As with many things the origins of the award-winning, global and online retailer, The Whisky Exchange started with a simple idea, humble beginnings, and has gone on to achieve dizzy heights of fame. The original shop was opened by Sukhinder’s parents in London during the early 1970s. Called the Nest, the entrepreneurial pair were the first Asians to receive a liquor licence in the UK. Sukhinder and his brother, Rajbir, took over and eventually founded the Whisky Exchange in 1999.
To celebrate 20 years of retail, both online and over the counter, we sat down with Sukhinder to delve into to history, the future and his own passions for whisky and collecting.So, take me back to the beginning, how did you end up here and now?
When I started out some 30 years ago there was only one whisky specialist in the UK and that was Milroys. Apart from that, you had one or two whisky specialists in Germany, one in Holland, one in France, one or two in the Far East, and that was it. Everyone else was a wine merchant with a little bit of whisky offering.
For me, I started to collect whisky around 1988, and prior to that I was collecting miniatures, I sort of understood the drinks industry. I grew up in my parents’ shop. Me dealing in whisky was purely incidental. It wasn’t planned. It just happened. I started to meet collectors.
The link in the beginning to my parents’ business made things easy. When someone came in asking for new single malts we would say, “Oh yes, we have Glengoyne, a new vintage, 1967 or 68 or 69.” Then I was all of a sudden buying two cases and I could sell them overnight. It just happened.
People started coming to the shop and saying, ‘Wow, you’ve got a really good selection here.’ When I got to know the people, I would invite them to come to my office, where I had a tiny little room with cabinets full of bottles. This was stuff we were selling; my private collection was just tucked away in boxes. And online?
My brother and I said, “You know what, let’s try online.” It was tough. Companies around us were going bust. We used to read stories on how this company has raised £2 million to build a website. We managed to build a website through a friend of ours. Business took-off literally the next day. After a week we got an order, then we got a couple of orders a week, and then a couple a day. It just grew from that.
Five or six years later we opened Vinopolis. That’s when it got really interesting because other whisky shops started opening around the world; less so in the UK though. In ’99 there was nobody. Loch Fyne started. Whisky Shop chain was there. Afterwards, as whisky became more popular, more shops opened. You could argue it was competitive, but you could argue it was healthy competition because the more people that talk about whisky the more it grows as a category.You must be able to chart the rise in whisky’s popularity?
In the first ten years of having the shop, in the early ’90s, things started happening. Black Bowmore was launched in 1993, a couple of other companies started doing stuff; Glenmorangie Claret came out a few years later. Companies started doing bits and the packaging was superb.
One of the big changes is that a lot of the people who were drinking whisky in the old days were much older. They were mid-30s minimum, probably early-40s. I was always talking to a peer group which was older than me. Approximately 10 years ago that changed. A new, younger generation came on the scene. I’d been following that age group in Europe six or seven years earlier. In Europe the consumer was much younger than it was in the UK. In Asia, in the Japanese bars, they were much younger. The UK has always been 10 years behind. That’s the beautiful thing now, to see young people and more women now drinking whisky makes me happy. As well as a retailer and entrepreneur, you are also known as a serious collector. Any advice for those looking to start?
If somebody wants advice on collecting, trust your palate. Learn slowly. Start at the bottom, start with Speyside, evolve through the different regions, learn about different cask types, go up with ages, classes, shows like Whisky Live, it’s the best place possible to go on that journey of evolution and age. That teaches you a lot. Then, go to masterclasses and shops where people can talk you through whisky, and all of this will give you the confidence to trust in your palate. You’re buying whisky because you like it. If you like it, you might as well start collecting it as an investment. Who know what will happen in 10 years? You want to drink what you like rather than someone fobbing you off by saying something is limited. With the collector’s market, every day you read in the paper that it’s a great investment. You know what? It’s proved to be a superb investment.
I like collecting, there’s a place for it, but there needs to be a balance between people opening bottles, keeping bottles and flipping bottles. Whisky is for drinking. A whisky can only become collectable if the whisky is good and the stock is gradually diminishing. Finally you were a big supporter of the independent sector, Japanese whisky and the Old and Rare side of the whisky industry. How did that come about?
I started going to Japan in the late ’90s because I was interested. I also started going to Europe in the mid ’90s to go and learn from them and share experiences because they wanted to learn from us because the selection in the UK was much more than it was in Europe. I was one of Signatory’s early customers. They set up in ’88. I was initially buying miniatures and then bottles for myself, and then a few cases to sell on.
When Douglas Laing launched in ’98/’99 I was their first customer. I was Duncan Taylor’s first customer.
These guys needed me. They were so scared about entering single malts that they both, at different times, called me up and opened probably a year apart from each other. They called me up saying, “Sukhinder, you’re doing a great job of promoting single malts, we’re starting off and would love to come see you, we need help, we are treading on new territory that we’re not very versed in, can you guide us, can you help us?”
Also close to 15 years ago Suntory came to us wanting to launch Japanese whisky in the UK. They came to us because they didn’t know the market or what to do. We tried the liquid first and loved it. Yamazaki 12 and Hibiki 17. Two products, that was it. I said: “Look, the liquid is superb, so what that says to me is we just need to get liquid into the hands of the consumer. We could do it through the shop, but we also have a huge target audience online. Let’s come up with a Liquor to Lips type concept. Give me some miniatures and we’ll send them out to customers who order a certain style of single malt, and let’s give them a money-off voucher if they come back and buy a bottle, and let’s do a little flyer that gives them some information about what it is.”
It was a lot of work, but it did work, and they were over the moon. Within two years, because we were one of the very few that had Japanese whisky, it became pretty much one in every 10 orders.Hang on, this entire business is really built on one thing: Flavour?
I'd say 100 per cent. I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s possibly another reason why we’ve expanded in different ways and set up a couple of different operations, including my sister company Elixir Distillers. Here we’re doing Elements of Islay, Port Askaig, Single Malts of Scotland, and they’re all doing phenomenally well.
Why? Because we talk about liquid. We don’t talk about anything else. Packaging is not important. They don’t come in fancy packaging. They come in simple, nice packaging. We want liquid to speak for itself. We’ll bottle £200 or £300 bottles of whisky unboxed because it’s for drinking. I don’t want people to collect it, I want people to drink it. Fine, keep a couple of bottles back is where people’s mentalities should be, that was so good I want to drink it again in the future so they collect it now and drink it later.
For me it is liquid, liquid, liquid, liquid. Every day, you can ask any of my colleagues, I think the reason they love working here is because I talk about liquid. We’ll open old and rare bottles quite often. Why? For the love of it.
The Whisky Exchange