Drinks industry veteran Jonathan Chow built up brands such as Absolut, Macallan and Yamazaki in the region. Now he has struck out on his own, channelling his experience into the promotion of artisanal alcohol and the running of his Japanese restaurant.

Having chalked up years of experience in the premium wine and spirits business, Jonathan Chow has developed a palate for gourmet food. Yet, one of his favourite foods is kushiyaki. These humble skewers of grilled meat and vegetables are often enjoyed in Japan at casual eateries like izakaya and washed down with beer or sake. Chow, however, prefers to pair kushiyaki with whisky. “The smoky flavours of a good single malt go well with barbequed food,” he says. His malt of choice is Tamdhu Batch Strength 002, a 2016 release from the niche distiller in Scotland’s Speyside. “It’s very rich and flavourful,” he says of the whisky.

Little wonder then that single malts are on the beverage menu at Vino Kushiyaki, a restaurant Chow opened in February that marries his love for Japanese skewers and his fondness for artisanal alcohol. The 24-seater restaurant in Joo Chiat seeks to elevate kushiyaki by using quality, seasonal produce flown in from Japan. Even the charcoal and the barbeque pits are imported from Japan, as is the head chef, Kazuhiro Inose, who has been in the trade for more than 30 years.

Inose has been given free rein at Vino Kushiyaki to concoct his own seasoning and spice powders, resulting in unconventional condiments such as a curry powder designed to accompany lamb chops, and a seven-spice powder. House specials include grilled oysters, stingray fin, squid and tebasaki bone-in chicken wings accompanied by a dash of pure sea salt.

“I’ve always wanted to have a restaurant to showcase what I sell,” says 53-year-old Chow, who spent close to two decades with liquor wholesaler Riche Monde and Beam Global Asia, now part of Suntory Holdings, Japan’s largest whisky maker. He left corporate life two years ago to strike out on his own in partnership with Asiaeuro Group, the leading premium wines and spirits distributor in Malaysia. Instead of big names such as Macallan and Hibiki, he now champions boutique wines and spirits.

Along the way, he has helped resurrect an old sake brand. Saito is a Japanese rice wine once made by a family-owned brewery in Kyoto that was ranked among the top five producers nationwide. Chow and his Malaysian partner, Her Soon Seng, who started Asiaeuro, were in Kyoto seeking out lesser-known sake labels when they discovered the brewery had a sake label that had been mothballed. They decided to acquire its trademark and global distribution rights.

Last year, they rolled out four labels to drinkers from Singapore to Greater China to Australia. They are Saito Karakuchi, a dry sake; Saito Junmai, which complements seafood dishes such as sashimi; the high-end Saito Junmai Daiginjo, which is best drunk with meat dishes; and Saito Super Premium Junmai Daiginjo, which boasts a rice polishing ratio of 35%. (The lower the polishing ratio, the more rice that has been polished away, making for a sake with a cleaner taste.) This year, they expanded the line-up with Saito Hikari, which is a sparkling sake, and Saito Yuzu Hikari, where the citrus fruit native to Japan is added into the fermentation mix. The name Hikari was chosen as it conjures up images of light and stars, and it is hoped the bubbly will resonate with female drinkers.

To appeal to non-Japanese speakers, Chow and Her have included information in English on the labels, wine-style. It informs drinkers where the sake is made, what temperature it should be drunk at and what it pairs well with. They have further departed from Japanese tradition by using a Burgundy-style bottle for their Super Premium sake, which is known for its light and floral taste. The Saito Super Premium uses yamada nishiki, a short-grain rice favoured by sake brewers for its ability to absorb water and dissolve easily.

Saito is part of the growing line-up of niche names that Chow is pushing out across Asia. Other labels include Tamdhu, a whisky maker from Speyside in Scotland’s north that dates back to 1897. It closed in 2010 after falling on hard times but has since been resurrected by family-owned Ian Macleod Distillers. Tamdhu has won accolades for its single malts, which are not coldfiltered unlike most other malts.

Another distillery that Chow likes is Glengoyne, located just outside Glasgow. There is no peat in the soil around Glengoyne, which means there is no smokiness in the whisky. Glengoyne, which started in 1833, says it distils more slowly than any other distillery in Scotland so as to coax flavours from its malts. It still dries its barley by air. Chow is particularly fond of the 18-year-old, which he describes as delicate, and feels Glengoyne drinks well with desserts.

Chow decided to focus on independent names in a market dominated by behemoths such as Johnnie Walker and Macallan after leaving Beam Global at end-2015. “I wanted a different business model,” he explains. Chow says that in many distribution models, the margins are very slim if you are not the brand owner. Ironically, if the distributor does well, it becomes a victim of its own success as the brand owner will often take distribution back. If it fails to do well, it stands to lose that distribution. “It’s hard to survive long term,” he notes.

Law enforcement
Chow did not envision a long career in the drinks industry when he started out in 1993. Born in Johor, he moved with his family to Singapore and attended Hwa Chong Junior College. After completing National Service, he signed on as a constable in the police force as he wanted financial independence. “The pay was $770, a princely sum in 1983,” he recalls with a laugh.

After two years, Chow went on to pursue a business degree at the National University of Singapore. He then returned to serve out the remainder of a five-year bond and was assigned to the Investigations Unit. “That was very tough as we had to do 24-hour shifts; everything from petty crime like shoplifting to organised crime,” he recalls. However, his stint in law enforcement turned out to be useful in the business world. “I could use all the interpersonal skills I had acquired in the police force — how to conduct interviews, how to pacify, how to empathise with people,” he says.

When he was headhunted to join Riche Monde in the early 1990s, he noticed there were hardly any graduates in the industry. “It was all cowboys,” he says. Chow entered the world of sales and marketing, managing brands like Hennessy cognac, Moët & Chandon and Gordon’s Gin. After seven years, wanting a different challenge, he switched to tobacco, joining Reemtsma International Far East, a German tobacco company whose brands included Davidoff and West. “It was very challenging to launch a cigarette brand like Davidoff in Singapore and Malaysia as it was the most expensive cigarette at the time,” he recalls. In addition, restrictions on advertising were tightened and West had to terminate its sponsorship of the McLaren Formula One team.

After three years, during which the company was absorbed by Imperial Tobacco, Chow left. “I had a crisis of conscience,” he says. His son was in primary school then and starting to realise what his dad did for a living. Aside from his son, now 21, Chow has two daughters, aged 19 and 14. He returned to the world of alcoholic beverages with Maxxium WW, a four-way venture between Remy Cointreau, Absolut, Jim Beam and Macallan (owned by Edrington Group).

Chow took what was largely a Singapore business to new customers and markets across Southeast Asia, growing net sales from US$35 million to US$150 million in five years. “I had to travel like hell,” he recalls. The Macallan brand was a particular success, in a market awash with blended whiskies. From about 2,000 cases, business mushroomed to 60,000 cases in Southeast Asia during his tenure.

However, upheavals struck. In 2008, Absolut was snapped up by Pernod Ricard. The next year, Remy Cointreau exited the venture, taking its brands with it. The loss of popular spirits like Absolut Vodka and Cointreau saw revenues plunging by more than half to US$60 million. Jim Beam, then owned by Fortune Brands of the US, became a major shareholder and told Chow to do whatever it took to keep the business flourishing. China, South Korea and Japan were added to Chow’s portfolio and he worked with Japanese drinks giant Suntory Holdings to bring little-known names like Yamazaki and Hibiki to local whisky drinkers.

‘Learnt enough’
Ironically, Suntory went on to buy Beam in 2014. That was a wake-up call for Chow as he reckoned the new owners would want to put their own people in key spots and would have a Japanese way of doing business. He decided to strike out on his own. “I had learnt enough,” he says. “It was time to do things for myself.” When Chow left Beam, he was managing director, overseeing 11 businesses across Southeast Asia and Greater China. “It was a very big job for an Asian,” he says. Chow decided to go into business with Her, whom he had met in 2009 when Beam was looking for a distributor in Malaysia. “I was very impressed with Asiaeuro’s training regime. It was much more thorough than at any other spirits company,” he says.

When marketing spirits, salespeople would typically push brands to clients by emphasising the margins they stood to make, he explains. But with Asiaeuro, every salesperson was schooled in the products they sold, such as the vintage and provenance of a wine. “All their salespeople have tasted Chateau Lafite because Her wants them to know what a $2000 bottle tastes like [as opposed to] what a $20 bottle tastes like,” Chow says.

He set up the Singapore branch of Asiaeuro in early 2016. The group, which is headquartered in Kuala Lumpur, also has a strong presence in China and Hong Kong.

Chow likes dealing with artisanal spiritmakers as they are open to customising products for customers like him. For example, Asiaeuro is working with Tamdhu to produce whisky targeted at the China market using a unique sherry cask. Together, they are also making a single malt with lower alcohol content that has more smoothness from special treatment in the cask, specifically for the Singapore market. “In the drinks business, you can’t lose the human touch, which is what happens when you become a big player,” Chow reckons. As an emerging entrepreneur in the spirits and food business, Chow is banking on doing just that.

Sunita Sue Leng was formerly an associate editor with The Edge Singapore

This article appeared in Issue 797 (Sept 18) of The Edge Singapore.