In a city teeming with award-winning cocktail joints, specialist bars like The ExciseMan Wine & Whisky Bar stand out, luring those searching for a transcendent experience with rare spirits. At this peaceful sanctuary, enthusiasts, novices and curious souls gather to explore the flavours, aromas and tales behind some of the most exquisite liquids.
Named after the British term for whisky tax officials, The ExciseMan oozes the charm of an English gentleman’s bar with rich mahogany hues, warm wood interiors and ornate brass ceiling tiles. It is lavished with roomy leather armchairs, Chesterfield sofas, fine art, teakwood furniture, a fireplace and vintage memorabilia like a 104-year-old grand piano. Classic tunes from the 1950s to the 1970s fill the air, evoking nostalgia.
Blink, and you may miss it, as The ExciseMan sits discreetly between a rock wall studio and a café at a quiet corner on the second floor of Esplanade Mall, with Michelin-starred restaurant Labyrinth just around the corner. The bar strives for a speakeasy ambience, attracting mature spirit aficionados and discerning business types as its regular clientele. Just to give you an idea of how serious it is about cultivating its distinguished image, prominent signs are mounted outside to encourage mobile etiquette, respectable attire and above-18 patronage.
Although there are no cigar rooms, there are two opulent private rooms at the back (created during the pandemic) — one offering great views of Marina Bay Sands, while the other is a larger private dining room ideal for catered parties and business presentations.
The heart of the bar is the bar counter itself, where you will find a dizzying wall presentation of 550 whiskies, 100 brandies, 20 rums, 20 grappas, and 30 liqueurs. In the temperature-controlled back room are 250 wines of diverse vintages and terroirs.
Partners in work and life, Lewis Mitchell and Patricia Britton opened The ExciseMan in 2018. The pair also own Le Vigne Wines & Spirits, a B2B and B2C bottle distributor offering a diverse portfolio of over 50 brands of wines, whiskies, brandies, grappa and spirits from around the globe.
Married for 25 years, the couple have a combined 60 years of experience and are qualified to speak at forums and conduct wine and whisky workshops. Britton has marketed wines for the likes of the Jardine Group (part of Bacardi-Martini) and Pernod Ricard, and has also served as chairperson of the Singapore Australian Wine Importers Group.
Mitchell is a whisky consultant to restaurants and clubs and has been credited for his objective and non-partisan views of the state and future of the whisky and brandy industry. He holds a certificate in Distilling from The Institute of Brewing and Distilling (UK) and was a judge at the World Spirits Competition in 2019, 2022 and 2023 in the Asian chapter of the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
A prolific writer who has contributed to various publications, Mitchell is extremely knowledgeable about whiskies and can give you useful tips on food pairing and storage, but the one thing he cannot say is what is his favourite whisky. “It depends on what I’m receptive to at the moment. It’s no different from food, I guess. Who knows, I might prefer wine now!” he quips.
To him, a good whisky has nothing to do with brand, age statements, awards, rarity or price — it all lies in the quality of the amber elixir. “Marketing can often distract one’s purchasing decision based too much on commercially accepted norms. These are just guidelines one uses. Some of the biggest brands produce some of the most average-quality products but at inflated prices,” he says.
“Whiskies can lose their freshness and fruity notes and extract too many woody notes over time. Hence, there is an optimal ageing [time] for every cask. Some mature faster, and others take more time to develop, just like wines.”
As seasoned beverage importers, opening a bar was a natural progression, and the couple had a clear vision for it. Being owned by Le Vigne, The ExciseMan can draw from an enviable list of spirits like cognacs, Armagnacs, grappa, brandy, rums and more.
With a formidable selection of international whiskies, they are particularly well-known for their range of independent bottlings and single-cask whiskies. For wine buffs, the bar has an extensive range covering all the major varietals, styles and wine regions. Their list of fortified, dessert and lesser-known wines is also very impressive.
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The bar also excels with a few cocktails, especially the Negroni (try the White Negroni), Gin and Tonic, and Smoky Old Fashioned. There is a decent menu of vegetarian and non-vegetarian bar bites to accompany your drinks.
As I sit here appreciating the bar’s otherworldly ambience, part of me wants to order another drink to melt into the armchair and luxuriate in this time capsule a little longer. The charm of this place is further enhanced by Mitchell and Britton’s genial hospitality and warm personalities. Visiting them is like stepping into their home, where they will almost always grace you with good conversation, delicious eats, and quality dram.
In an interview with Options, the down-to-earth couple share their insights on Singapore’s evolving drink culture and the next big trend.
Is it challenging being an alcohol distributor?
Mitchell: Yes. It is essential to understand the products, like their backgrounds, brand strengths, quality-to-price ratio and market trends. One must also have a strong reputation built over the years and relationships based on trust. It’s amazing how we’ve managed all these years without partners and investors since we founded Le Vigne in 2002, especially in a sea of start-ups flushed with investor funds.
Does being in the alcohol business make opening a bar easier?
Britton: This link is particularly useful for sourcing rare and unique beverages directly from distilleries and wineries. The money we save from not having a middleman, we give back to our customers by reducing our mark-ups. We have had customers telling us that our drinks are very affordable.
Mitchell: It was a seamless transition into hospitality as we have been dealing with products we strongly understand. The ExciseMan is also our second bar, as we operated a hotel lobby bar in Ipoh in 2005 (now closed).
What makes the ExciseMan a favourite for many?
Britton: It’s the quality of clientele we’ve been able to attract. The charming atmosphere has set the stage for many new acquaintances and more. It’s a bar where first-time visitors are welcomed no differently from our older clients. Perhaps the warmth and candid personalities of the management and staff are another draw. Customers have said that we are Singapore’s best-kept secret —we’re glad to share that secret!
Mitchell: We have our unique style. Some may want a pub environment, loud techno music, attractive hostesses, cheap drinks, or happy hour promotions. Unfortunately, you don’t get any of that here. We run a cosy bar conducive to quiet conversations and business meetings. It isn’t easy to build a good reputation, but it is very easy to lose. We’ve worked hard to curate the right audience and will not compromise by lowering our standards just for profit.
Are bartenders important for what you are trying to build here?
Mitchell: We are more beverage specialists than bartender-forward, where a high degree of product knowledge is only a starting point. It’s easy to start a whisky bar; it’s another to have the proficiency to assist clients who are aficionados. One must also be skilful at making recommendations to both novices and experienced drinkers. Being able to recommend the most appropriate beverage based on the customer’s mood and taste at that particular moment requires experience. Managing expectations diplomatically is another essential skill, particularly when customers request qualities in a beverage beyond their budget expectations.
What’s your hottest-selling whisky?
Britton: Whatever Lewis recommends!
Mitchell: There are two groups of people who come here. The first will drink only what they know, like the typical labels at five-star hotels. The other more adventurous group will leave it up to me. I’ll usually ask them what they like first — peated or unpeated; sherry cask or bourbon cask; fruity, spicy or woody — and then I’ll make suggestions.
How has the drinking culture changed over the years?
Mitchell: It has always been very fad-driven. For example, seven years ago, vodka was the craze amongst clear spirits. Now, it is gin. When it comes to dark spirits, it is currently whisky and, in some quarters, good sipping rum. In 2008, we were ahead of the game in Singapore and made the right call when we invested in quality whiskies, launched the first whisky dinner, and inaugurated our education talks.
We predict that in the near future, brandy will make a strong comeback. It’s a relatively easy transition from whiskies to brandies, as their mouthfeels are similar, and the flavours of these aged spirits share a huge overlap, making blind-tasting to identify between the two sometimes difficult. With prices of many whiskies now exceeding their quality value, brandies are a good alternative for those who enjoy barrel-aged spirits.
Brandy will become the next whisky; if this does happen, there’s just not enough brandy in the world. It’s one-tenth by volume compared to whisky, which will cause prices to inflate.
What’s it like working together as a married couple?
Mitchell: It’s different for everyone. There are challenges and fights, but more importantly, we have similar goals, as our livelihood is based on the health of our companies. We’re always together so it’s very difficult to go on holiday. Patricia usually attends overseas trade events (like Prowein, Vinexpo and Vinitaly) on her own, but we do consider a few of our joint work trips, visiting wineries and distilleries, as a nice break.
What is it that you hope to achieve with The ExciseMan?
Mitchell: We are building a destination for business executives who appreciate the luxurious setting where they can talk shop and entertain their clients whilst enjoying quality beverages with classic tunes in the background. Eventually, we would like to expand The ExciseMan concept and export it regionally.