Whisky Exchange’s Singh brothers on 20 years of success

6th December, 2019 by Melita Kiely

As groundbreaking company The Whisky Exchange celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, the indefatigable founders Sukhinder and Rajbir Singh tell The Spirits Business about their past – and their future.

L-r: Brothers Rajbir Singh and Sukhinder Singh

*This feature was originally published in the October 2019 issue of The Spirits Business

Since its inception, The Whisky Exchange was always going to be a family affair – but its creation was never intentional. “It was never the plan. Completely accidental,” says Sukhinder Singh, who co‐founded the business in 1999 with his brother Rajbir Singh.

Born to parents Narinder and Bhupinder Singh, the pair grew up immersed in the spirits world. Their parents were pioneers of the trade, becoming the first Asians in the UK to be granted an alcohol licence in 1971 and opening an off‐licence, called The Nest, in the west London town of Hanwell.

“We both grew up in our parents’ business because we lived on top of the shop, so during the holidays and on weekends we would help out,” recalls Sukhinder.

A few years older than his sibling, Sukhinder was the first to attend university. But by the time he graduated in 1990, the UK was in the midst of a property crash and jobs as a chartered surveyor, which he’d trained for, were few and far between.

“I could only get one job, which was with the renting department of the local council,” he remembers. “So I thought, let me take a year off, I’ll help mum and dad, help them take a break.” A year later and the property market was just as dire – but Sukhinder’s interest in spirits had been piqued. His focus turned to The Nest.

“I could see I could do something pretty interesting here,” says Sukhinder. “I got permission from my parents to expand the business because they bought the shop next door. So we did that in 1991, and as soon as we did that we entered a number of awards – we won everything.” Rajbir adds: “It just went from strength to strength.”

After the younger of the two brothers finished his degree in computer science, the pair channelled their energy into growing the business, and by 1997, The Nest had multiplied into three stores. However, duty evasion was rife in the ’90s and created problems for them. So they made the “conscious decision” to start scaling back, selling one shop in 1997, a second the following year and the flagship shop in 1999.

Sukhinder’s passion for whisky had only become stronger over the years, while Rajbir’s interests veered more towards other spirits, including Tequila and rum. And as the shop sales were under way, discussions turned towards their next venture.

“I said to Raj, ‘look, I’m really interested in whisky’. I had started collecting it as a hobby, and I said I was thinking about doing a whisky company. ‘What do you think?’” With Rajbir on board, the brothers set a one‐year time frame to get the business off the ground before getting “a proper job, as they call it”, Sukhinder quips. After looking into various options, including buying London’s historic whisky store Milroy’s – “things got complicated so we walked away”, says Sukhinder – they started to consider the possibilities of online retailing.

The Singhs’ parents at The Nest

STARTING SMALL

A friend of Rajbir’s agreed to help them build a website, but having seen big companies inject millions of pounds into going online then going under, doubts were creeping into the brothers’ minds. “That scared us a bit,” admits Sukhinder, “but Raj’s friend goes ‘just forget what they’re doing. Start small, I’ll build you a website, it’ll take us three to six months, then you take it from there’.”

Sukhinder and Rajbir were equipped with a small warehouse space in Hanwell and some borrowed whisky stocks from their parents’ inventory to get them off the ground. Six months after deciding to join the ‘dot com boom’, in 1999, The Whisky Exchange went live on the World Wide Web.

“Two days later, we got our first order,” Rajbir recalls fondly. “We couldn’t believe it. How did they find us? Our first order was from Germany, a bottle of Bowmore 1989, one of their wood finishes, claret or something like that. It was just so exciting.”

Sukhinder stresses that this was the “heyday” of whisky, particularly for single malts and notes the rise of whisky bottler Douglas Laing during this time. “These guys had some of the most amazing stock you could possibly imagine; really damn good.” Douglas Laing approached The Whisky Exchange with some trepidation, but Sukhinder convinced the firm to sell him half of its stock.

“We put it live and started to get orders from all over, Japan, Germany, the UK,” he explains. “There we were, buying 120 bottles of something that was £60 or £70 a bottle – which in those days was a lot of money – and suddenly we were getting orders for two bottles, three bottles, six bottles.

“What’s beautiful to see is we made these guys because we were buying 50% of what they bottled, but they also made us because they gave us stock that helped us grow.”

But for the excitement and mounting success experienced by The Whisky Exchange, Rajbir remembers how challenging those initial years were.

“The first four years were quite difficult,” he says. “There were days when the phones weren’t ringing, there were orders not coming in. We were thinking, ‘have we done the right thing, have we made the right decision?’. It was a big challenge.”

The Whisky Exchange’s former outlet at Vinopolis

For the first five years, the brothers thought of nothing but whisky. But they found themselves missing other spirits, and after realising a second website wasn’t the right way to go, they amalgamated everything into The Whisky Exchange.

The two can be credited with igniting the success of many of today’s major brands: Monkey Shoulder, Tanqueray 10, Hendrick’s Gin, Antica Formula – the list goes on. “This is where we’re good: product,” insists Sukhinder.

One of their greatest triumphs was jump‐ starting the rise of Japanese whisky in the UK and “probably outside of Japan”, says Sukhinder. Suntory approached Sukhinder and Rajbir to see if they could help the firm launch Japanese whisky in the UK. The brothers convinced Suntory to give them 2,000 miniature Yamazaki 12‐year‐olds, which they sent out with select orders.

“We also sent a flyer explaining what Japanese whisky was – this was about 15 years ago,” recalls Rajbir. “And you know what, it worked; it damn worked,” adds Sukhinder. Clever marketing, an enticing flyer, Japan’s reputation for quality, plus the famous ‘Suntory time’ from the film Lost in Translation created the perfect storm to make the category a resounding success. So much so that Japanese whisky has become so popular – also thanks to the rise of the Highball in its homeland – that stocks are dwindling, and aged expressions are being discontinued until producers can catch up.

As things continued to grow online with The Whisky Exchange, Sukhinder was approached to open a whisky shop in London’s Vinopolis. Approximately seven years after starting The Whisky Exchange online, Sukhinder and Rajbir’s Vinopolis pitch was accepted, and they entered the bricks‐and‐mortar retail realm once more. “Vinopolis was really tough because it had no external street entrance,” explains Sukhinder.

Rajbir adds: “If nobody knew you existed, you would have been going past Vinopolis and you wouldn’t even know we were there.”

But they persevered. “It took a long time to get off the ground because the whisky tour wasn’t all they had promised it would be,” Sukhinder admits. “So we basically had the power of our website, which was getting stronger, and then we started advertising [the shop] through that.”

Business picked up, and never ones to stand still for too long, the pair noticed another gap in the market: education.

“Education was always at the forefront for us,” explains Rajbir. “With Vinopolis you had these wonderful halls and spaces, so we decided to do tastings and masterclasses. We were the first again; nobody was doing anything like that.”

This also sparked another idea: The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show. For years, Sukhinder had been an avid fan of whisky shows around the world, but lamented the lack of “decent whisky shows” in the UK. A friend broached the topic of hosting a whisky show in London and after consideration, Sukhinder and Rajbir agreed, and The Whisky Show was born.

The event’s unique selling point was its premium offerings – when the show launched tickets were priced at £90. “Everyone was going to us ‘you’re crazy’,” remembers Rajbir. Punters would have the opportunity to sample some high‐end drams and it was hoped the high ticket price would weed out the freeloaders. Two years into the event, and the pair took over the reins entirely. Last year The Whisky Show celebrated its 10th anniversary, and for the past three years it has been joined by a sister event in Edinburgh: The Old & Rare Whisky Show.

The Covent Garden shop

“Every year, we take on criticism and every year we try to improve it,” says Rajbir. “Remember, it’s about the consumer, it’s about the exhibitors. If they go away happy, we’re happy. That’s what it comes down to.”

But going back to the retail side of things, when the lease for The Whisky Exchange shop came up for renewal, Sukhinder and Rajbir were ready to take on a larger space within Vinopolis, complete with some street visibility – but things don’t always go to plan. An offer “too good to refuse” tempted the owner into selling, forcing The Whisky Exchange to shut up shop in 2015.

IMPRESSIVE WORK

However, plans for a second store had been in the pipeline for a while, and shortly before Vinopolis closed, a second Whisky Exchange site opened in Covent Garden. In 2018, a further London store was opened in Great Portland Street, Fitzrovia – 50% bigger than the Covent Garden venue. It’s impressive work, given the gruelling nature of the British high street and with Brexit looming.

“It’s tough; it’s not easy,” says Sukhinder. “Shop number two will take time because of the location – it’s an up‐and‐coming area, there’s a lot of redevelopment. We feel it’ll take another year or so, but we’re confident, we’re happy.”

So happy, that Rajbir reveals work is already under way for shop number three, which will be situated in the bustling London Bridge area. “You’re probably the first to actually hear about it,” he says. “It goes back home to where Vinopolis was. Covent Garden was always supposed to be the second shop; it wasn’t supposed to be a replacement for Vinopolis. We hope the London Bridge shop will be open in the next six months.”

Sukhinder and Rajbir’s long‐term plans reach much further afield than their London postcodes, however. After bottling their own brands under their Elixir Distillers company for years – including Islay whiskies Port Askaig and Elements of Islay, plus the Single Malts of Scotland range – the pair submitted a planning application to build their own Islay distillery last year.

Their ambitions for the distillery, which will be located to the south east of Farkin Cottage, near Port Ellen, include their own maltings on site, a vaulted maturation warehouse, visitor centre with a shop, restaurant, meeting facilities and a tasting lodge. But there’s just one more hoop to jump through before approval can be granted. “We’re very, very close,” informs Sukhinder. “We have a dispute with planning in terms of aesthetics of the building design. We’ve come up with something we believe is absolutely beautiful and modern, and they want something that is more traditional and looks like it’s been there 100 years, and we think it’s completely the wrong way to go, so we’re trying to get a compromise with them.”

“In principal they’ve accepted the planning application, they like everything about the project,” adds Rajbir. “We want to do justice to the landscape and to the history and heritage of Islay, and not actually make something up to be something it’s not.”

Elixir-Distillers-Islay-distillery

Aerial view of the proposed Islay distillery by Elixir Distillers

The pair remain calm and confident their distillery ambitions will be realised – “we’ll get there”, they say – and in the long run it’s hoped they will be able to bring production of their Port Askaig and Elements of Islay brands in house. “When stocks are at an age, yes, it’s possible,” says Rajbir, “but remember, we’re doing 40‐year‐old, 30‐year‐ old Port Askaigs. We’re too far down the line to be getting into that.” “We’re safeguarding the future,” adds Sukhinder.

Outside of the whisky world, besides “sleeping” – a favourite pastime Rajbir mentions on numerous occasions during our interview, though one he, unsurprisingly, has little time for – it’s clear that community is incredibly important to the pair.

The morning after the Grenfell tragedy is a prime example of the compassion both brothers have shown towards their home city. “[Relief efforts] needed help moving donations from one site to another site,” explains Rajbir. “They needed boxes for the donations coming in. The Sikh temple right next to Grenfell opened its doors and they needed various elements in terms of food, water, supplies, so whatever was needed, we were there to try and assist.”

They are also active with SWAT, a UK charity that works to feed and support the homeless, and following the Nepal earthquake in 2015, Rajbir researched charities they could support financially before travelling to the country to ensure the funds were used in the right way.

With the level of success the brothers have achieved, being able to give something back to those less fortunate has never been more important for them. “It’s part of our culture, Sikh culture – ‘selfless service’,” Rajbir explains.

EMPIRE-BUILDING

From a team of two, over the course of 20 years, Sukhinder and Rajbir have grown their workforce to “around 230 employees”, covering all aspects of their ‘small’ empire, including London Cocktail Week, Drink Up London, Whisky.Auction, Scotchwhisky.com, Speciality Brands, Speciality Drinks, and more.

Their achievements are indisputably impressive – but both share regret at “not being able to spend more time with our families and seeing our children grow up as much as we should have”, admits Rajbir.

“Our partners have been amazing, without their support we could never have done it,” Sukhinder says in admiration.

I ask if they would ever consider selling all, or part of, the business, to which Sukhinder is resolute in his answer: “No. We’ve had lots of enquiries, but we always say no.”

The Whisky Exchange started life as a family venture and as far as the brothers are concerned, that is how it will continue far into the future. For at the end of the day, it’s family first – always.

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