Wong Mei Ling shares what it is like to have access to Scotland’s most treasured whiskies as the general manager of Diageo Rare & Exceptional.
With a 15-year history in the timepiece industry — seven years at luxury watch retailer Hour Glass and another eight years at LVMH Watches & Jewellery — one would think that Wong Mei Ling’s unlikely switch to the wondrous world of whisky made her feel like a fish out of water. However, the 49-year-old reveals that timepieces and whiskies could not be more similar.
Like the world of horology, provenance, passion, craftsmanship and rarity are all hallmarks of the luxury whisky business. It also relies on a high degree of science and artistry to create an exceptional product. It is because of these parallels that she is able to transit seamlessly between the two industries.
“If you asked me to compare watches and spirits, I think there are more similarities than there are differences. They are both made with such exacting standards and live by guardrails to ensure the highest quality possible. For example, you cannot be called Scotch if you are not bottled in Scotland according to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA),” says Wong, who started at Diageo Rare & Exceptional some two years back.
Wong’s holistic understanding of the world of luxury has contributed greatly to her current role as general manager of Diageo Rare & Exceptional, where she oversees business developments while capturing a share of the luxury space and promoting the allure and appreciation of Scotch whisky to the world. “I used to think selling watches was about selling time, but actually this is where I’m really selling time because our whiskies take at least 25 years to age,” she laughs.
With Diageo owning one of the world’s leading whisky brands Johnnie Walker and close to 50 distilleries in Scotland, Wong seeks to proliferate the perception of Scotch whisky as a collectible that can be handed from generation to generation. “I think most of our clients appreciate whisky before they buy, so the original intent will be to drink it. But once they learn more about their origin stories, they start to appreciate what it means to own something so rare,” she adds.
The rare and the exceptional
Most of these precious liquids herald from ghost (abandoned) distilleries, hence why they are so rare in nature. But the real challenge, says Wong, is the diminished interest in young Scots to become coopers — the artisans who built the casks. There are now only less than 200 left in Scotland.
“Just like watchmaking it takes years of apprenticeship and training to make whisky casks, but young people just want to go into the city and have cool jobs. You can imagine how much more rare Scotch is going to be in a few more years,” she laments.
These exceptional whiskies are also revered for their perfect taste profiles which tend to come with higher age statements as early as the 1950s. A combination of these qualities and factors contribute to their exceptional flavours and high demand from collectors and connoisseurs.
On average, Diageo sees fewer than 10 Rare & Exceptional releases a year, with as few as 90 bottles per release for the whole world. Once the bottles are sold out, the only opportunity to own one of these is if a collector chooses to make his or her own bottle available on the secondary market.
Based on a recent Knight Frank report, the demand for whisky has grown 563% in the last 10 years with a large concentration of buyers from Singapore. “Singapore is a very high-on-style, sophisticated market with a large concentration of high net worth individuals. It’s the fourth or fifth largest importer of Swiss watches, and is now becoming an important hub for high-end whiskies,” says Wong.
“The base is small but it’s growing exponentially. I think it’s a case of the right time, the right place. People are starting to understand that whisky is not just a drink, it’s a collectible or a piece of investment.”
Another burgeoning trend to develop over the years is the rise of whisky-based auctions from houses like Bonhams and Sotheby’s, with bottles going under the hammer for as high as GBP1 million ($1.8 million). Based on market data reports, there was a 1,300% jump over the past five years on bottles auctioned with values of over GBP10,000.
The Private Client Suite, located in the company’s office on George Street, showcases Scotland’s rarest and most exceptional whiskies.
Private Client privileges
Unlike Diageo’s typical B2B model, the Diageo Rare & Exceptional portfolio which pioneered in Singapore six years ago, is a direct-to-consumer business where customers are serviced by the Private Client team or can purchase bottles directly from Diageo Rare & Exceptional’s website. “It’s always better to buy from the source,” she says. “We recognise that it’s very difficult to part with so much money and we are here to ensure 100% authenticity and legitimacy of what you are buying”.
The best way for private buyers to sample Scotland’s best single malt blends is in Diageo’s by-invite-only Private Client Suite within its Singapore office on George Street. This cosy space resembles a well-curated gentlemen’s room lined with dark shelves that put a spotlight on some of the portfolio’s priciest whiskies such as The Singleton of Dufftown 54 Year Old, John Walker & Sons King George V and John Walker & Sons Diamond Jubilee worth EUR100,000 ($159,620).
“The Private Client Suite is intimate and highly personalised. We take you armchair travelling to discover the best of Scotland where you almost never taste the same thing twice,” she says.
Part of the allure of Diageo Rare & Exceptional is the Casks of Distinction programme, where one can obtain a rare cask from Diageo’s renowned distilleries, which can value between GBP100,000 to GBP2 million a piece. These exclusive casks are carefully selected by Diageo’s master blenders from the stocks of more than 30 distilleries which are synonymous with exceptional quality and craftsmanship.
Although many Diageo Rare & Exceptional whiskies can fetch a handsome price, there are some variants that cost as little as $200, such as a 15-year-old Talisker. However, Wong advises clients not to deliberate too long to buy their limited edition releases as they get snapped up the minute they are announced. “Some are already pre-sold before they are even launched!”
She sits down with Options to share more about her fascinating job and whiskies of choice.
Is it true you don’t drink whisky?
Yes, my go to drink is actually lemon lime bitters or Seedlip. I appreciate the nuances of whisky and can tell the difference in flavour profiles if you sat me through a blind test!
One of my favourites is Talisker which comes from a distillery in the Isle of Skye. It’s really a small quaint town by the sea with a little cake and coffee shop and up the hill, there’s an oyster shack. You can almost taste the saltiness in the whisky along with the smoke, the floral, the peat and it has a very long lingering finish. I highly recommend drinking a Talisker sour — you can taste this layer of barbecue contrasted by the sweet and sour.
The other one to try is Mortlach, which is distilled 2.81 times to get the perfect taste profile. It’s bold but not too overpowering and there’s a lot of umami in it which pairs well with steaks.
Which would you say is your most popular brand?
Whisky novices typically start with lighter variants matured in American oak which tend to have hints of vanilla, cinnamon or raisins. Slowly their palates transform to more full-bodied Scotch whiskies with smoky peaty flavours casked in European oak.
Talisker does very well in Singapore because it combines the floral with the smoke and peat. But if you gravitate towards smoke and peat, then you’ll appreciate brands from the distilleries of Islay like Caol Ila, Lagavulin and Port Ellen.
What do you love about your job?
I think because this portfolio for Diageo is so new, there are no do’s and don’ts. As a startup, we are given the latitude and license to experiment with our business operations. There is no other company like Diageo Rare & Exceptional so the capabilities in this team are a bit different and we’re evolving every day.
For us to be inheriting a piece of Diageo from our predecessors, there’s a lot of vision, heart and soul, and we are profiting from the legacy that was set 40 years ago. We see ourselves as custodians of the world’s largest reserve of the rarest and most exclusive spirits from Scotland. We own so many distilleries and have the length and breadth to market our best products. I feel very honoured to be in this very special and privileged position.
Would you say whisky is a very male-dominated industry?
Not at all. In fact, several of our master blenders are women. I feel at Diageo there is a very deliberate effort to embrace diversity and inclusivity. It’s not just about gender or race, it’s about the ideas we bring to the table and making sure that we are responsible in the way we sell our products. Two very important pillars for us to maintain integrity as a highly trusted organisation is responsible drinking and sustainability.
Care to share what your sustainability plans are?
We have a dedicated task force that looks into all the ways we need to reduce our carbon footprint with attainable targets. From choosing packaging materials to shipping and selecting the right vendors, we always consider our impact to the environment. About six months ago, Johnnie Walker announced that instead of using glass bottles, it’s moving towards a more sustainable lighter material. We’re not there yet, but at least we have set ourselves targets and make sure that everyone in the organisation understands that.
Did the pandemic have any impact on the business?
There were some partial lockdowns in Scotland but unless we needed to do bottling, the distilleries were pretty much unaffected by the pandemic. At Diageo we have a good business contingency plan and have enough reserves to make sure that there’s no interruption in supply.
We are still on track with our growth projections. At Diageo Rare & Exceptional, we’re very blessed because all our clients are in town. The bar industry was and still is very much affected, but because we liaise directly with the consumer, we were not as badly hit, although it meant conducting previews and tastings virtually.
We also started e-commerce on our website last November and that did very well for us. The pandemic might limit mobility, but if whiskies can be delivered the spending will continue!
Tell us more about your Casks of Distinction programme.
This is really at the pinnacle of our portfolio because you are truly buying a passage of time in a whole cask that is the purest expression of beauty and nature. It’s given a merit of distinction by our master blenders for its 10 out 10 taste profile. Every cask size is unique to the distillery it hails from and depending on the angel share (evaporation), the yield also varies.
On average, casks can yield from around 50 bottles. The price to own a cask can range between GBP100,000 and GBP 2 million. The cost you pay includes the freight, insurance and storage in our facility for up to five years. Once you decide to open it, you must bottle all of it and we can customise the labelling to include your name or logo.
Generally, people buy casks to consume or give out during big celebrations such as an anniversary or wedding.
What is in the pipeline for the Diageo Rare & Exceptional portfolio?
Our focus in the beginning was a private client business model, but since then, we’ve expanded with an e-commerce platform and are collaborating with brands like Krisshop, golf clubs and other trade partners who will be ambassadors for our brands. We are renovating and reopening a few more ghost distilleries in Scotland and will be announcing this very soon.
One of our biggest launches for the year is the Brora Triptych whisky collection, a trio of single malt whiskies worth GBP30,000. Very much like Port Ellen, Brora was a distillery shut in the 1980s when vodka’s popularity overtook whisky. Diageo bought it and what we found was a treasure trove of casks just sitting there quietly for years. This trio from 1972 to 1985 is really a rare and exceptional find!
Shop now at www. DiageoRareAndExceptional.com or email [email protected] Diageo.com for more information.
Diageo Rare & Exceptional’s latest launch is the limited edition Brora Triptyque of three single malt whiskies from 1972, 1977 and 1982.
Talisker is a popular single malt whisky known for its blend of light floral notes and smoky aromas.
For Chinese New Year, John Walker & Sons King George V. Blended Scotch Whisky was repackaged in auspicious colours.