In Conversation With: Sukhinder Singh, The Whisky Exchange

In Conversation With: Sukhinder Singh, The Whisky Exchange

The founder of The Whisky Exchange; Sukhinder Singh, gives us a personal history of Japanese Whisky’s entry into the UK market

You were directly involved with kickstarting Japanese whisky’s introduction into the UK market. How did that come to be? What were the first expressions that you carried at The Whisky Exchange?

Around 15 years ago we met with the team at Suntory as they wanted to partner with The Whisky Exchange to launch their Japanese whiskies in the UK. We tried two expressions – Hibiki 17 and Yamazaki 12 – and I thought they were excellent. I thought the quality of the liquid would stand out sufficiently to impress our customers and the partnership would give Japanese whisky the boost it needed to reach outside the Japanese market, starting with the UK.

We came up with a promotional plan to send out miniatures of the Yamazaki 12 with specific single malt Scotch whisky orders, along with a voucher for money off a first Japanese whisky purchase. It was a success. Japan had an association with cool, premium and luxury products at the time and this launch took advantage of that, sparking customers’ interest and intriguing them to try the spirit. The liquid stood up to these premium expectations and, as a result, the orders soon rolled in.

What drew you to Japanese whisky in the first place? And why do you think others have taken to it so enthusiastically?

Taste! As a whisky lover myself, I don’t prejudge any whisky before tasting it. It is all about the liquid for me. These first two Japanese whiskies I tried from Suntory were superb.   People like Japanese culture. They associate Japan with quality and this encouraged people to try their whisky. Once they tried the samples we sent, they bought a bottle straight away. Around the same time, Japanese whisky began to win prestigious global awards, including gold medals at the International Spirits Challenge and category wins at the World Whiskies Awards – that’s when the reputation of Japanese whisky really started to take off.

15 years on and Suntory and Nikka are, quite rightly, household names. Are there any smaller brands/distilleries that we should have our eyes on?

Yes. Chichibu, to name one, has gained a cult following. They only do a handful of releases each year and the limited stock is available to just a few markets, making the whisky very sought after. The style of Chichibu is a nod to an old approach to making Scotch whisky – a slower process that focuses on quality over quantity.

There have been many new, promising distilleries opening recently. However it’s far too early to mention those, as I’m still waiting to try their spirit.

Do you have any particular favourite expressions? Any recommendations for those looking to take their first steps into Japanese whisky?

Nikka Coffey Grain is a perfect entry-level whisky for anyone new to Japanese whisky. It is light and fruity, with lots of tropical notes. Nikka from the Barrel is another great expression from the same producer – it has a much richer style and is bottled at higher-than-usual strength. Yamazaki 12 is also a delicious single malt – very elegant with a different kind of fruity style, focused on orchard and citrus fruit: apples and oranges.

Japanese whisky is often likened to Scotch. Is that a fair comparison nowadays? In what ways do Japanese Whisky and Scotch differ?

When it comes to creating a whisky for bottling, there are very different philosophies behind the spirits from the two countries. Scotch is made to be drunk on its own, while in Japan, it is almost always drunk with food. Casks are selected and blended in the same way, but the style of the final whisky in Japan is usually elegant and fruity, a delicate style suited to serve with Japanese cuisine. They also use some locally-produced casks, including those made from mizunara, a type of oak which only grows in Japan and eastern Asia.

Do age statements play as big of a role in the world of Japanese Whisky?

Less so in recent years – supply and demand is the challenge here. It takes time to mature whisky, so you can’t just release more immediately when it gets popular. For now they have fewer core expressions available while they wait for the whisky to mature.

It’s been over 15 years since the Whisky Exchange brought Japanese whisky to the UK market. Has much changed for the category in that time? Have there been any challenges or obstacles along the way?

At the beginning, I was very fortunate to receive exclusivity and bring Japanese whisky to the hands of our customers. As popularity and demand increased, the challenge to supply rose. Japanese distillers now export to a number of different countries, so there is less allocation available for us in the UK.

What do you think the future holds for Japanese whisky? Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to? Anything you’d like to see happen?

Japanese master blenders are some of the best whisky blenders in the world, and as more liquid becomes available, I expect that the quality of their whisky will only get better.

And lastly, is now a good time to invest in Japanese whisky? Could you recommend a good place to start?

Investing in Japanese whisky is certainly popular. Anything limited edition or made in small batches, such as single casks, is certainly collectable – for example Chichibu. But nothing is a good investment unless people drink the whisky, and producers like Chichibu are quite saddened by people buying their whisky just to resell, rather than enjoying it. I suggest that those wishing to invest buy two bottles and drink one – enjoy the whisky and save one for the future.

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Interview by Will Halbert at The Essential Journal

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