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Make mine whisky
ON the rocks, neat, with a twist, a splash of water, etc. There are a myraid ways one can down whisky, so it's no wonder that the gentleman's drink, often associated with class and affluence, is fast gaining popularity here. No, whisky bars are not popping up in the same numbers as cafes or the coffee wave of a few years ago, but there are enough to send ripples through the industry.
"Whisky has been gaining ground in mainstream culture in recent years, and we experience about 20 per cent year-on-year growth in our overall business. It has been one of our busiest years despite the financial situation, so we are very fortunate to have a vibrant F&B industry here in Singapore," says Timothy Barnes, wholesale manager of Maison du Whisky, which imports whiskies and supplies to over 400 clients including retail stores, bars and restaurants. The company also operates a retail store at Mohamed Sultan that doubles as a bar at night.
The increasing interest in whisky has also been noticed by Chua Khoon Hui, owner of the nine-year-old whisky bar Quaich at Grand Copthorne Waterfront. They recently opened a second outlet called Quaich Bar at South Beach, showcasing over 500 labels of whisky, including many from boutique distilleries.
Says Mr Chua: "When we started nine years ago, people would come looking for just Macallan. Now, when they come, they are more receptive to whatever we suggest, even the small boutique whiskies. There's even a growing group of enthusiasts who are very keen on learning about whisky. I think this was partly triggered by the popularity of Japanese whisky."
He adds, however, that the scene is still in development, and explains: "Wine is so much more mature in Singapore - people know more about boutique wines and wineries now. But most people still go for the big whisky brands when they're at a bar. So there's definitely potential for the industry to grow."
It's not just individuals who are more interested in whisky either. There is also growing interest in the F&B sector for restaurant owners who want to introduce whisky-pairings in their menus. For instance, whisky supply and consultancy firm Iki Shouten has been seeing more restaurants paying extra attention to their whisky programme, according to one of its founders, Yang Minxiang.
Mr Barnes concurs: "I feel there's a continually growing number of restaurants utilising our portfolio to offer digestifs and whiskies to their diners and guests. It's not easily quantified, but it's just something that restaurants have been approaching me for."
At Modern European restaurant UsQuBa for example, whisky sommelier Fong Chan Teng pairs the restaurant's range of Scottish whiskies with some of the dishes in their a la carte, bar, and seasonal menu. He says: "We decided Scottish whiskies would be best as it has the highest concentration of whisky distilleries and all of them have interesting stories to tell, as well as countless expressions - all from the oldest whisky-producing country."
So far, the take-up rate for his recommendations has been positive. He adds: "There is always more opportunity to have more people explore the possibilities of whisky pairing with food, but we hope that our suggestions in the menu will encourage them to try it out for themselves."
Ernie Chew of The Joint also offers whisky pairings, except in a much less formal manner. His casual bar is located above Japanese restaurant Cho Omakase - both run by him and his business partners, so if anyone prefers whisky to go with their dinner instead of sake, he's more than happy to help.
He says: "I think, traditionally, if you go to a Japanese restaurant here and want something alcoholic, by default it would be sake. But there's a growing number who want whisky with their meal instead. These people tend to be the ones who've been to Japan many times, and have a more cosmopolitan viewpoint. It's their exposure that brings whisky and food together because they have had it before in another country."
And it seems that Japanese whiskies have also influenced the culture of buying whisky both here and overseas.
Christopher Lee of the three-month-old The Whisky Distillery says he's had quite a number of people asking for a Yamazaki 18 which is worth almost S$800, and observes that "a lot more people are buying to collect nowadays. And Japanese whisky pricing is just way too high right now. People don't drink it, they just pay the high price but won't drink it".
While some bemoan the waste of a limited-edition bottle just sitting on a shelf, one good thing about the collecting culture is that it is pushing importers to bring in rarer bottles - benefiting those who wish to have their whisky and drink it too.
Iki Shouten's Mr Yang has observed that "rare whisky in general is getting more accessible locally due to the rise in interest in whisky collecting".
"Singaporeans have access to a wide array of whiskies from all over the world today, namely independent bottlers such as the very innovative and dynamic Compass Box Whisky label, and the Silver Seal range carried by Auld Alliance Singapore."
Ultimately, however, education can only take the industry so far, as demand is not the only thing standing in the way of more boutique whiskies making their way onto bar menus. Mr Chua of Quaich Bar at South Beach points out that certain business practices would also need to evolve.
He says: "As suppliers, we opened two outlets of our own because we find it difficult to penetrate into local bars. It's almost impossible because most have contracts with the big boys, so few are open to boutique whiskies. Wine doesn't have that problem. That's why I welcome more independent whisky bars to open, so that the market can grow."
The Whisky Distillery
2 Orchard Turn, ION Orchard, #04-23
Open 10am to 10pm daily
Tel: 6634 3318
THE story behind Christopher Lee's The Whisky Distillery is one that's as old as time - he fell in love with whisky, developed a passion bordering on obsession, and took that interest to open his now-three-month-old store on the fourth floor of ION Orchard. Aside from a few core brands such as The Macallan and Glenfiddich, he mostly stocks the less common bottles such as Glenury Royal from a closed distillery and Bowmore Port Cask matured.
Quaich Bar at South Beach
30 Beach Road, #01-16
Open Mon to Sat, 5pm to 1am
NINE years after their first outlet opened at Grand Copthorne Waterfront, the owners of Quaich Bar have finally launched their second outlet at South Beach. There, they carry a wide range of over 500 labels of whisky, where many are available by the glass. Tasting flights start at S$45 for four whiskies, while the bar menu focuses on cold cuts, iberico ham, and cheeses. They even offer a "buy your own cask" service for those who want to buy a whole cask and bottle it under their own label.
18 North Canal Road
GETTING your hands on a well-known award-winning bottle of whisky is one thing, but what if you wanted one from a specific independent bottler? Then try calling up the local whisky supply and consultancy firm Iki Shouten. They bring in various whiskies for sale and to host whisky-related events, and just two months ago expanded by bringing in those from independent bottlers such as the Caol Ila 1984 bottled by Hunter Laing.
UsQuBa - Grill & Whisky Bar
One Fullerton, #02-03B
Open Mon to Thu, 11.30am to midnight,
Fri and Sat, 11.30am to 1am,
Sun, 11am to 10pm
MODERN European restaurant UsQuBa specialises in Scottish produce, so it's no wonder they carry a range of almost 100 Scottish whiskies to pair with their dishes. Whisky sommelier Fong Chan Teng has paired things such as their seared foie gras with a Dalmore 12-year-old, and grilled venison with a Laphroaig 10-year-old. The restaurant has also recently installed a Whisky Corner to hold tasting sessions and masterclasses.
14A Lorong Telok
Open Mon to Fri, 4pm to midnight,
Sat, 5pm to midnight
IF you're looking for an easy, approachable introduction to whisky, that's exactly what Ernie Chew promises you'll find at The Joint. This cosy bar on the second floor of a shophouse near Boat Quay carries a humble range of entry to mid-level whiskies which are across a broad variety of styles. Since the same owners run the Japanese restaurant Cho Omakase downstairs, you can also get personalised recommendations on the best whisky to go with your dinner instead of the usual sake pairings.