Indomitable Spirit: Introducing IWSC’s Industry Champion for 2024

IWSC news

Wed 21 Feb 2024

By Lucy Shaw

We caught up with Sukhinder Singh, co-founder of The Whisky Exchange and MD of Elixir Distillers, to find out how he plans to capitalise on his year in the spotlight, and get the lowdown on his ambitious distillery projects in Islay and Speyside.

Congratulations on being named the IWSC’s Industry Champion for 2024 – do you have any activities or collaborations planned for the year ahead?

Thank you. It was a lovely surprise and very humbling to be honoured in this way. It’s a responsibility taking on the role of Industry Champion, and I’m currently in discussions with the IWSC team to put a plan in place for the year ahead. In terms of activities, we’re thinking about putting on tastings and I’m keen to bring a fresh take on the role with things that haven’t been done before.

What are the biggest trends in Scotch and where is the category headed?

The industry is experiencing a period of change and there’s a lot of innovation going on right now. Everyone is trying to do something a little different – a lot of that is coming from cask finishing and maturation in different woods. Consumers are really interested in the new micro-distilleries across the UK right now, which is an exciting trend, but it’s still early days for a lot of them, and many of the founders haven’t come from a whisky background, so there’s a lot to learn.

Will auction prices for fine and rare Scotch continue to climb this year?

Things are difficult with the global economy, and brands that are catering purely to the collector with large volume releases are struggling on the secondary market, while small batch brands where the liquid was always the focus are doing well. I import single malt from Japanese distillery Chichibu through Speciality Brands, which launches at around £200 a bottle and starts trading the next day for £600-£800, which upsets the distillery, as it wants people to drink the whisky, not hoard it. It’s a difficult balance to get right, as people want their brands to be collectible, but they need to make sure people get to try them.

The IWSC is taking its Spirits Awards on tour this year, with its North American whiskey judging set to take place in Kentucky in September. ‘World’ whiskey is booming right now, why is that and what lies ahead?

Single malts from India and Taiwan paved the way for ‘world’ whiskies, and opened people’s minds to the fact that you can make whiskey anywhere, which set the wheels in motion for the likes of Sweden, France and Germany to follow. They are all different in style, as every country has its own microclimates. Unlike Scotland, it’s hot and humid most of the time in India and Taiwan, so whiskey maturation happens a lot quicker there ­– a three-year-old whiskey from India tastes like a 12-year-old whisky from Scotland.

Where is the real quality to be found in the ‘world’ whiskey category?

France is definitely one to watch for whiskey. It used to be one of the biggest Scotch markets in the world and now they have their own thriving whiskey industry. There used to only be a handful of distilleries in France and now over 50 new distillers have popped up in the last few years alone. The same thing is happening in Japan where there are over 100 distilleries now. Every country you can think of is making whiskey now, which is really exciting.

Scotch has become super expensive, so it needs to watch out as these other whiskey nations start upping their game, especially as people would rather be loyal to their market and buy local now, as it’s good for the environment. The Scots have a bit of an ego and think that Scotch is the pinnacle of whisky, and the best you can get, but things are changing and the new consumer thinks in a very different way, so they need to be careful.

The IWSC has enjoyed a close relationship with The Whisky Exchange and Speciality Drinks, how did it feel to sell them to Pernod Ricard in 2021?

We always thought that we had a long way to go, and weren’t looking to sell, but we knew that there would be a point in time when we couldn’t grow the company any further, as we’d have to change things so much to do so. We got an offer we couldn’t refuse from Pernod while we were underway with our distillery build. They understood our vision, so we agreed to purchase Speyside distillery Tormore from them at the same time to complement our Islay distillery, as we knew it would take a while before we could bottle anything at Portintruan.

Are you on track to open Portintruan Distillery this year?

It’s been a long slog but we’re just over a year away from opening now. When we started the project we didn’t realise the complications involved in working on an island. Everything from the materials to labour has to come from the mainland, which makes things challenging. It took us a long time to source river and mountain water, as most of it was being used for other distilleries. We’ve had to learn to be clever and work around things. Things are in full swing now – the roof is being closed up and we’ve got all the pipework and interior design to do.


Portintruan Distillery - 3D rendering

Will you be releasing your first bottling from Tormore this year?

We’re hoping our first bottling will be ready to launch in the next 15 months. We’re talking to a number of companies at the moment and are hoping to have the packaging signed off in the next few months. I’m super excited about Tormore ­– it’s a hidden gem and a very special place. It was traditionally a blending malt, so we've got a clean slate to start the distillery afresh as a single-malt producer.

And finally… what are your plans for your 12,000-bottle Scotch collection?

My passion is for old bottlings that tell the story of Scotch. I’m still actively adding to it with new bottles every week, but the collection is in storage at the moment, and I’m working out what to do with it. Taking it back home to Scotland makes sense in many ways, so I might display it at Portintruan. There are a few bottles I’d like to add to it that I’ve missed in the past and aren’t easy to find, like Dalintober from Campbeltown, which I was the under-bidder for once when it came up at auction and haven’t seen since.