What’s the concept of Tomoka?
Tomoka Fine & Rare is an extension of our journey throughout the past 10 years. What we’ve always done is concentrate on craft producers. Our London shop will be focused on more fine, quality products – say if we do a gin, it will be one that’s super unique and rare or one made especially for us. We’ve always loved craft producers and it’s about bringing the consumers those gems. Going back 10 years when we first opened, we were a little shop that would stock these gems for people who loved whisky or gin or cognac and wanted to broaden their horizons. What we are doing now is just an extension of that. When we opened the first shop in St Albans [10 years ago] we were led by the consumer. People were asking for more gin, so we would expand that range; then we found that people started coming to us wanting to invest in whisky, or they had a collection they wanted to sell. Really we’ve been led by our customer and what’s happening in the market. The Royal Exchange is a combination of all of that. We’re opening a shop in the heart of the City in one of the most premium locations you can have and we will provide that service to people who want to drink, collect or invest. We’re not just someone that’s popped up in the last couple of years looking to capitalise on whisky investment, it’s something that’s part of our journey and we’ve been led there by our customer.
Were you looking for a City location?
It was our business partner who found it. He’s got a big concentration within the City and he said this place [The Royal Exchange] is the place to be if we want to move into the area. It’s about synergy. It made absolute sense to be there as our location.
What’s your professional background?
I actually originally wanted to go into acting and while I was waiting for drama school auditions I started working in bars and I loved the industry. Then having spent years working for other people, I decided to launch my own cocktail bar in St Albans in around 2006. The idea behind it was to create products that were not the everyday, off-the-shelf brands, so we started sourcing these really cool, small and unique brands to make our drinks with. Then we had people asking us where they could buy those brands, so, again, it was all consumer driven. We set up a shop selling those kinds of products because there was a clear demand for it. As the shop came about we realised we needed to broaden our portfolio of products so we started talking to more distilleries, suppliers and brands and doing consumer tastings. Along the way your understanding and education within yourself grows and you pass it onto your customer and onto the products that you display. It was an organic growth.
Tomoka offers an investment service where a person can invest in the whisky cask itself – can you explain more about this?
It was actually my dad who inadvertently started it. A few years back he was looking to buy a cask of whisky and asked for my help and gave me a budget. That was my first dabbling in the cask market; as a consumer. I had good contacts within the industry so was able to find something quite good and had the knowledge – I realised it was an area that I could offer to our customers. That’s really where it came from, it was by accident but it was at a time when there was an explosion within the whisky investment market. There’s a lot of benefits to casks because they’re an asset. When you invest in commodities and stocks and shares it’s almost like it’s disappearing into the ether – whereas we found that people loved the idea of having something tangible. Casks can be a tricky area to be in – you have to be buying the right cask at the right price – but there’s a lot of benefits because, if a whisky is in a cask, it’s always ageing, and as it’s ageing it’s increasing in price, so there is a natural growth with that. So in many ways, while it’s tricky, it’s also a bit of a safer place to be.
One thing I always say to my customers is that you have to love the product. There are stories about people who have made hundreds of thousands of pounds from whisky but they got into it because they love the product. They didn’t know 25 years ago that whisky was going to be a huge thing – no one did. They got into it because they loved it. If anything went wrong they still had a drink that they were happy to share with friends and enjoy. I think that’s really important. Anyone who gets into it should be of the mindset that they love whisky and want to invest in it, rather than just wanting to make a quick buck.
Generally speaking, what makes whisky a good investment?
It’s a tangible product and people love something they can hold and see. The industry is so big right now. Prior to Covid it was a £4.9bn industry – just scotch alone. It then dipped but it’s on its way back up. People all over the world want scotch and are buying into it and the rest of the world is also now producing whisky so there’s lots of hidden gems. I would say that if you’re buying a cask of whisky because you love it, it’s a good investment to have, and it’s not tied to the economy. If the economy has a dip, your asset is always increasing in value. It’s a place to have some security within your portfolio.
That’s the cask and then there’s bottles as well. Bottles also see a good increase depending on the type of whisky it is, the distillery it’s come from, the expression of the bottle and whether it’s limited or rare – there’s all these factors that come into play.
How will the concept of the store at The Royal Exchange work?
For us, it’s about the experience first and foremost. That’s always how we’ve worked and how we built our business. What makes us stand out as a small business is the personal service; it’s the fact that we know our products, we know the distilleries that we’re buying from. We love hosting sampling and tasting sessions; it’s all about the experience. It’s also the fact that we have these different things going on: investing, collecting, consumer – it’s all under one roof. People can come in and buy a bottle, or they can also book a private tasting event; if they want to sell a collection, we can help them get big market value for that collection as opposed to going to auction.
Do you have any standout stories from the past decade?
Part of our industry knowledge is the fact that we work so closely with the distilleries and the brands and we’re talking to them all the time. It helps give a more holistic view of what’s happening. For example, when Yamazaki Japanese whisky released a 2013 sherry cask, we did a consumer tasting with the distillery for our customers and offered the single cask range – which no one else in the country did. Off the back of that was this little gem called the 2013 Sherry Cask Yamazaki. It was £140 a bottle and we had a limited allocation. We told our customers, based on the fact that it’s limited, it’s a really good drinking whisky and a vintage, you might want to drink it or you might want to hold onto a bottle. Shortly after it was named World Whisky of the Year in the 2015 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, and off the back of that everyone wanted to buy it to drink. But because by then it was scarce, it was worth around £4,500 a bottle. Because we had that little insider knowledge and we knew what was happening in the market place and how the industry works, we were able to get it at a really good price. That’s the other point, whisky investment doesn’t have to be multiple thousands of pounds to buy something. It makes it accessible.
Are there any countries or distilleries that you consider ones to watch?
I’ve always been a big fan of Swedish whisky. This year Mackmyra was awarded Sustainable Distillery of the year in the Icons of Whisky awards, and its distiller was named Best Distiller. India is also doing some amazing whiskies, Taiwan is producing some great whiskies that are proving to be collectable. The other ones that I think are good tips are New Zealand, Australia and even China at some point. One of the big movers right now is Bourbon so we are closely watching that too and have some great investments in that area.
Personally, what are some of your favourite bottles?
You would think I have a massive collection but I am more of a consumer, I love to taste whisky. Education is a big part of our business model, we love to talk to people about whisky and host tasting events. And you can only do that if you know what you’re talking about. I love whisky but I don’t have a particular favorite; it’s very much about what my mood is like on that day, what I’ve eaten, what the weather outside is like. I do quite like whiskies that are a little higher in percentage because that allows you to play around with them a little.
How do you like to have your whisky?
I tend to have it neat with maybe a couple of drops of water but, being from a cocktail background, I love making cocktails with drinks. There used to be a snobbery around cocktails but every distiller you talk to will say the same thing: I don’t care how you drink your whisky as long as you’re drinking mine. For me, there’s not a right way but there’s a way to enjoy the whisky which is, l think, my job when talking to our customers: to find how they like to drink their whisky and which one is right for them to enjoy their way.
Jass Patel has over 20 years’ experience in the drinks and hospitality trade. He has owned a string of highly successful businesses in the industry and has won 13 national and international awards.
Tomoka Fine & Rare will open at The Royal Exchange in mid-November. There will be a series of in-store tasting sessions throughout the month of December. Stay tuned for more updates and visit tomokacasks.com for more information
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