My 75ml Fattoria Le Pupille tasting portion costs twice as much as the basic Shake Shack burger I devour, and my taste buds couldn’t be happier. I might as well have ordered a tasting portion of Sassicaia for $45 – but frankly, I don’t spend that kind of money on a weekday afternoon when all I need is a quick lunch and a place to put my laptop.
It would be dishonest of me not to add that I could have purchased a 750ml bottle – ranging from pleasant Aussie reds at around $30 to Bordeaux Premier Crus and World Sassicaias – to take with my dapao lunch (takeaway ) in place. And I have already had the opportunity to accompany my meals brought by other restaurants in Great World City, such as Tajimaya Yakiniku and even Tambuah Mas.
This bring your own food (BYOF) proposition at 8 by Bottles & Bottles is the brainchild of wine retailer Koh Ching Liang, a 35-year veteran in the wine business. Opened during the Chinese New Year, 8 at Great World City is its second 8 by Bottles & Bottles concept store and the ninth physical outlet of the Bottles & Bottles group.
Admittedly, his “passion for selling” nearly eclipsed his reverence for the art of winemaking, Koh has always been something of a maverick.
While other wine distributors are jumping on the full-service wine bar/restaurant bandwagon now that Singapore has a thriving wine-lover scene, it has chosen to continue drinking wine in a casual, welcoming and friendly way. . 8 supplies the seats, stemware and decanters. You buy a bottle at the store, and if you get peckish, dapao some food (but please throw your own trash).
An on-site bottle shop, 8 by Bottles & Bottles customers are encouraged to purchase a bottle to enjoy with their “bring your own food.”
It first launched 8 at Changi Airport’s Terminal 3 and quickly doubled the outlet’s square footage, even though the pandemic had halted international travel. “I took a gamble,” he admits, “We needed more space for people to sit and drink, and rentals had gone down.”
Unlike others who might make lemonade from lemons, Koh is more likely to consider a lemon as a possible Easter egg. His eyes still sparkle as he recounts how his One Raffles Place outlet came to be in 2013. Invited by the mall operator to open a store, Koh was about to pass up the opportunity – due high rents – when he spotted a length of wall not far from the entrance to the mall. “I told them, if you give me this wall, I’ll take it,” he says.
That wall, now emblazoned with the Bottles & Bottles logo and lined with shelves filled with wines and spirits from around the world, “is a big hit,” says Koh. “Real estate is calculated in square feet, not wall area,” he adds with a wry smile.
The first days
A conservative drinker long before heart problems presented themselves nine years ago, Koh knew nothing about alcohol when he was hired by the band Remy Martin out of school in the mid-1980s. task was to sell his then stable of wines – including Wolf Blass, Robert Mondavi, Louis Jadot and Hugel – to supermarkets, hotels and restaurants.
“I was punched in the face. Restaurants were like, ‘You’re kidding. People drink brandy, not wine.” Even my teammates were laughing. ‘What are you doing? Nobody wants wine, come and sell cognac with us,” Koh recalled. “But I was hired to sell wines, not cognac. Also, I don’t drink well. A glass of cognac in a nightclub and I would have felt tipsy.
Things started to look up in his third year. Partly thanks to the late and eminent Rhone winemaker Gérard Jaboulet, to whom he is grateful for having taken him under his wing. “I was 26 years old. I flew to France with a suitcase and he picked me up at the station. I spent a month with him learning about wines, and from there I never looked back.
Over the next eight years, he would help grow Remy Martin’s wine department into Singapore’s largest winery. A feather in his cap was Krug Champagne’s successful listing on Singapore Airlines.
When recruited by Southcorp Limited, then Australia’s largest wine company which owned Penfolds, Lindeman’s and Wynns, Koh, in addition to overseeing sales in Asia, was tasked with developing the market in the Pacific Islands . “I was just given a map and told to visit Nauru, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. I hadn’t even heard of the Pacific Islands,” he recalls.
Meanwhile, Krug was sold to LVMH, and the Krug family, remembering Koh’s success in listing their champagne on Singapore Airlines, asked him to run Veuve Clicquot’s office in Singapore, under which Krug was managed.
In 2004, after Veuve Clicquot and a stint at Fosters (which had taken over the Penfolds Wine Group), Koh, then 40, decided he really needed a break. With entrepreneurship now in his blood, he launched Bottles & Bottles. “I left without a job. It was a sad moment because I had always worked with big companies. But wine is the only thing I know. So I took a small 300 square foot shop in Tudor Court.
“I had no staff. No one would sell their wines to me without paying upfront, despite years of working with them before. But I was lucky to have good relationships with suppliers in Australia, and they supported me; they gave me shares and said ‘pay me after you sell them’,” he recalls.
A year later, the father of three opened his second store in Parkway Parade. From 80 to 90 SKUs of mostly Australian wines in the first two years, its inventory grew to over 2,000 from France and Italy to New Zealand, the United States, Argentina, South Africa and even China. Today, 8 by Bottles & Bottles at Changi Airport also specializes in sake.
More bottles now
With restaurant restrictions, alcohol sales have weathered the pandemic well. “People’s spending on wine has doubled,” Koh notes. “It’s not just our experience. Everyone in the distribution of wines and spirits has noticed this. He estimates that his e-commerce revenue has also increased by 20-30%. Bottles & Bottles also represents several wineries in other Southeast Asian markets.
Koh’s youngest son, Min Kai, an economics graduate, works part-time and has been particularly instrumental in curating the company’s sake catalog, Koh shares proudly.
Now barely 60 years old, he is well aware that the only way to sustain Bottles & Bottles is to ensure that it continues to delight consumers with new concepts and new inventory. But he takes a wait-and-see approach to succession planning. He prefers that his children find their own way. “When it’s time for me to retire, I’ll just have to see if any of them are interested,” he says.
Although Koh still drinks less than his doctors allow, today he feels forgiving. For our conversation, he opened up some great Barossa, a fortified blend of Shiraz and Chinese baijiu released by Penfold’s (surprisingly attractive, frankly), and a Rhône red from Domaine Philippe & Vincent Jaboulet (owned by relatives of Gérard).
Koh has always loved a good red Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Puligny-Montrachets. But ask him what he chooses to drink — or rather, nurse — when he’s not entertaining, and the answer is surprisingly age-old: organic champagne. “I realize that I’m just able to drink a little more.”
True wine enthusiasts, he is inflexible, rarely influenced by fashions. “Trends are created by the media. Connoisseurs explore, for example, natural or biodynamic wines, but in the end they always come back to classics such as a Lafite or a Mouton Rothschild. They also appreciate a good whiskey and a good cognac.
“Actually, I’ve been waiting for people like you to start writing more about cognac!” he said with momentary impertinence. “I built up a portfolio of cognacs: Hine, Tesseron, Davidoff…”
This article was first published in The top.