When life gives you lemons, make lemonade – so they say. Well, life has been handing out quite a lot of Covid-19 shaped lemons in the last year or so, which has been pretty tough on everyone in Singapore’s food & beverage industry. There are only so many cocktails that can be garnished with a lemon wedge during a lockdown, after all.
About a year ago, drink industry veterans Matthew Fergusson-Stewart and Chris Chambers received some significantly large lemons in the shape of redundancy. They were not alone, of course – many people in F&B, both local and expatriate, found themselves in the same situation. The locals were forced to find other employment or wait it out, while many of the expatriates were, well, repatriated.
Matthew and Chris are both former Glenfiddich brand ambassadors and met in 2015 at Glenfiddich distillery. Over pints and banter – well, lots of pints and banter – they became firm friends. They expected to one day start working together, but as Matthew was living in Singapore covering Asia Pacific, and Chris was in Dubai covering the United Arab Emirates, they did not expect that to be any time soon.
Matthew had spent nearly 15 years in the drinks industry having worked with The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, The Auld Alliance, William Grant & Sons, and The Whisky Store. He also started Facebook whisky community Dram Full and an event we are not allowed to talk about. Chris has been in the industry just as long, having with Oddbins and Royal Mile Whiskies (in Scotland) and African & Eastern (in Dubai), before moving to Singapore to become The Master of Spirits with grand lobby bar ATLAS.
But come April last year – when all bars and restaurants were closed due to the COVID pandemic – their respective employers had to let them go.
“It was a tough time,” shares Matthew, “the first thing we had to do was scramble for new visas to replace our Employment Passes so we could stay in Singapore, as no one was hiring anyone in our field of expertise. And then it was a question of ‘so what next?’.”
“We allowed ourselves a little bit of couch time, but there’s no point sitting around too long being miserable and petty just because you lose your job in a pandemic,” Chris adds. “It was a fairly natural thing to say to each other, we both have some savings, let’s put them together and get started on our own business, even if it is a lot sooner than we had planned.”
Spinning SPUN Spirits into place
And so, SPUN Spirits Pte Ltd, a spirits consultancy and distribution business, was born. To complete the team, they approached Elaine Seah of Brand Incorporated – a lifestyle public relations firm – thereby adding some serious marketing chops to their business. Of course, it probably helped that Elaine happened to be Matthew’s wife.
There was a lot to do before they were able to start trading. “I would like to say it was easy,” says Matthew, “but our passes, incorporation, licenses, permits and bank accounts all took a lot longer than usual because of social distancing and work from home requirements – we couldn’t just pop into offices to get things done. I definitely screamed at my computer screen a few times.”
But according to Chris, there was a lot of positivity too. “Everyone in the industry was in a similar situation, but they were still very quick to step in and offer assistance. Within a few weeks we were offered sub-distribution arrangements by three companies and had an incredible amount of help from other established distributors like Distilled LLP. They never treated us as a competitor; they treated us as friends in need of a hand.””The drinks community in Singapore is a very special place”, Matthew declares, “They really band together and help each other out whenever they can. It’s an awesome thing to be part of, and we certainly want to give back that love wherever we can.”
It may have been a struggle at points, but Matthew and Chris seem to maintain their banter and wild humour. Upon being asked about the name SPUN Spirits, they both laugh. “Well, it started as placeholder while we though of a better name, but we ended up liking it a lot,” says Matthew. Chris quickly adds – not quite so jokingly – that it’s also an anagram of ‘spirits puns’, and “we are basically children”.
That humour pervades much of what they do. In the short time they have been operational they have done two guests shifts, namely ‘Piss Turnips’ (another anagram of SPUN Spirits) at whisky bar The Single Cask, and ‘SPUN-dau Ballet’ at sandwich bar PorkyPine.
There’s more to come, they promise.
A SPUNner In The Works
But it is not all fun and games. Chris and Matthew still tread the pavement daily doing sales visits and almost all of their own deliveries because they want to build close relationships with their customers. When the conversation turns to the spirits in their portfolio, their collective experience as brand ambassadors emerges.
“Yes, we have a lot of fun working together, but we have a deep love and appreciation for the spirits we work with. We don’t work with brands if we don’t believe in them,” Chris says more seriously.
Matthew agrees. “We are not just box-movers looking for margin. We want to build a strong portfolio, we want to build brands and we want to build a sustainable business we can be proud of,” he muses.
Unsurprisingly, with their backgrounds building a strong portfolio came quite naturally to them. They have already established themselves as the local agents for some superb international brands including El Dorado rum, Tiki Lovers rum, Arbikie Scotch whisky, Nadar gin and vodka, Procera gin, and most recently, Equiano rum.
Notably absent though – given their respective backgrounds – is any single malt Scotch whisky. “We’re working on that, among a couple of other things, so stay tuned,” was all Matthew would say.
“We’ve both built really strong networks over the years, and we’ve always cared about the industry and the people in the industry. That’s become extremely helpful to us in building a portfolio of great brands,” Chris elucidates. “We’ve also ramped up pretty quickly on the customer side. We only started selling sub-distributed products in November and our own imports from January this year,” he adds.
SPUN Spirits is not just a distribution company. Matthew and Chris continue to do a lot of brand ambassador work around town and have been working on some bar consultancy projects. “Distribution work actually involves a lot of paperwork and less glamorous things like cold-calling to build the customer base but we both enjoy actually talking about spirits to consumers and bartenders. That has become a significant part of our business. We’ve done a lot of whisky tastings and rum tastings in the last few months and we have a lot of gin tastings ahead of us too,” Matthew explains. “That’s been a steep learning curve – obviously we are both know more for whisky than any other spirit – but it’s been a lot of fun and highly rewarding.”
While both acknowledge that Singapore can be a fiercely competitive market, that does not appear to be something that bothers them. “We are not parallel traders; that can be a really tough game. We are bringing in a range of new and quality spirits, we are building brands and we are building knowledge among consumers and bar tenders. We’ve found a niche where we have great strengths,” Chris insists.
Asked where they see themselves among local distributors, the smiles return. “Ha! We’re tiny!” Matthew exclaims. “It’s just the three of us for now, but things are definitely heading in the right direction. We’ll be importing by the pallet for quite a while before we start bringing in containers,” Chris nods.
“We’re definitely in this for the long-haul. We are still a startup but that’s not where we intend to finish up,” concludes Chris.