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The Trailblazer

The Trailblazer
June 7, 2016 Cask Staff Writer

Mike Soldner went against the grain and opened Malt Vault (and subsequently B28) in 2009  when single malt whiskies weren’t in vogue. We know how things have gone, especially over the past few years. Now, he’s looking to revolutionise the bar scene in South Korea with the establishment of B28 Seoul and Winston’s. We caught up with the man when he was in Singapore to promote his B28 Whisky Fund and got his take on his pioneering spirit, what his fund is all about and what the Koreans are drinking.

B28 Whisky Fund founder, Mike Soldner

You opened Malt Vault in 2009 and it was one of the first bars in the region to offer single cask and single malt whiskies. How was the demand for whiskies like back then in Singapore?

I opened Malt Vault out of passion. I was the franchise manager for NYDC before it was sold to SUTL. So I thought, either I work for SUTL or do something else. I decided the latter. I saw that space and went straight into it.

Before Malt Vault, I was never in the whisky industry. So, you can say that I went in feet first. My house was filled with great whiskies and after starting Malt Vault, I was able to translate my passion for whiskies into a business. It was very small, to be honest. Back then, people weren’t lining up to get single malt whiskies.

So, what made you close Malt Vault and open B28 just a few doors down the road?

It was just a lease issue; we didn’t get along with the landlord. I wasn’t ready to abandon the concept, so I opened B28 in 2011. Apart from whiskies, the bar scene was burgeoning in Singapore. Great bars like 28 HKS and Jigger and Pony were opening up. Singapore was becoming the ‘Asian Mecca’ for drink culture. It was amazing for me to see how the scene has developed.

You opened B28 Seoul and Winston’s in South Korea not too long ago. How is the whisky scene in Korea?

I stayed in South Korea some time back, as my wife is Korean. We moved over and I thought, ‘what am I going to do in Korea?’ I went to set up B28 Seoul three years ago. Winston’s is my import company. We are essentially the ‘Proof and Co.’ of Korea, supplying spirits to bars in that city.

inside B28 1

B28 Seoul

How matured is the Korean market compared to Singapore?

I feel that Seoul is way behind Singapore in terms of taste, skill and hospitality. It is like how Singapore was like six years ago.

Can you elaborate? And, what types of whiskies do the Koreans like in general?

In Korea, it’s inertia based on unavailability of product. Whereas in Singapore, it’s inertia based on customer demand. In Singapore, if customers are in to a product, the bars will respond. I think in Singapore, the duty structure and import regulations are far more accommodating compared to Korea’s. Products can get to market quickly, which I think helped fuel the amazing transformation of this city’s drinking culture.

When it comes to the types of drinks, Korea has the same cycle as the other countries. First, people get into wines, followed by brandy, and whisky. After whisky, they either go into bourbon, rum or cocktails. Korea is right now at the end of the ‘Scotch’ phase and are getting interested into cocktails.

When it comes to whiskies, are Koreans looking for independent or single cask bottlings?

They do, but it’s unlike what you get here. We do bring in stuff from Hunter Laing into Seoul, but they are in small amounts. For instance, people go to a bar and ask for a Dalwhinnie 15, but they won’t ask for stuff apart from Dalwhinnie 15. In Singapore, it’s odd for a bar not to have independent bottlings, isn’t it?

So, Korea is quite protectionistic when it comes to alcohol?

Their duty structure is 320 per cent! I also have to send my bottles for chemical testing. In short, they really give you a hard time. I can see why people don’t want to enter the Korean market. But now, we have about 100 SKUs that are approved, have the Korean labels and all that stuff. We hope to transform the market over there.

It’s taken two years more than I would have liked. Now, it’s about getting consumers interested in other products, in addition to soju and beer.

The B28 Whisky Fund. Tell me more about it.

It is an investment vehicle. Essentially, there are three components to it. The first is this [points to his Hunter Laing bottlings]. They are rare, single cask bottlings, but the price points are accommodating. They are also sold to on-trade and bars can make money off them. This components pays the bills and we can pay investors a fixed coupon rate. So everyone’s making some money no matter what.

The other two are more speculative. One, is full cask purchase from a distillery and then we get them bottled under an official distillery label. The third aspect is to find special, rare official bottlings and hang on to them. And when the timing is right, we’d sell them.

Main Picture

The other two are more speculative. One, is full cask purchase from a distillery and then we get them bottled under an official distillery label. The third aspect is to find special, rare official bottlings and hang on to them. And when the timing is right, we’d sell them.

How do you ascertain if a particular whisky is ‘investible’ or ‘collectible’?

This selection has been made based on my experience running bars. As a general guide, I try to select bottles from each region in Scotland. Even for rums, I select single barrel rums for its unique taste profile.

At the moment, on average, official bottlings get 30 to 50 per cent more returns compared to independent bottlings, simply because collectors prefer it.

We are in negotiations to get casks that are not first-filled, so it’s less speculative. We get casks from very well-known distilleries and bottle them immediately under the distillery label.

I wouldn’t say that our investment strategies are conservative. It’s just that I have enough experience to know what works. This way, we can shield our investors and ourselves from anything that’s too speculative. Buying a first-fill cask is a speculative game and you have to wait a long time. Whereas buying one that is ready to be bottled, although more expensive, is ready to be resold.

What’s your whisky collection like? What are some of the highlights and your piece de resistance?

I have four or five bottles by Gordon & MacPhail that were distilled during World War II. Peat was scarce, making the whiskies distilled during that era really rare. I have a Strathisla and a Taliskar from the 1930s. In terms of everyday drams, I’d drink the Glenfarclas 15. I really love old Islay whiskies; they mellowed and sweetened, which is great. I also love very old grain whiskies; 40 to 50 years old.

What’s next for Mike Soldner?

I really want the Fund to be successful. I also hope to revolutionise the Korean drinks market. They are already drinking, but their palates just aren’t there yet. My motto is ‘drink better’, and I hope that they do too.

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