Drinking whisky in Singapore took a turn recently with the arrival of UsQuBa. The Scottish grill house also happens to boast an impressive selection of whiskies at its bar, ranging from core offerings from the usual big brands to exceedingly rare ones from independent bottlers. So while there are many other whisky focused bars in town, UsQuBa currently occupies the unique position of being able to offer customers a full dining experience that’s made complete with whisky pairings.
And helming UsQuBa‘s sprawling whisky selection is its whisky sommelier Chan Teng. Despite his relatively young age, Chan Teng has an extensive knowledge about whiskies thanks to his previous stint with La Maison du Whisky, and has even tasted some of the world’s rarest whiskies during that time.
We sit down with the young man to discuss his interest in whisky, and how he recommends whisky pairings to diners at UsQuBa.
What got you into whiskies? Why specifically whiskies?
There’s no noble answer like how I want to spread the love for whiskies. I just like drinking it. *laugh*
It was by chance, actually. I was working part-time at an Irish pub in Clarke Quay right after I came out of National Service. One fine day one of my colleagues came over and said there’s a lady asking for someone to make her a cocktail, and since I was interested in cocktails as well I made her one. She then mentioned that she worked for La Maison du Whisky, and asked if I was interested to come by for an interview.
So I went, and I was stunned by the range of whiskies there – I couldn’t recognise over 99% of the labels on the shelves. I got the job, and part of my job was to do retail. In order to do that I have to understand the profiles of all the whiskies, so I started to read everything I could get my hands on about whiskies, rums, and other spirits in general.
Some people think whisky is an old man’s drink. I beg to differ. It can be a lot of fun – there’s just so much to explore. When I first started I couldn’t drink peated whiskies. Over time, I’ve started to really enjoy them.
But I love my rums and gins too.
So we assume you drink. A lot.
In order to give good recommendations to those who walk into the whisky retail shop or a bar such as UsQuBa, we have got to be familiar with the products ourselves. When I was working in La Maison du Whisky I tasted everything I could get my hands on. No amount of reading can make up for the lack of tasting.
That’s why I tell my staff that there are books, there’s Google, and there’s me they can ask, but taste the whiskies. It’s the only way to learn.
Scotland is a huge whisky producing country with different whisky producing regions. How do you get your head around understanding the nuances of the whiskies from each region?
How I define Scotch whisky styles is by the landscape of the region.
The Lowlands region, for example, is mostly flatlands. I associate the whiskies there to be grassy like Bladnoch, malty, and even fruity like Auchentoshan.
Storm-swept island of Islay has harsh weather but is a beautiful place – the whiskies there can have a roughness and smokiness to them which you need to get past to appreciate their beauty.
For the mountainous Highlands, you have highs and lows so it has quite a diverse range of styles. The lows I associate with lighter styles, while the highs are like meatier whiskies such as Dalmore.
Speyside is located along the winding banks of the picturesque River Spey, so whiskies there tends to be more elegant and feminine. That’s not to say Speyside whiskies can’t be strong or powerful – take Mortlach, or higher age statement Balvenie, for example. Speyside is actually part of the Highlands, so some of its whiskies resemble closely those of the Highlands, such as the more sherry-forward Glendronach or Macallan.
Then we move on to Campbeltown. I see it located in the middle of (all the Scotch whisky producing regions), so it has a bit of everything. Its whiskies have a certain meatiness to them, can be quite elegant, grassy and fruity as well. Most of them have a slight hint of smoke towards the end, especially with the likes of Springbank.
What do you think is the most challenging thing about serving whiskies at a restaurant like UsQuBa?
The most challenging would be to provide a more personable service.
Whisky retail is easier because you can focus your attention on each customer and attend to their needs, whereas during regular restaurant service we’re constantly running around. When there’s someone at the bar who wants a recommendation I have to run back to the bar, if there’s someone dining at a table who’s asking for a recommendation for food pairing I have to run back out again.
I’m not able to provide more attention to individual customers, and that’s a challenge.
So why should a whisky drinker opt to come to UsQuBa as opposed to other whisky bars?
We have food.
Any bar, as long as they have the money, can stock old age-statement whiskies that costs upwards of $30,000. But whether the whisky is worth the money is questionable.
Not every bar can have a selection of whiskies that’s worth the money (for a customer to spend on). What we aim for with our selection here at UsQuBa is to make sure each of our whiskies outperform its price.
Also, we bring in some of the limited-edition whiskies, such as the Signatory Vintage Clynelish 1996 specially bottled for The Whisky Exchange, ourselves.
How do you approach recommending whiskies? What’s most popular?
My recommendations are based on what suits our customers’ preferences; I don’t usually recommend the same whisky to everyone so it’s quite hard to quantify what sells best.
The flights from independent bottler Samaroli have been moving very well. The familiar names, like Macallan and Laphroaig, as well.
But the one brand that really stands out? The Balvenie. It’s very well-received here.
Do you have a specific philosophy for whisky pairings?
One thing I learned (about whisky pairings) is that if something works for me, I still need to take a step back and see how it works from a consumer’s standpoint. Sometimes my idea for a pairing can work for me, but it may not for someone else.
As someone who drinks so much whisky, I have to constantly remind myself that I should judge pairings not by what I personally like but base that recommendation on what most people can accept. I ask myself if a whisky is can be too niche, and if something with a wider appeal may work better.
UsQuBa stocks many limited-edition, rare bottlings. Do you find it a waste to pair these with food?
If it’s the right pairing, I’d say go for it.
But I also have this in mind – what if a particular rare whisky runs out? That’s why all the recommended whisky pairings in our food menu are with official bottlings. I generally avoid pairing limited-edition whiskies with food, because if it works so well that a customer comes back to experience again that pairing but we’ve run out of those whiskies, they may not want to come back.
If they do want a further recommendation, however, I would recommend rare bottles but let the customer know that once these whiskies are gone, they are really gone.
You can find Chan Teng behind the bar at UsQuBa, One Fullerton, #02-03B.