My 75ml Fattoria Le Pupille tasting portion costs twice as much as the basic Shake Shack burger I’m devouring, and my taste buds could not be happier. I could just as easily have ordered a tasting portion of Sassicaia for $45—but frankly, I’m not laying down that kind of cash on a weekday afternoon, when all I need is a quick lunch and a spot to place my laptop.
It would be disingenuous of me not to add that I could have purchased a 750ml bottle—ranging from pleasing Aussie reds priced around $30 to the Bordeaux first growths and Sassicaias of the world—to have with my dapao (takeaway) lunch instead. And I have on previous occasions, to pair with my meals brought in from other Great World City eateries the likes of 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 of the wine trade. Opened over Chinese New Year, 8 at Great World City is his second 8 by Bottles & Bottles concept store, and ninth brick-and-mortar outlet under the wider Bottles & Bottles group.
Unabashed about admitting that his “passion for sales” comes close to eclipsing his reverence for winemaking’s artistry, Koh has always been somewhat of a maverick.
With other wine distributors jumping on the full-service wine bar/restaurant bandwagon now that Singapore has a thriving wine enthusiast scene, he’s chosen to keep wine drinking casual, welcoming and convivial instead. 8 provides the seating, stemware and decanters. You purchase a bottle from the store, and if you’re peckish, dapao food in (but please throw out your own trash).
He first launched 8 at Changi Airport Terminal 3, and quickly doubled the outlet’s square footage even though the pandemic had brought international travel to a halt. “I took a gamble,” he admits, “We needed more space for people to sit and drink, and rentals had come down.”
Unlike others who might make lemonade out of lemons, Koh is more likely to view a lemon as a possible Easter egg. His eyes still glint when he shares how his One Raffles Place outlet came into being in 2013. Invited by the mall operator to open a store, Koh was just about to pass on the opportunity— due to high rentals—when he spotted a length of wall not far from the mall’s entrance. “I said to them, if you give me this wall, I’ll take it,” he regales.
That wall, now emblazoned with the Bottles & Bottles logo and lined with shelving stocked with wine and spirits from across the world, “is a big success,” Koh says. “Real estate is calculated by square footage, not by wall area,” he adds with a wry smile.
The Early Days
A conservative drinker well before cardiac issues presented themselves 9 years ago, Koh knew nothing about alcohol when fresh out of school in the mid-80s he was hired by the Remy Martin Group. His task was to sell its then stable of wines—including Wolf Blass, Robert Mondavi, Louis Jadot and Hugel—to supermarkets, hotels and restaurants.
“I had sand kicked in my face. Restaurants would say to me, ‘You have to be joking. People drink cognac, not wine’. Even my teammates would laugh. ‘What are you doing? No one wants wine, come sell cognac with us’,” Koh recalls. “But I was hired to sell wines not cognac. Moreover, I don’t drink well. One glass of cognac at a nightclub and I would have felt tipsy.”
Things started looking up in his third year. In part thanks to the late, prominent Rhone vintner Gerard Jaboulet, to whom he’s grateful for taking him under his wing. “I was 26. I flew to France with a suitcase, and he picked me up at the train station. I spent a month at his place learning about wines, and from then on I never looked back.”
Over the next eight years, he would help grow Remy Martin’s wine department into Singapore’s largest wine company. One feather in his cap was the successful listing of Krug Champagne on Singapore Airlines.
When headhunted 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 to grow the market in the Pacific Islands. “I was simply given a map and told to visit Nauru, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. I hadn’t even heard of the Pacific Islands,” he recalls.
During this time, Krug was sold to LVMH, and the Krug family, remembering Koh’s success at listing their champagne on Singapore Airlines, requested he lead the Veuve Clicquot Singapore office, under which Krug was managed.
In 2004, after Veuve Clicquot and a stint with Fosters (which had purchased the Penfolds Wine Group), Koh, then aged 40, decided he was sorely in need of a break. With entrepreneurship now in his blood, he launched Bottles & Bottles. “I left without a job. It was a sad moment because I’d always worked with big corporations. But wine is the only thing I know. So I took a little 300 sqft shop at Tudor Court.”
“I had no staff. No one would sell me their wines without paying cash upfront, despite years of working with them before. But I was lucky to have good connections with suppliers in Australia, and they supported me; they gave me stock, and said ‘pay me after you sell them’,” he recalls.
A year later, the father of three opened his second store at Parkway Parade. From 80-90 SKUs of mainly Australian wines in the first couple of years, his inventory has grown to over 2,000 from France and Italy to New Zealand, US, Argentina, South Africa and even China. Today, 8 by Bottles & Bottles at Changi Airport also has a specialty focus on sake.
More Bottles Now
With curbs imposed on dining out, alcohol sales have expectedly fared well through the pandemic. “People’s wine spending have doubled,” Koh notes. “It’s not just our experience. Everyone in wine and spirits distribution have observed this.” He estimates that his e-commerce revenue has also grown 20 to 30 percent. Bottles & Bottles also represents several wineries in other South-east Asian markets.
Koh’s youngest son Min Kai, an economics undergrad, works part-time and has been particularly instrumental in curating the company’s growing sake catalogue, shares Koh with pride. Now just shy of 60, he is well aware that the only way to future-proof Bottles & Bottles is to ensure it continues to delight consumers with new concepts and inventory. But he takes a wait-and-see approach to succession planning. He rather his kids find their own paths. “When it’s time for me to retire, I’ll just have to see if any of them are interested,” he says.
Though Koh drinks even less than what his doctors permit, today he’s feeling indulgent. For our chat, he has opened some Barossa greats, a fortified shiraz and Chinese baijiu mix released by Penfold’s (surprisingly appealing, frankly), and a red Rhone by Domaine Philippe & Vincent Jaboulet (owned by relations of Gerard). Koh has always loved a good Châteauneuf-du-Pape red and Puligny-Montrachets. But ask what he chooses to drink—or rather, nurse— when not entertaining, and the answer is surprisingly millennial: Organic champagne. “I realise that I’m just able to drink a little bit more of it.”
Real wine enthusiasts, he is adamant, are rarely swayed by fads. “Trends are created by the media. Those who are knowledgeable may explore natural or biodynamic wines for instance, but they ultimately always come back to the classics like a Lafite or Mouton Rothschild. They also enjoy a good whisky and a good cognac.
“Actually, I’ve been waiting for folks like you to start writing more about cognac!” he says with momentary cheekiness. “I’ve been building up a cognac portfolio: Hine, Tesseron, Davidoff…”