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Confessions of a retailer: The Whisky Exchange

Sukhinder Singh, the founder of renowned retailer The Whisky Exchange, shares his expertise in the art of selling fine spirits.

Sukhinder Singh, founder of The Whisky Exchange

I started out in the whisky industry 30 years ago, which was the right time because I saw the growth first-hand. As new bottlers opened and as distillers decided to do more with their whisky, we were one of the first companies they decided to come to.

The heyday for whisky was probably the early 2000s. A lot of activity took place at that time and a lot of old stock from the 1960s, which for me was one of the golden eras of whisky, started to be bottled around then. Even today, some of this whisky is the best you will ever try.

We were selling the Bowmore 1966 from Duncan Taylor at that time for around £70 or £80 a bottle. Today, 13 years later, I’m selling the same bottle for £2,500. It just shows how much the market has grown.

I don’t actually give a damn about packaging. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s very important, but the liquid speaks for itself. Over time, you can see products that have excelled and become global brands – icons, even – and that’s because they’ve got the balance between everything: the liquid and the packaging.

Today there’s very little, sadly, that excites us. It’s probably because there are so many gins, vodkas and rums coming out. A lot of that stuff is coming from the same place, which is fine – they’re different recipes and there’s nothing wrong with that. But a lot of people working on the brands are doing it for profit and they don’t know the industry. They don’t know what the consumer wants or what the consumer likes.

A lot of our customers, especially those spending a bit more money, actually want to talk to you, see the product, touch it and actually take it away with them. So we felt a shop was sensible – there’s a synergy you can’t find on a website, because you need a face. And, for us, the shop was the face.

There’s a difference between online and brick and mortar customers because aged spirits, especially whisky, rum, Cognac and Armagnac, are extremely complex. So, unless they really know what they are looking for, consumers will need to talk to an expert, and that’s what the shop is for. If ‘beginners’ come to our website, we have maybe 1,000-1,500 standard whiskies that are available, and that can be scary. So the shop is important to our customers from an education angle.

What sets us apart from other retailers is the way we understand the consumer. We try very hard to get this right. I look at myself as a customer; I’m still a collector and go out and buy whisky. I don’t have everything, so I buy from other people and look at things in a very different way.

Once you fall in love with whisky, there’s no going back – it will carry on growing. For me, whisky is not a phase. Gin may be a phase; it’s on fire at the moment and may settle down a tad, but I don’t think whisky will be a passing fad.

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