The best of times

The best of times

With rare whisky very much in demand The Whisky Exchange is booming. But is it really such a great time to be investing in whisky? Dominic Roskrow spoke to Sukhinder Singh.

People | 28 Nov 2008 | Issue 76 | By Dominic Roskrow

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With the money markets in freefall recently two City bankers were discussing the future. “You’re shafted unless you’re selling something that is good for your health, makes you feel better, or both,” said one.So whisky’s quids in all ways, I thought.Seems I’m not the only one. With confidence in finance dropping faster than Newcastle United in the English Premiership this autumn it seems that many investors have been casting their nets further afield for a safe bet. For some that’s brought rare whisky into shooting range.So is it really such a good bet?For The Whisky Exchange, arguably one of the world’s leading specialist whisky retailers, the trend is a welcome one because it guarantees a regular procession of cash-rich investors looking to spend, spend, spend.So perhaps the resigned sigh from Sukhinder Singh is not quite the reaction one might expect when the subject is raised. He’s seen and heard it all before, it seems.“People go on about buying whisky as an investment but they need to be careful,” he says.“It’s very very hard to make money from buying whisky. You have to be prepared to put your money into it for a very long time.“Think about it. If you buy a bottle of whisky for say £1000, then the retailer probably bought it for £650. He has VAT to pay and his margin. Say in even a year its value seems to have gone up to £1,200. If you want to sell it back to the retailer he must consider his margin and tax out of that £1,200 so he’s not going to want to give you more than £900.You’ve made nothing.” Sukhinder is an astute businessman and he doesn’t give much away. He’ll regale you with stories of intimidating henchmen wanting to buy extremely expensive whisky for the birthday celebrations of a world leader, then insist it’s to be kept off record. He’ll talk of customers spending thousands of pounds on a visit, but won’t provide details. In short, he’s a journalist’s nightmare, part politician, part poker player, a fun and witty raconteur face to face, anesthetised and dull in print.You suspect, though, that the businessman Sukhinder isn’t the real Sukhinder. The real Sukhinder, the one that started collecting whisky miniatures, is at heart a whisky enthusiast who enjoys drinking some of his stock as much as he likes making money from it. He gives little away, but what he does gives a huge insight. Take this: “People go on about limited editions and single casks and so on but that’s not what it’s all about. It’s got to be about what the whisky tastes like. I guarantee you that if the whisky isn’t good it won’t be truly collectable. There are some whiskies that I know will sell because they are rare and they are outstanding. I have customers who want to buy them to drink them. That makes a whisky valuable.” So given his reservations, where does he suggest we put our money?“As always Islay whiskies are top of the list,” he says.“Many have realised that they will miss amazing whiskies from closed distilleries such as St Magdalene and Glenugie.Malts from the not so important distilleries such as Imperial, Glen Garioch, Benriach and Craigellachie are also creating interest.“And consumers are happy to experiment and with the great publicity on Japanese whisky, the category is hot.” With the Whisky Exchange running the whisky part of Vinopolis and the core business now moved to bigger premises near Park Royal in West London, The Whisky Exchange employs 20 people and is thriving. But a lack of time has restricted it from going even further.“We’ve got big plans for the website and we were hoping to have that done by now but that’s had to be put on hold until January,” says Sukhinder.“There are other things we’d like to do on-line if we get the chance.” What has appeared is The Whisky Exchange’s Islay Elements whisky range – so far a Laphroaig, a Caol Ila and an Ardbeg. At a time when some independent sources are starting to struggle as malt supplies dry up, Sukhinder has some stock put aside, though in typical fashion he’s vague as to exactly what.He does promise some interesting developments in the months ahead. “These are good times for whisky,” he says.Just don’t put your house on it.
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