Even seven years ago, alternative asset classes like whisky didn’t hold the cachet they do today. However, Li Hua Tan and other intrepid investors spotted the spirit long before today’s liquid gold rush.
Platinum Whisky Investment Fund, of which Tan was a general partner, wound down last September, delivering an annualised return of 17 per cent. Established in June 2014, it claimed to be the world’s first private equity fund focussed on rare, single malt whiskies.
“The main challenge was educating investors about single malt whisky as an alternative asset class, as it had never been done before,” recalls Tan.
Malaysia-born Tan recognised the investment opportunity offered by the “large disparity between supply and demand in the rare single malt whisky industry” even when whisky bars were few and far between in Hong Kong, where she currently resides.
Focused on old and rare single malt whiskies from Scotland and Japan, the fund initially raised US$12 million (S$16.1 million) from 50 high-net-worth investors based in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, and the UK. Having traded 25,000 investment-grade whiskies through auctions and whisky trading companies, it exited at a profit of US$26 million after seven years.
“At first, it felt surreal, as my business partner Rickesh Kishnani and I had poured our hearts and souls into this venture.” After navigating unprecedented headwinds like Brexit and the pandemic-induced global travel lockdown, “there was a sense of relief because we were able to deliver a healthy return on schedule to our shareholders.”
As a woman in a male-dominated trade, Tan says: “I have been blessed to have been surrounded by men who support women in business.” Nevertheless, Tan reveals that gender bias does exist.
“Sometimes when I showed up at meetings, people would automatically downplay my role because of my gender. I prefer to correct them with my actions rather than words in those cases,” says Tan, who started her career in banking.
“I approach every situation by doing a lot of research and knowing my strengths. When you arrive over-prepared, no one can disrespect you. I will also read the room before speaking or answering any questions in a meeting to make sure I start on the right foot.”
Since the private equity fund has matured, Tan has turned her full attention to Rare Whisky Holdings, which she co- founded with Kishnani. The investment firm owns Glenor Cask Company, which holds over 1,000 casks of maturing Scotch whisky from top distilleries. In July 2021, it acquired a 49 per cent stake in online auction business Whisky Hammer and its sister e-commerce platform Still Spirit.
“Now that I’m heavily involved with Whisky Hammer, I spend a lot more time researching vintages,” she says. Her current favourites are Mortlach 1936 36 Year Old bottled by Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice, Rosebank 1990 21 Year Old Diageo Special Release 2011, Glen Flagler Bot.1970s, and Ardbeg 1974 Sestante 21 Year Old.
In addition to hunting down such rare finds, Tan invests in companies that innovate climate change solutions, such as Hyzon Motors, H3 Dynamics, and GenH2 Discover Hydrogen. To encourage and support other women hoping to change the landscape of the business world, she also started Innovatif+, a community initiative in Malaysia, with her sister Mei Tan.
How does she manage it all? “We are all meant to be on our own individual paths and timelines,” she says. “Your main focus should be finding the one thing that matters to you, and when you find it, you too will become unstoppable”.
(Related: Jamie Koh: Getting into the spirit)