In disasters, it’s human nature for people to band together to survive.
Chris Chambers and Matthew Fergusson-Stewart were Glenfiddich Brand Ambassadors when Covid-19 gripped the world, and, like millions out there, they both lost their jobs. “With nobody hiring in our industry at our levels, we decided to take matters into our own hands,” says Chambers. “Drawing on our varied backgrounds in the drinks trade, we formally established Spun Spirits in November last year.”
Spun Spirits, described by its founders as a “full-fledged spirits solutions company”, is the product of two award-winning booze specialists making the most of what they have. Leveraging on the founders’ decades-long experiences and a wide industry network, the company offers everything from alcohol distribution and education to bar consulting and spirits marketing.
As we’ve become more adept at cobbling together a cocktail in this coronavirus era, Spun Spirits’ modest but fascinating inventory of spirits is a shot of excitement for our taste buds. There’s a neat range of sipping rums from El Dorado, a gin from Nairobi, as well as rye whiskeys from Melbourne’s The Gospel. For whiskey drinkers, the company has also launched a monthly subscription programme where subscribers will receive a curated bottle that they may not discover on their own.
Ahead, Chambers and Fergusson-Stewart open up about their pandemic-born venture, mental health in the industry and their favourite bottles.
How did the name Spun Spirits come about?
The name itself really started as a working title, but we found we liked it and it stuck. We could tell you that it is connected to spinning tales and referring to handmade spirits being ‘spun’ out of the ether, but we much prefer telling people it is an anagram of Spirits Puns.
What have you learnt from your retrenchments and starting a company in the midst of the pandemic?
One of the most important things we learned was just how strong our support networks are. Even though we were both somewhat prepared by our former employers that things would change, it was still a bit of a shock. Our respective friends and family were fantastic in helping us to get through that period, and that was a foundation that gave us the confidence to talk seriously about setting up a new company. Certainly, there have been nervous moments, but we knew we had people we could trust.
Chambers: I hadn’t set up a business before but one piece of advice we were given is to know when to be patient, especially so in Covid times. Paperwork took longer than expected to be processed, shipments have been delayed, customers may be more cautious, but there is no point complaining. You just have to find something else to do to grow the business in the meantime.
Fergusson-Stewart: Nothing alleviates the stress of waiting for the bank to process your paperwork like a couple of pints in the afternoon. But more seriously, it is okay to ask for help. That is not always easy to do, but when people have the capacity to help get you up and running, they will.
What is worrying about the alcohol industry?
We worry about provision for mental health and wellbeing. Long hours, cost and dependency issues are just some of the risk factors in this business. There are some charities doing good work in this space but far too few of them, considering just how many people are employed at all levels of the drinks industry. Hopefully this will change as mental health issues become better accepted and understood as genuine conditions.
How do you curate your spirits selection at Spun Spirits? What are some of the criteria you look at?
We have a few fundamental questions before we take on any brand.
- Do we like the people behind the brand? We aim to build long term relationships with our customers and brands and we can’t do that if we dislike or mistrust the person on the other end.
- What is the story behind the brand? In an increasingly competitive space you need a message that will really resonate – a true and concrete story, not one conjured out of thin air.
- Most importantly, do we like the taste?! We sell things we believe in.
If all of these are answered positively and the spirit fills a gap in our portfolio, we are interested. Overall, as our networks are strongest in high-end bars and hotels, we emphasise spirits that will be suitable in these spaces.
How do you differentiate yourself from other craft spirits distributors?
There are many fine distributors here, but the fact that we have great experience in the alcohol industry not just as distributors, but also as Brand Ambassadors and brand-builders, means that despite being new we bring the experience and capabilities of more established players. The fact that we are new, hungry for business yet have a big head-start in knowledge and connections has allowed us the pleasure of representing some fantastic spirits that might not have given us the time of day otherwise. All of our brands understand that we are still growing, but they trust us to do so and grow their profiles here at the same time.
What are the biggest challenges you faced in the business?
We are quite fortunate that there have been few issues aside from the typical teething problems of any new venture. If we had waited until we were 100% prepared for everything, we would probably still be discussing setting up the company. Sometimes you just need to jump in and get started. It is always a challenge to grow a new company in a competitive market, but that’s the job!
What about proudest moments and achievements?
The first big moment for us was when Arbikie Distillery in Scotland decided to work with us. We started speaking with them before our company was registered and we were transparent about our situation, so we were fully prepared for them to sign with a more established company. With our affinity for whisky we have a certain emotional attachment to representing a Scottish whisky distillery. The fact that they not only signed with us but that it was the first brand to sign with us exclusively was a great feeling, proof that maybe it was not just us that thought this was a good idea. We feel the same way when any brand signs with us – Procera Gin, Equiano Rum and El Dorado are all fantastic spirits with great people behind them, and we are proud to have the responsibility of making them work in Singapore.
What are your dreams, goals and hopes for your company?
We hope that we can have a positive impact on the reputation of Singapore as a serious destination for good drinks. More egocentrically, we would like to be considered as one of the first choices for any brands looking for a distributor here. We have not ruled out expanding into other markets when the time is right, but for the foreseeable future we are 100% Singapore-focused. More immediate goals are to grow the team, keep our existing brands happy, recruit a few more where we have space in our portfolio and strive to give all our customers the service they deserve. Right now we buy spirits by the pallet, but we are very much looking forward to the day when we can buy spirits by the container load.
Can each of you tell us about your favourite bottle in your portfolio?
Chambers: Difficult question indeed! With the greatest of respect to all of our brands, in my personal time I am a dark spirits drinker so I would have to pick an El Dorado Rum, probably the 15 Year Old. I first tried it back in 2008 and loved it, so it’s amazing to get to promote it over a decade later.
Fergusson-Stewart: I’m blown away by Procera Gin. When we first started talking to the brand-owner he said, “It’s really different to other gins, it’s got so much complexity that you can sit and sip it neat like a whisky.” I’ll be honest, I absolutely did not believe him, but I was impressed by his passion and we kept talking. Eventually, I got a chance to taste the liquid and I have to admit it – Guy, you were right.
As spirits evangelists, what are you most sick of hearing?
Reports of discrimination in the drinks industry. This is an area that is improving, but as with mental health a lot of real problems are under the surface. Perhaps some people enjoy only drinking with people that look and think like themselves, but that sounds terribly depressing at best and harmful at worst. Let everyone have their space at the table, bar and still and you make the world of spirits – and the world in general – a better place.
Tell us about your monthly whisky subscription programme, Hearts and Spirits.
Heart & Spirits came out of a desire to spread the joy of whisky to people who have enjoyed and tried everything in the supermarkets, realise they want to know more, but don’t have the time to regularly visit specialist bars or trawl through online communities. We select a bottle each month for our subscribers which is sent to their door, along with tasting notes and information about their new whisky. We also invite them to a tasting session so they can meet other subscribers, try some more whiskies and learn a bit more about the category. We understand that not everybody has the same budget so we have three tiers with different whiskies:
Apprentice: $148 per month
Journeyman: $222 per month
Master: $555 per month
In the future we aim to acquire bottlings exclusive to Heart & Spirits members. We don’t promise you will love every bottle, as the range of flavours in whisky is so diverse, but we do promise you will have an enviable whisky collection that would make a genuine enthusiast comment approvingly.
Can you tell us about an emerging spirit trend?
People have been saying for years that rum is up and coming and we believe that this assertion is ringing increasingly true. Rum sales are up dramatically across the globe, especially in the more premium end. Some rare bottlings are fetching prices on the secondary market that would be unthinkable even a few years ago. In Singapore, rum-focused bars are reporting notable increases in business, new rum bars are popping up, and specialist spirit bars are expanding the amount of shelf-space dedicated to sugar cane spirits. Whisky remains the most popular dark spirit, and will do for a long time, but as prices rise more and more people are discovering they can get some seriously good stuff at a more reasonable price.
(All images: Spun Spirits)