukhinder and the team always knew that what they were offering was worth the effort.

Sukhinder said that at first they had decided to keep it as a surprise as to what whiskies would be on offer, but he added that it soon became apparent that “it might be best to tell people so they could plan ahead in terms of what drams they wanted to try”.

Once the whisky list and the prices went online, Sukhinder says the response was immediate, with people realising the prices “were fair and honest” and the demand grew quickly, not just in the UK but globally as well.

“We’ve had people from 28 countries – all parts of the globe – Canada, America, China, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong and loads from Europe buying tickets.”

The event itself was a big hit with both the vendors and the attendees and on the Sunday – the day I was there – there was a lot of smiling faces and more interestingly, excited chatter, as guests pointed out which drams they’d enjoyed and which they’d recommend.

So how did Sukhinder get to the stage where he was not only one of the most successful whisky retailers online but is also able to host such an excellent show.

“I grew up in my parent’s drinks business, they were the first Indians to get a liquor licence in the UK back around 1971, and they opened an off-licence, so I just learned from there really.

“As a youngster, I started collecting miniatures and I really got into it in a big way, at one point I had the largest single malt miniature collection in the world with something like between four and a half and five thousand bottles and this was twenty years ago.”

Sukhinder then explained that the natural progression from there was to move on to full size bottles and though he had studied the industry and many of his friends were collectors his physical knowledge of actually drinking the stuff was still very limited at that time.

“I decided I was going to try it and my love for the spirit just grew from there.”

Though he had began dealing in whisky and specialising in single malts for his parents’ business, when it came time for them to retire and sell up, Sukhinder found himself at a loose end.

“At that time, I had gained a lovely network of collectors and drinkers around the world, who used to come to me and ask if I could buy them bottles and at that point most of the bottles released were still only available in the UK, whisky was exported but only the standard bottlings, the limited editions only went to some key strategic markets.

“When my parents sold up it was a case of ‘what am I going to do now?’ So I pitched to my brother and said ‘I’m thinking about starting up a full time whisky business, what do you think?’.

“Rajbir [Sukhinder’s brother] agreed and the initial plan was to open a shop in Central London but we couldn’t afford the rent.

“Then one of our friends suggested going online, but we weren’t sure as we assumed it would be expensive to build a website. However, he offered to build it for us, so we set it up and bought a little warehouse and it’s just been go, go, go ever since.”

The venture must have been quite a risk, particularly knowing how the dotcom industry almost went bust around a year or so after they started.

“It was risky, but unlike a lot of dotcom businesses from that time we didn’t invest millions in building a website, we did it on what we could afford. Investment was minimal, it was very sensible, we only did things that we could afford to do.”

“We said to each other that ‘let’s try it for a year, if it doesn’t work, we’ll pack it up and get a proper job, so to speak.'”

Sukhinder’s business model was built for success, even in the early days, he was getting the right stock in and had a strong network of customers.

He explained that it was so successful that whenever he let people know about new releases or bottlings – which he said would have been by fax or email in those days – he would get orders returning for 12 or 24 bottles at a time.

“What was amazing was that within a day of going live with the website we started getting orders. Our web shop went live in 1999, and I understand that we were the first e-commerce drinks retailer on the planet at the time, there was maybe some wine shops but none for spirits. We were lucky that we had that foresight.”

The success of the Exchange is down to what he says, is understanding the product and working closely with distillers and independent bottlers and choosing the right bottles from them.

“I think in the heyday, in the early 2000s, a lot of the independent bottlers, you know Douglas Laing, Hunter Laing, Signatory, Gordon & MacPhail, Cadenheads… we were literally getting 30, 40, 50 per cent of their allocation. Duncan Taylor as well.

“We had the right product and we had the right target audience.”

Sukhinder says the business really took off from there and led to the shop at London Bridge and of course the big events – such as the Old & Rare Show – that the company now hosts.

What about his own interest in whisky, has that waned any? Or is he still as passionate about collecting and enjoying whisky as he was when he first started?

“Well my own collection now sits at about eight and ten thousand bottles but I still love it as much as I did from day one.

“I think if I’d stopped enjoying it for me it would be boring and I think for me the reason we are so good is that I am a product person; I love good whisky, I’m good at it, I’m a collector, I know what collectors look for.”

He has a key piece of advice for anyone looking to get bitten by the collecting bug like he did.

“For collecting, the first question I ask people is do you actually like whisky?

“If it is just purely about investment and you don’t like whisky, don’t invest, you are wasting your time.

“Like stocks and shares unless you know what you are dealing with you can’t invest. It’s all very well when the stock is going up, but when that changes and shares fall that’s when people get hurt. It’s the same for whisky, if you don’t understand it, don’t buy it.

“Secondly, I’d say collect what you know, at some point, with at least one of your whiskies, you are going to have to say sod it and admit to yourself it wasn’t a great investment and just drink it.

“The final thing I say to people is don’t just start haphazardly buying every new limited edition that comes out. Sometimes people fall into the trap of buying too much, and they realise too late that they have too many bottles.

“They now know what they like and want to specialise in a particular thing and they are stuck with all of these bottles.

“Just take it easy, don’t rush in, try and understand it first, find out what interests you and then start collecting.”

He also has some pertinent advice for those who are just starting out enjoying whisky.

“Start at the bottom. Some people are fortunate to have bigger budgets and they start off drinking eighteen, twenty one and twenty five-year-olds and you know what? I don’t think you can really understand whisky unless you start right at the bottom.

“Ten or twelve year old whisky can be as good as fifteen, eighteen, twenty one-year-old whisky, it’s about what you like.

“I always give a comparison with food, there are so many different cuisines, there are so many different types of food. It’s all very well saying caviar is amazing and it’s expensive, but if you don’t like it, you don’t like it, if you like burgers then so be it, enjoy burgers.

“It’s the same with whisky, you drink what you like. Don’t be led by people, it’s your palate, so make your own judgement but start at the bottom.

“A lot of the standard whiskies on the market these days, the ten and twelve year old whiskies are actually beautiful, the quality of these whiskies at the moment is superb, they are better than they were ten years ago.

“And, as the whisky industry has grown, they’ve looked at every element of quality, whether it’s good wood or processes and that is now coming in to the whisky we are trying and for me, there are some amazing value whiskies at the entry level.”

As I conclude the interview, I comment that the guests at the show are quite varied with a lot more young people and women than at other events I’ve seen outside of Glasgow.

Sukhinder nods as he tells me it’s one of the things he likes most about the industry right now, adding that he’s been hugely impressed in terms of how the industry has grown up a lot recently and moved away from the stuffy stereotypes of the past.

“That’s the big difference when I look at it now as compared to ten, twenty even thirty years ago. Until maybe ten years ago, there were very few young people in whisky and that for me is the biggest change and also the healthiest change.

“Because once you are into whisky there’s no leaving, the only time you are going to leave whisky is when the doctor says no more, otherwise it’s there for life.

“The flavour profiles are so broad, that you are always looking for that next experience. That’s what so amazing about whisky, the people that are drinking whisky now are young, in their 20s and their 30s and they are going to be in whisky for at least the next 40 years and I think that’s amazing!”

About The Author

Sean Murphy

Driven by a passion for all things whisky-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over six years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink.

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