The joy of connections at The Single Cask

The joy of connections at The Single Cask

From a shared passion to building a commercial collective, discover how The Single Cask team are dispensing whisky stories from Singapore to London and beyond

Interview | 14 Nov 2022 | Issue 187 | By Kristiane Sherry

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The Pot Still is an institution. A vast trove of whiskies and dark wood, the Glasgow pub is, perhaps more than any other, the place to connect over a dram. More than 800 bottles adorn the shelves. Conversation flows. New friends bond over unusual releases, poring over the monumental menu under low lighting, revelling in the new connections and sharing ideas. A trip to The Pot Still is a whisky lover’s pilgrimage. And it’s there where The Single Cask founder Ben Curtis struck up a conversation with two brothers which led to them bottling their own whisky.

“I told them we separated casks into smaller casks – I used to call them sisters,” he animatedly recalls. “Why don’t you do something called The Wee Brothers?” He asked the pair. The outcome? They departed The Pot Still and did indeed bottle their own whisky. “It’s those sorts of things that make me very, very proud. The people we’ve actually helped. Maybe given them a name, given them the casks…”

These connections underpin so much of what The Single Cask does. Cask broking, bottling, and even a Singapore bar, the multifaceted business is underpinned by connections fostered in bars like The Pot Still. “Our love for whisky, and each other, is what The Single Cask is about,” Torsten Zimmerman, global sales manager, chimes in later. We’re talking over Zoom, alongside Brendan Asher Pillai, who heads up the bar operations, and Anna Gal, the PR and marketing mind. As conversation flows, The Single Cask comes to feel like more of a collective than a company.

A selection of releases from The Single Cask

Ironically, The Single Cask was born out of a dispute. With a background in wine and relatively new to whisky, Curtis had taken on the import and distribution for Glenfarclas across Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore. “I had to learn very fast,” he tells me. To do so, he travelled to Scotland and notched up 67 distillery visits in two and a half weeks. His portfolio expanded with the likes of Glengoyne, Tamdhu and independent bottlers, too. Then in 2011, he took over a business called Malt Vault. He’d invested in four casks from someone he describes as an “arch enemy”. “It took me eight years to sell them. That’s how much I’d overpaid for them,” he explains.

Curtis was selling to bars and restaurants across the region. “It was quite good fun at the time,” he smiles. “But I did generate quite a whisky lake.” The answer? To open a bar.

Step in Brendan in early 2016 and The Single Cask bar was born. Tucked away in Singapore’s Chijmes complex, it’s very much intended to be a home-from-home for whisky fans. “It’s a tiny space,” says Pillai. Capacity stretches to just 25. “It feels like someone’s living room.” More than 400 spirits are available by the dram, with a focus on independent bottlings and lesser-known distilleries. Of course, The Single Cask’s own bottlings are on the menu, and available through retail. “You want people to come in, sit down, have a drink and enjoy themselves,” he continues. “It’s not just about the engagement, but the education as well.” Events and tastings happen regularly, and guests are encouraged to ask questions and learn.

Then the cask focus really came into play. For Curtis, it was his time with Glenfarclas that cemented his love for single-cask releases. “Getting involved in a sixth-generation family-owned, family-run distillery, where father and son went around once a year and selected one individual cask [for its highly collectable Family Cask range] got me rather addicted to single casks being different,” he explains. He didn’t necessarily know why at the time, but the fascination stuck. “It was more, why is this different? Why is this cask, born on the same day, filled on the same day, in what looks like the same wood, a completely different flavour profile?” And then, of course, there’s the scarcity element. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.” The individuality excited him, and his cask broking career was born.

A Blair Athol bottling from The Single Cask

The Single Cask was incorporated as a UK entity in summer 2016. From that point it’s grown pretty organically. Partners aren’t employed – they choose to collaborate. This is how Zimmerman got involved.

“I’ve always loved whisky and I started collecting it,” he outlines. But as his collection grew, so did the disappointment. He was spending a lot and was unhappy with the results. He decided to have a go at bottling liquid himself. “It’s a closed industry,” he continues. “As a beginner, you don’t really know, when you’re buying your first cask, what’s the baseline price. What’s too high? What’s too low? So I reached out to a bunch of people, and one of them was Ben.”

Everybody was formal, but Curtis was informal. He sold him a cask. “I’m still grateful to this day,” he says. They met at a whisky show in Birmingham and got on like a house on fire. “We’ve stuck together ever since.” His business is Scotch & Tattoos under Torsten Paul Whisky. The philosophy is to showcase how whisky ages in the cask and independently bottle it, accompanied by tattoo-style illustrations by Nathan Hunmin Ji, from Oregon-based Rain & Forest Tattoos.

This partnership is part of The Single Cask’s latest collection: The Family Series. It’s a wide selection of bottlings selected by partners celebrating their journey together. Alongside Scotch & Tattoos there are releases from across The Single Cask network, including the bar and from the team based in Japan. The liquid is from classic Scotch distilleries (think: Blair Athol, Linkwood, Bunnahabhain and Strathisla), and the label art celebrates the camaraderie of the cask industry.

“How do we bring the family together? That’s really how the Family Series started,” Curtis details. The whisky sourcing, the storytelling, “everyone bringing it together.” Zimmerman agrees: “We figured that we tell the story of each of the sets of people within The Single Cask, because it’s important to people that drink our whisky.”

A toast with the Single Cask family

They are all adamant that front and centre they are whisky geeks: a team souring good spirit and bottling it at a reasonable price for an audience just like them – especially for those who, like Zimmerman, might want to release their own. “‘I want to start my own whisky brand’ – that basically is what The Single Cask does,” he says. “It helps people explore their love of whisky not just by getting our bottles and drinking it together, but also exploring further.” There will be more releases to come under the Family Series umbrella – with that philosophy, we can expect the family to grow.

The topic of cask sourcing does bring up the elephant in the room: cask investment, which is mentioned on The Single Cask’s websites. But Curtis is resolute that this is not what his business is about. “Don’t put me down as a person who sells casks for investment. It does not happen,” he states firmly. There’s an echo of how he was missold casks at the very start of his whisky journey. “We supply independent bottlers, and we supply people that actually have a use for their casks. If they come to us asking to buy a cask just so they can earn money, the answer is no. I’m not interested.”

Pillai agrees. “The idea is that you’re telling people you are the ultimate owner of this barrel. You shape the destiny, liquid, the ideas. And, you know, it gives you that sense of sentimentality.” He needs people to have a plan for it, and for him, that looks like bottling the liquid for a milestone moment. “It’s about formatting that relationship, deepening that love between the person and the distillery.”

Curtis says the bulk of the business remains selling casks to independent bottlers, or indeed back to distilleries, but the joy comes from individuals. It’s a model that’s proving successful: he’s investing a “sizeable” amount into his own warehousing in Glenrothes, Fife. The 47,000 sq ft development will have capacity for around 4,000 casks, as well as its own bottling, distribution and logistics hub. It’s due for full commissioning shortly.

The Single Cask team

Does he see The Single Cask, with its ability to bottle with agility, well-placed to potentially benefit from any fall-out from a cask investment bubble?

“I honestly see absolute disasters in the next three to five years because nobody has an exit strategy,” he sighs. “I’ve helped probably 10 companies open their own independent bottling labels. But if I’ve seen any one of them advertising that it’s for investment... I’ve stopped supplying them. It’s not the way to be portrayed.” He acknowledges that there can be a role for investors, but he is clear that everyone must benefit. He’s been burned before and it ends here. “For me, it was more about trying to help people realise their own dreams, not necessarily just build mine.” The Single Cask is a vehicle to do just that. “It’s fun. I enjoy it. I love bringing the people together, the people you meet within the whisky industry that really enjoy what they’re doing.”

And that enjoyment centres around enjoying and sharing the whiskies. Bouncing ideas, just like those brothers in The Pot Still. Pillai is readying for an anniversary tasting at the Singapore bar, focusing on the Family Series. He wants it to be “very leisurely”, people talking and enjoying just like they would at home. Who knows, perhaps the next Single Cask partner will start their bottling journey on that very day.
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