Sunday, 18 December 2016

“Old is gold” – A conversation with Sukhinder Singh (The "Collecting trilogy" pt 2)

The name Sukhinder Singh is very well known in the world of quality spirits. Indeed, when I began my whisky journey 15 years ago it wasn't long before his name appeared on my radar. Initially, I associated it with the globally renowned on-line spirits company, The Whisky Exchange (a company responsible for delivering my first on-line whisky purchase). Then there was the connection with the Whisky Show (one of the best, if not the best UK whisky show), and as my knowledge of Sukhinder's influence in the whisky world grew, I began to hear stories of his collection of old whiskies. Talk of the collection was not an everyday occurrence, not everyone was/is aware of it - the scope and variety of bottles, the rarity of the whiskies, and the historical importance of its liquid documentation; but when it did crop up in conversation, hushed tones were used to describe it, an air of reverence would descend on those present, and those who hadn't "experienced" it would listen, as children would sit, listening to their mothers or fathers telling them exciting stories of magical events and faraway places, wide eyed, attentive and entranced! My conversation with Sukhinder was not intended to document the contents of the collection but was focused on trying to explore and understand the collecting journey that had taken him from University (where he completed a degree leading towards a career in Chartered Surveying) to an individual who has played (and continues to play) a pivotal role in the global growth and popularity of whisky.

Sukhinder has a quiet demeanour that belies his passion and focus. He is able to talk eloquently and knowledgeably about his history in the world of spirits and his passion for whisky. Our conversation is wide ranging, addressing whisky issues both past and present. So where did his passion for whisky begin? Was there a seminal event, an epiphany, or did the passion evolve gradually over a period of time? When asked if whisky was the first thing that he collected, Sukhinder pauses, smiles and says not. "Stamps", that was my first collection. There was a builder's merchant opposite our shop and the owner had a small stamp shop in the corner, he (the owner) was passionate about it, I just got into it.....I used to go over and... and I learned a lot from him"

Is it possible that this early exposure to "passion" triggered something within Sukhinder? It is my belief that passion is infectious and that there is something mildly intoxicating about being around people who are passionate. Add into the mix, the fact that the setting was both stimulating, and provided him with an opportunity to learn and we may have another clue in understanding the drive to collect. The latter perspective is supported when he adds that the stamp collecting ended in response to the fact that he got bored and began "looking for the next thing"

The next big thing was to be whisky miniatures. The leap from stamps to whisky was not an overnight event. It was a process that took in the housing slump in the late 80's and early 90's, a limited market for careers in surveying, a job opportunity to project manage an innovative development in his father's drinks business (Sukhinder talks proudly of the fact that his father was the first Asian to get a liquor license in the UK circa 1970), and his growing fascination for miniatures. He speaks of the shop with affection "it was a lovely "all round" shop and became well known in and around London." They sold a high quality selection of spirits, & also sold miniatures. "The miniatures used to intrigue me." The desire to learn reasserted itself and a new and probably more complex vista of opportunity opened up. He became a member of a mini-bottle club, a not insignificant event as it serves as another clue to what is clearly becoming a more complex piece in the "collector" jigsaw - the social element. By and large whisky is a social commodity, most of us drink it with friends, the more involved you become, the more you will talk about it with friends, you may even get to the point where you are preaching to the unconverted about the merits of this glorious spirit, whatever point on this continuum you occupy, there is a social component; it invites interaction.

So in young adulthood, Sukhinder graduated from a love of Guinness ("I was about 20/21 and the only thing I drank in terms of alcohol was Guinness"), to a fascination with miniatures. His sense of discovery was piqued, and following the acquisition of a sizeable collection of some 7000 minis (a variety of spirits), he was guided by valued friends to focus on malt whiskies as these were the ones that in which the shop clients had an interest.

"I started researching about whisky and learned about the number of distilleries, and thought, wow, this is interesting. I wanted to know more; who had the world's biggest collection? Who collects malts? How many did they have? I wanted to know what the end goal was. The nice thing was identifying very quickly, that there is a finish...."

You will note from the quote above that we again have
reference to the seeking of knowledge, but there are additional elements. Firstly, the competitive edge and the thrill of the chase; is it possible that the acquisition of a hard to find bottle feels like "winning"? Does each acquisition feel like a victory? (for a fleeting moment I am reminded of Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now - " I love the smell of Balvenie in the morning, it smells like....victory"). Secondly, there is the sense of containment and direction (the fact that there is an end goal). The end goal in this instance was to have one of the biggest collections of whisky miniatures in the world (a goal that he achieved). What comes after that? It seems obvious but I suspect that there was a process, a span of time in which, as Sukhinder's knowledge of, and fascination with, all things whisky began to grow, he ignited the passion that fuels him to this day. The transition from miniatures to full bottles evolved, as Sukhinder put it " a result of simply trying the product" Our conversation moves on to the current collection, and the passion is self-evident.

I asked what Sukhinder's "end goal" was in terms of his current collection, and after a long pause he replied, "10 yrs ago I had a superb collection and I thought that could be it.... but I'm still so busy collecting now, it's scary - my main passion is "old stuff" - I love old stuff, mainly because of history, and quality, older whiskies are slightly different. For me "old is gold", I'm crazy about old, and that is that. I'd rather buy 5 old bottles a year than 100 newer bottles."

There is clearly an emotional connection to the collection. He tells the stories that sit behind some of the bottles he has acquired; the bottle of 1888 Kirkliston he saw resting on the mantelpiece of a gentleman from whom he was buying a collection of minis... "the name meant nothing to me...what is this? The gentlemen said "there used to be an old distillery down the road which closed in the 1900's"....I thought, oh wow!", another bottle that he had to track down from the other side of the world, he mentions the now legendary Black Bowmore's, he talks of the first bottle he ever opened himself - a Springbank 21yo dumpy bottle "....what a whisky, I still remember it today." Each bottle is a story, each bottle represents part of a journey that can be shared with others or simply savoured in the moment, relived and enjoyed.

Collecting is a fascinating and complex process and in attempting to understand it one has to recognise that it has both shared qualities and qualities that are unique to each individual. Collections connect to the past and provide opportunities to imagine positive future experiences (i.e. new discoveries and new knowledge). It might seem somewhat paradoxical but we don't have to drink the whisky to enjoy it. It is not simply what it tastes like but also what it represents.

Having a collection of whisky doesn't define who you are (we are all most certainly more than the roles that we ascribe to ourselves), but it can certainly contribute to one's sense of identity. It is clear that Sukhinder's journey is far from over, there are many more discoveries out there, rich seams of "old gold" to mine, discussions to be had, drams to both savour and simply experience. Perhaps one of the most powerful insights into his passion came towards the end of our chat when, in response to the question - What have your years in the business taught you? He replied:-
"That whisky is definitely the best spirit in the world....there's something for everyone, people's palates change, they evolve, once you fall in love with whisky there's no going back."

How very true......
(c) D.Alcock (2016)

All photographs courtesy of Colin Hampden White (@champdenwhite)

This piece first appeared in Issue 6 of Whisky Quarterly

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Whisky, poo, and you: Insights into the psychology of whisky collecting (the "Collecting trilogy" pt1)


If you were asked to write down twenty items in response to the question "Who am I?" what might you write? This is often a fun way to begin an exploration of the psychology of the self. When encountering this question for the first time most people will populate their answers with the various roles and relationships that fill their lives (e.g. mother, brother, accountant, nurse, writer etc). For many, the somewhat concerning next stage of this process is to discount those roles and relationships in order to reveal the core elements of who you are (e.g. I am a caring person, I am a loyal person etc). For many, the resultant list can be very small but worry not; the process is used to illustrate how we habitually see ourselves in relation to elements that don't necessarily offer accurate clues to who we are. However, in answering the initial question I wonder how many of you included the phrase "collector of whisky"?

The aim of this piece is to offer a few observations in relation to our relationship with and understanding of "whisky collecting". It is by no means an exhaustive exploration, indeed, whole chapters, even books, could be written on the topic. Hopefully, what we have here is appetising food for thought. In the context of this article the word "collection" refers to the act or process of collecting, an accumulation or an assemblage.

What's in a number? 

Do three bottles count as a collection? Are we talking about more than that; if so, how many? At what point do a certain number of bottles become a collection? It doesn't take long to recognise that there is no simple answer to these questions. One perspective would suggest that it is the process or act of collecting that is important, in that, if you set out with the intent to build a collection, and purchase your first two or three bottles, then that would constitute a collection (albeit somewhat minimal). So whilst for some, the number of bottles in a collection is fundamental, for others, numbers aren't necessarily important. How you view your collection (and indeed, how others view your collection) will be influenced by a range of factors e.g. the rarity of the vintages, the stories behind the bottles, the value and potential appreciation of the liquid and so on.

Insights into collecting behaviours.

The cognitive-behavioural perspective asks us to consider what we think and how we behave in relation to, in this instance, collecting whisky. The approach suggests that for any behaviour to persist there must be an association with some reward or the avoidance of some perceived negative consequence. If you are a collector, consider your motives for pursuing your collection (we’ll consider possible reasons later in this piece).

The Freudian approach on the other hand, has a particularly idiosyncratic interpretation of collecting. For Freud, our motives often lay hidden in the realms of the unconscious (we often aren't aware of why we do what we do). 

Our actions often have a readily accessible explanation that satisfies both ourselves and others that we are rational beings….but delve a little deeper and we might uncover the “real truth”, the drivers in our distant past that shape and direct what we do. The "show me the child and I'll show you the man" position is a clear indication that the origins of what we do in adult life can be found in our experiences as children; With regard to collecting, a Freudian might suggest that the origins of adult “collecting” behaviour might lie in our experiences of toilet training (yes, you read that correctly). A "fixation" at this time (either due to overzealous, rigid parenting or laissez-faire parenting) could result in what Freud called an "anally retentive" or “anally expulsive" personality. Many of you will be familiar with the term “anal” (in the personality context!). The anally retentive personality (or "anal" personality as it is more commonly known) is typified by a sense of order, collecting and retaining things (metaphorically holding your "poo" in during potty training) . Well there you go! It's all clear now isn't it?

There are many other possible understandings of “collecting” that I could explore but this is a blog post, not a book chapter so I’ll stop there.

Delving deeper.

So what possible rewards and other motives impact upon our collecting of whiskies? Let's pluck a few examples from what is a vast menu of possibilities (feel free to add your own). I've attached a tentative explanation to each of the examples.

· The thrill of the chase - that sense of satisfaction (reward) that one gets from tracking something down and "owning" it. There are possible Jungian "hunting" archetypal links here (the drive to survive embedded in our collective unconscious). How many of you have sat by the phone on the release day of a limited edition whisky? (Yes, it’s you I’m talking to!). Heart pounding, sweaty palms, furrowed brow…..”come on…..answer the phone…..don’t give me the engaged tone…..again…..and again…..and…..yes, I’d like to order….” ….and relax, wipe the moisture from your body and have a cup of tea. How many of you have risen early to hunt the “head of the queue” spot? You need to get your whisky prize “fix” don’t you? How many “auction snipers are reading this piece? There you sit, fingering your mouse (not a euphemism), waiting, watching, counting, “how fine can I cut this?” 10, 9, 8, 7……and NOOOOO! Some bastard has clipped you at the death! Ooooooh the adrenalin rush, and remember, revenge is a dram served neat!

· The completion of a set - the intrinsic satisfaction linked to the achievement of order. The joy of completing a significant piece in your whisky jigsaw. You are a completer/finisher, a lover of order, but it’s unlikely that, having completed the set you simply stop. The sense of satisfaction that you gained from both putting together the set and achieving your goal is infectious. The emotional high is often followed by the emotional vacuum that acts as a driver for the formulations of new goals, new collecting opportunities, new “sets” to own.

· The possession of a rare "thing" (the “my precious” approach) - owning something that by virtue of its rarity, others cannot own. It’s yours, not hers or his, you can touch it, stroke it, and dwell on it. It can be a secret that you hold, it can be a status symbol that you can use to enhance your position within the whisky community, it can be both a conversation starter and stopper, it can used as “credibility currency”……”oh my God, you’ve actually got a bottle of…..” Whichever way you consider it, this rare thing is a thing of power.

· Connecting to a piece of history

the intrinsically valued feeling of being connected to something of meaning. This requires a perspective on whisky that enables you to locate the dram within an historical context. For this reason it is confined to age-statement whiskies. A bit of self-disclosure here….I have a bottle of Glen Grant that was distilled as my mum was in labour with me! How poetic is that?

· The perception of "winning" - if you are aware that there are others in competition for the bottle that you seek, your successful acquisition confirms a sense of dominance over them. This has a close connection to the thrill of the chase.

· The avoidance of "losing" – the fact that, for the most part, no one likes to lose (see the thrill of the chase).

· Strengthening one's status in the whisky community - The perceived reward in receiving approval, affirmation and respect from one's peers. This could be an unconscious establishing (or maintaining) your position in a pecking order of sorts. A "boosting of one's ego" in a Freudian sense.

· A financial reward - a recognition of one's acumen and judgement. There's a possible relationship to "collector as provider" here in that, by investing wisely, you are establishing a more secure future for your loved ones.

· A strengthening of one's sense of identity. - If I see myself as a "collector" then each addition to my collection is an affirmation of my identity - "My collection says something about how I see myself".

· It fills a gap in my life - In this sense, collecting is a mechanism that provides both a sense of meaning and purpose

· I just like it! Of course you do! If you didn't like it you probably wouldn't do it. You might want to consider any combination of the above to gain some insights as to why you might like it.

In scratching the surface of this fascinating area I hope you may recognise that understanding ones underlying motives for collecting can be useful in relation to gaining a realistic perspective on the journey that you are on (or that you might be contemplating). I know that there are individuals within the whisky community that frown/wince when talk of collecting is aired. I’ve seen, heard and read many spurious, defensive and incoherent arguments against collecting and, whilst listening and learning, nothing has shifted me from my position that collecting is not a moral issue, it’s neither right nor wrong, it is what it is. Perhaps the most positive position that one can take on the collecting process is that, ideally, it is something that you enjoy and feel passionate about, and that you create time to share that passion with others.

  • This is an extended piece that was featured in Issue 6 of Whisky Quarterly magazine.
  • Freud image is taken from the site