For our second edition of Makers & Shakers, we chatted with Patrick Sng, CEO of recently-launched bottle retail platform One Cellar, for his thoughts on the Singapore drinks scene.
Wine is big business in Singapore. Despite the Republic’s notoriously high import taxes on alcohol, Singapore’s wine industry continues to thrive much of it thanks to the country’s burgeoning cosmopolitan F&B scene.
One man has witnessed much of that growth in the past decade; industry veteran Patrick Sng, who rose from the ranks to head some of the biggest and best known names in Singapore’s wine retail business, such as 1855TheBottleShop and The Straits Wine Company. Today the CEO of his own wine and spirits retail platform One Cellar, Patrick not only continues to keep his finger on the pulse of Singapore’s wine scene, but is perfectly poised to influence it.
We sit with him to understand where Singapore’s wine scene is currently at, and where he sees One Cellar will change things.
Patrick, thanks for agreeing to this interview. For those who may not be familiar with you, do share with us a little bit about your background and your part in Singapore’s wine industry.
My wine journey started as a consumer back in the late 90s when I had the chance to visit vineyards every other weekend whilst living in Australia. It was intriguing to me as I get to learn so much about viticulture and the winemaking processes. Little did I know that I was to start my career in the industry a decade later!
I started off by training on the job, which has led to some amazing opportunities to manage some of Singapore’s better known wine companies like 1855TheBottleShop, Vinicole Asia, and The Straits Wine Company. Through these positions I’ve kickstarted the Wine & Whisky Week, upscaled the Wine Fiesta – some of the big-scale events in the region with tens of thousands of visitors each edition. I like to elevate the experience and knowledge for drinkers so that they may make better choices and drink better.
But most recently I’ve been working on my own startup, One Minor Group Pte Ltd, which operates www.onecellar.com. Now my role involve a spectrum of the industry – importation, distribution and retailing of wines and other alcoholic beverages.
Singapore’s wine scene has grown by leaps and bounds over the years. What particular enduring trends have you witnessed over the years?
Drinking across categories, food pairing, growth in online sales – I’ve seen big changes over the years!
But I think the most enduring trend in wine is finding that wine drinkers are willing to experiment more. Instead of only drinking one kind of red wine – like your usual Francophile for example – or identifying as only a whisky drinker, we are now more likely to drink across categories and appreciate dramatically different tastes and styles.
Another trend, and one that goes hand in hand with what I just mentioned, is that pairing with Asian foods has exploded and is here to stay. As a metropolitan city, Singapore is a melting pot of cuisines from all over. Now that we’ve been introduced to so many different styles of drinks, it’s natural that it would lead to pairing with very diverse Asian cuisines, and even local street foods of those cultures.
Finally, no one can ignore the power of online sales. It was already trending big before 2020, and now it’s a vital key to the industry. E-commerce has made it easier than ever to try something new or get your old stand-by.
Post-pandemic, I do expect online sales to continue its upward trend as more people get used to entertaining and chilling at home. Here One Cellar offers them plenty of choices and free delivery with no minimum purchase.
Obviously you believe that Singapore’s wine scene is due for some disruption. Tell us more about One Cellar and how you think that changes things for the value chain, from producers and distributors to on-premise and customers.
I see the entire industry as an ecosystem – from education, to service, distribution, retail, critics, judging, content creation, logistics, etc. However, the industry did not appear to be catching up on consumer engagements through the use of technology. Most players continue to operate in a more conventional methodology.
Our goal is to gel the ecosystem together by creating an online marketplace offering more than 3,000 quality products across wine, spirits, and sake categories. 800 brands, across 42 regions. The platform is designed with optimal user experience in mind to provide knowledge, easy navigation, and caters to beginners as well as enthusiasts.
During the development phase of our platform, we pored through hundreds of online stores locally and globally but couldn’t find very good examples. We eventually found inspiration outside of the alcohol industry to derive at our simple yet easy-to-use search dashboard and filtering function across all drinks categories.
Steve Jobs once said, “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
We seek new ways of doing old things, flattening layers in the process, and we can’t ignore the use of technology to achieve this. We utilise tech to extract higher productivity on a B2B scale through an online procurement, ordering and fulfilment platform, and edutainment for consumers wanting to learn more and drink different, drink better. We have assembled a panel of experts in every drinks category to lend their in-depth knowledge. Apart from advising on the curation of our diverse product offerings, they also contribute opinion pieces regularly.
Food pairing is nothing new in the Western world and lots of literature have been developed over the past decades. With food pairing becoming a way of life for many foodies and oenophiles here, we find it alluring to provide alcohol recommendations by leveraging on AI and machine learning. These are works in progress and will be rolled out in stages in the coming months.
Where do you see Singapore’s drinks scene going in the coming future?
The wine scene will most likely continue along the theme of exploration and diversity. SNOB categories (Sustainable, Natural, Organic, Biodynamic) are gaining traction as more people are interested in what’s being put into the earth and their bodies. Restaurants will see more demand for premium wines by the glass – and thus likely to expand their by the glass options – while wine lists might become smaller and more concise.
Whisky-wise, continued growth in independently-bottled whisky looks promising. Sake drinkers will probably venture out of their entrenched preference for Junmai Daiginjo in search for variety. As sake appreciation continues to increase, we’ll see more sake in non-Japanese restaurants.
Look for Armagnac popping up on restaurant beverage lists, too.
And have I mentioned Asian food pairings? It’s not going to stop growing any time soon. More people are pairing their meals at local zichar stalls – even in kopitiams! – with their favourite tipples be it wine, whisky or sake. More people will want to know what goes best with their chicken rice, char kway teow, or popiah.
Knowledgeable drinkers are becoming the norm, so we’re going to see a stronger demand for education and certification courses among consumers. Government initiatives such as the SkillsFuture subsidies are also paving the way for more people to learn about alcoholic beverages, even food pairing. In fact I am teaching some of these programs at the Nanyang Poly-supported Lifelong Learning Institute as a way to help people grasp the basics so that they can discern better and make more informed choices.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for Singapore’s drinks industry currently?
In the back-end we have a relatively high excise duty, and logistic disruptions due to COVID-19 have been the source of more than a few headaches. On the consumer side, high on-premise markups still dominate, plus most restaurants have unfriendly corkage policies. That’s not great for encouraging a thriving wine scene.
Many restaurants and hotels continue to assume that consumers want cheap house pours. But I believe this is a vicious cycle. I do think that people want to drink better these days, and many are willing to venture out of the box.
Of course, there are still singular-style drinkers, bent on pursuing big brand names, who limit themselves from wider choices available. But we’re heading in the right direction.
You’re a MBA, CSW, WA, CSP etc. Are you a serial learner, or do you simply love your booze too much?
Haha! A bit of both!
The MBA was a promise to my mom before she passed on in 1984. I was too eager to enter the workforce then and skipped university. 15 years later I went back to business school in Melbourne, which really helped put structure to my ‘degree’ from the school-of-hard-knocks.
And of course I’m always learning to stay on top of things. So far I’ve obtained certification such as Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) and WSET Sake, a certificate from the Napa Valley Vintners, and am a certified Whisky Ambassador, Koshu Ambassador, and a Certified Sake Professional.
My alcoholic-education started from one of necessity as I was managing some of the larger-scale wine companies here. I needed to sound intelligent so I don’t get blindsided easily. For example, in my earlier years in the industry some customers tested me by saying they like the sweetness and complexity of the Amarone grape [Editor: Amarone is an Italian wine style from the Veneto winemaking region, and not specifically a grape varietal].
Without proper education, I would have been taken in for. This progressively became a passion as I realised there is so much I didn’t know and the OCD side of me just fuels my quest for more knowledge.
I also equip myself with knowledge outside of the wine world. Spirits and sakes are also important trending categories which will likely continue to grow significantly. Hence my continued studies in those areas. Most recently, I was among the pioneer batch in Singapore to complete the Capstone California Wine Certification Program offered by the California Wine Institute.
For something more lighthearted – where are your favourite places to dine and drink at in Singapore, and why?
It really depends on the occasion and company. BYOB usually tops the list, and they are usually the Chinese restaurants where I have lots of fun pairing dishes with all sorts of wines, whisky and sake. Jade Palace, Wah Lok, Kai Garden and the more obscure Yummy Palace and Chin Lee are some of my frequent dining places.
Occasionally I do enjoy places with good sommeliers and interesting selections. For whisky my favourite go-to include The Single Cask, The Excisemen, and La Maison du Whisky. For sake, I like visiting Sake Labo and MoboMoga.
I also enjoy chilling out at the recently opened member’s club 67 Pall Mall for the vibes and extensive wine list and rare whiskies.
[Image credits: Joel Lim Photography]
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