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Published on: Oct. 4, 2021, 1:06 p.m.
The Whisky Exchange Brothers
  • The Singh brothers: in high spirits

By Business India Editorial

Sukhinder and Rajbir Singh were always drawn to the single malt whiskies on the top shelf of their parents' off-licence (liquor shop). “It was special because we’d see the type of clientele that came in and asked for them,” Sukhinder says. “The prices were higher. It was intriguing.”

The boys, as they grew older, gathered a collection of almost 5,500 single malt miniature bottles. At that time, they sold it to an Oslo bar and devised an even larger scheme: to start their own high-end drink company.

The Whisky Exchange has developed into one of the most respected names in the liquor industry. Its parent business, Speciality Drinks, made pre-tax earnings of £12.2 million on sales of £67.5 million in the year that ended in June of last year. 

Sukhinder and Rajbir were raised in Hanwell, west London, above an off licence named The Nest. When their parents, Narinder and Buhpinder Singh, got a licence to sell alcohol in 1971, they were probably the first Asians in Britain to do so.

Sukhinder, now 51, studied chartered surveying at London’s City University but failed to find a job after completing an IT degree in what is now the University of Westminster.

Their parents made the decision to retire when corner stores providing low-cost drinks increased their competitiveness. Despite their ambitions, the brothers were unable to locate a suitable location for their business and instead resorted to the internet. 

In 1999, just before the dotcom bubble crashed, a friend of theirs established their first website. “We were terrified," Sukhinder said. Businesses around them raised millions for website development, then went bust. 

At first, orders were few and far between, but the brothers soon discovered a market for selling rare whiskey to whisky connoisseurs as well as pubs and restaurants. 

Rajbir (who started off by driving the delivery truck) said his love of whisky helped him form connections with management at places like Claridge's, a premium Mayfair hotel. Exotic whiskies were sourced from Japan and America, to the bartenders' amazement. “It was our goal to be as varied as possible,” he added. 

Educating customers

In 2005, the brothers and their sister eventually built a brick and mortar’s branch of Whisky Exchange in Vinopolis, an upscale wine shop near London Bridge. Their headquarters in Park Royal, north-west London, currently employs 240 people, and they also have two shops in the city's financial district.

Realising that whisky connoisseurship is not easy to master, they set out to educate their customers. Says Sukhinder: “If you educate them, you gain their trust. It’s about talking, it’s about recommendation.”

Auction houses like Sotheby's and Christie's consult them on rare whisky transactions. Last year, one of the bottles they assisted in valuing sold for more than £1 million. 

The brothers have not taken any financial assistance, apart from a £100,000 loan. “That's the ideal approach because you don't have tremendous highs and lows,” says Sukhinder. They both control half of the company, which currently sells 10,000 goods online. Rajbir is in charge of day-to-day operations, while Sukhinder is in charge of technology and pricing. 

The ‘last piece of the puzzle’ will be to begin producing their own whisky. For the past three years they have been looking at the feasibility of opening a distillery on the Scottish island of Islay, which is famed for its peaty single malts.

The brothers, who have five children between them, ranging in age from 12 to 21, live in Uxbridge, northwest London. Their spouses, Jasmine and Jasveen, work in the firm. 

Sukhinder urges entrepreneurs to carve out a niche for themselves: "Everything is getting more personalised, artisanal."

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