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Interview: Emmanuel Dron of The Auld Alliance on whisky lovers’ best kept secret

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Imagine walking into a speakeasy from the 20’s, a smokey ambery chic and rugged sophisticated vibe… Welcome to The Auld Alliance! When the night falls, the whisky bar takes you to another time whispering the secrets hidden behind the hundreds of golden-lit bottles aligned along the walls. And so does the owner, a well-established whisky lover who has been collecting and sharing legendary whisky bottles for years. A true “whisky geek” as he would describe himself, Emmanuel Dron is the kind of man who lives by and for his passion. As he tells So Chic, it is passion that has broadened through the years, making him a remarkable storyteller of whisky’s heritage. Here is the tale of his life, of The Auld Alliance and of his beloved bottles.

When did you first get into whisky and why?

In the mid-1990’s, probably around 1994-1995. It started with a bottle of whisky I got for my birthday. It was a Single Malt, a very simple bottle. At that time, I didn’t drink much alcohol but I really liked this bottle so I decided to buy a book on Single Malts to know a little bit more. I was living in Lille (north of France) and there was a jazz bar there with over 150 Single Malts. It was a lot for that time. For three to four months my best friend and I would go to the bar four times a week to try all of the whiskies they had, that’s how I started taking tasting notes. Then the time for me to go to military service arrived, I didn’t want to go, so I applied for Civic Service.

I was working with disabled people instead, at the university, helping them in their daily needs and studies. Often time, I had to scan books for blind people, that’s how I got my first encounter with computers.. I learnt how to use them, then I created a newsletter of more than ten pages about whisky and about tasting notes. At the time, I was the only one to do that. I sent my newsletter to La Maison du Whisky, a famous French company (with a shop in Singapore) and they said: “Nice, if you come to Paris, visit us”. So, I went to Paris and met with the owner and he offered me a job. That’s how I started to work into whisky in 1997, and since then I’ve always been into whisky.

And did you learn about whisky by yourself?

Yes, all by my myself. But of course, when I joined the company I got the opportunity to travel to Scotland and to try a lot more things, so it helped to learn even more. But at the beginning, it was completely by myself.

When did you arrive in Singapore?

10 years ago, in 2008. I came here because La Maison du Whisky wanted me to work for the shop based in Singapore. So, I came as the manager of the branch in Singapore. But after 18 months I left the company (I had already worked for them 13 years) and decided to start my own business to focus on rare and antique bottles. I went on a journey to open my own company in 2010.

Could you tell us a bit more about the story behind the Auld Alliance?

Before The Auld Alliance, I’ve always been in the distribution or retail business. However, I’ve always wanted to open rare and legendary bottles that most people wouldn’t have access to. So, I started The Auld Alliance. The objective with the bar was to collect rare bottles and share them with people, which means opening the bottles and drinking them. I can tell you that it’s amazing and really rewarding to see the reaction on people’s faces when they get to try a rare whisky. Nowadays, even if you can afford these bottles you won’t necessarily find them because they are so rare – some whiskies were produced in really small quantities.

I’ve always wanted to open rare and legendary bottles that most people wouldn’t have access to

We open things that money cannot buy. That’s what we are famous for. I had lots of people who would take a flight just to come here for the evening and then leave the next day. And these people come from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, even Russia and Australia. Among all the whisky bars existing in Singapore and everywhere around the world, that’s what truly makes us special. Here, the craziest collectors and whisky-lovers of the world gather, you would be impressed.

Sharing unique bottles, that is the philosophy we try to keep since the origins of The Auld Alliance. And don’t get me wrong, the bar is very accessible and anyone can come here, you can be completely clueless about whisky and still have a good time.

Here, the craziest collectors and whisky-lovers of the world gather, but you can also be completely clueless about whisky and still have a good time

Why name your bar The Auld Alliance?

I chose a name that would link France and Scotland. The Auld Alliance used to be an alliance between France and Scotland back in year 1295 signed to fight England. It remains one of the oldest alliances between two countries in history. At the beginning, the Auld Alliance was a military alliance, then it became a trade alliance then a friendship alliance. That’s why to this day, France and Scotland have kept their relationship really close, you can feel their old friendship when you go there. French people who go to Scotland are usually very well welcomed.

At the bar you’ll only find whiskies, which embody Scotland, and French alcohols like champagne, wine, calvados, cognac, Armagnac, etc. We serve rare French alcohol, for example, French eau-de-vie like fine Marc of Champagne, Marc of Bourgogne, Marc of Jura… a collection of rare alcohols that even average French people haven’t heard about. For the Cognacs, we have a range starting from 1848 to today, so 150 years of cognac in here. We also have a lot of French rum… I really try to be a good ambassador of French culture, I want to show what is good in France.

Is there a culture of whisky in France?

Yes, for sure. People always ask me why I don’t work with wine since I am French, why whisky? Well, some people don’t understand that French market is the number one in the world by far. And more than anywhere in the world, France consumes and produces whisky. That is something people don’t notice often, but in France, at every supermarket, even in wine shops you’ll find big bottles of whisky.

About your collection of whisky, how many bottles do you own?

At the last inventory, if we don’t count the bottles I already opened, 4,358. And we have the equivalent of 1,000 more bottles that are opened. So more than 5,000 bottles I guess. It doesn’t mean they are all different though. Sometimes I have two to three bottles of the same whisky. If we talk about bottles that are different, I think we have 1,500 to 2,000 varieties of alcohol, including non-whisky ones.

How do you manage to find those bottles?

In fact, that’s a big part of my job. I am rarely at the bar because I travel a lot to take care of foreign customers and collectors whom I sell bottles to or buy bottles from. My main job is to buy stocks, and for that, I meet with a lot of people. Moreover, I also bottle some single casks under the name of The Auld Alliance then sell them in Australia, China, Japan, Taiwan, … And I wrote a huge 8kg-book, it’s the first book that talks about rare collecting Scotch whisky. It gives lots of information, tips on how to differentiate fake and real whisky, interviews, etc…

Is there a culture of trading in whisky, like a bottle against another bottle?

Yes. I mean people like to sell but I like to trade, especially with friends in the industry. If I want the bottle my friend has and if he/she wants the bottle I have, why not trade? It’s a really good process. I wish it could happen more often, but these days, people prefer to sell their bottles for cash. People who like to trade are usually people who like to drink the bottles because for them, a bottle is more than an investment.

Could you tell us about some amazing bottles you own?

There is a Karuisawa 1960 which is a Japanese whisky. The distillery closed in 2001, and this bottle was the oldest Japanese whisky ever produced. There were 41 bottles in the world. When we got our hands on it, we organised a special tasting and opened it. Today, the bottle should have a worth of at least 200,000 euros. At the time it was less expensive and I had three bottles, I sold some. I wish I kept some of the whisky though.

So here is another story. I have a Chivas. When you hear Chivas you think of a very

basic whisky. But I have the original launch of the bottle of the early 20th century. The bottles date back from the 1920’s and the whisky inside from the 1890’s, that was the very beginning of the brand, nobody really knew about Chivas. The whisky was very very good at the time. If you go to the distillery in Scotland, the bottle is in a museum case. And me, at my bar, I can sit in front of the bottle, it’s amazing! And that’s what a lot of people appreciate.

So, what makes us so different from any other whisky bar? If you are a passionate, you’ll understand. You will see some bottles, and you will say “wow you have that, that, that and that!”. It’s hard to describe this feeling… Imagine you’re a musician and you’re in front of Jimmy Hendrix’s guitar.

Why is whisky so special to you?

Because of the diversity of flavours that doesn’t exist in any other kind of alcohol. I am French and I can see there’s not that much diversity in cognac, armagnac or rum. There’s a real diversity of style that’s unique to whisky, really!

But unfortunately, it has changed. Now whiskies have standardised a little bit and that’s why The Auld Alliance focuses mainly on old bottles. I also feel like the quality of whiskies tends to go down. People start to produce more and more to satisfy a huge market, and the consequence is a drop in quality. I always try to get good casks and whiskies, so I try to get my hands on old bottling. The way they produced whisky in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 90’s was incredible, it was the pick of quality.

What do you think of today’s whisky market?

The whisky market is really crazy. And just yesterday, one bottle of Macallan was sold for one million euros) in an auction!

And this bottle for example (gestures to a bottle on the shelf) its value was probably 10,000 euros one year ago and now it is 70,000 euros … in less than a year. I used to have a couples of this bottle and the last one I bought was 4 years ago, it was about 6,000 pounds. I remembered, at the time, when I bought it, people online were like “that’s crazy! How can someone pay 6,000 for a bottle?” Four years ago, it was indeed a big number. And the bottle was rare, it appears once every five years. And now, it’s ten times the price it was.

I don’t work with whisky for money though. As I said earlier, I open a lot of these bottles. Unfortunately, most people are only investing, they don’t drink the whisky, they just buy and buy, and buy, and build their stock market. I think that’s the main reason why people like it here; we still open, we don’t keep in the cabinet.

But, don’t worry, the prices at the bar are not always that unbelievable and all the bottles are not legendary. We have a lot of products with good value for money and more than 200 glasses below 30 dollars.

Do you have any discoveries to share with us?

Every time I notice a good cask, I will buy it for the bar. And I have many. For example, I bought a cask of a Taiwanese whisky, the Kavalan, for us. I chose among 10 casks of Kavalan before I found a good one and it was not easy at all. Then I found a really really good one. It’s a sherry cask. Sherry casks come from Spain and give a really dark colour to whisky along with aromas that tend to go on the toffee, creamy, chocolaty side. Those casks are actually more and more difficult to find, they almost disappeared.

Otherwise I bought an outstanding whisky this year, a Caol Ila. It comes from the famous distillery of the Isle of Ila (west coast of Scotland), which is known for its smoky whisky. I bought a 35-year old Caol Ila and had it bottled for the bar. It’s almost impossible to get your hands on it. Maybe you would have one bottle coming out in auction every five years. I bought mine on auction last June for almost 70,000 euros. It’s usually very difficult to buy old smoky whiskies. Today, everyone wants to buy those whiskies, and there is almost no more cask available, and those available contain young whiskies. So, I was very proud and happy to find this 35-year old Caol Ila. I think it’s one of my best discoveries this year. Many famous collectors from Hong Kong, Japan, China, Australia tried it and they loved it so much. It’s not easy at all to find such an amazing bottle. I was so proud and happy especially because I’m super picky when it comes to quality.

It’s not easy at all to find such an amazing bottle. I was so proud and happy especially because I’m super picky when it comes to quality.

What’s the best way to preserve whisky?

I’m quite lucky with whisky. You just keep the bottle straight. Never place it like wine bottles, since it’s a strong alcohol, it will damage the core. So it’s very important to keep the bottle standing. That’s about all. Then the good temperature to keep it at is 19-25 degrees.

And the best way to drink whisky?

Neat, at room temperature, nothing else. Well, the best way to drink it, I would like to say, is the way you enjoy it. But if you drink rare, old, delicate whisky, you should drink it neat for sure. If the whisky is good, it is balanced and you don’t need to add water or anything, and especially no ice. The ice just makes your palate completely frozen and you won’t be able to feel anything. Ice is good when you drink a simple whisky, a blend whisky, Chivas or a simple Glen, these kinds of whiskies, but don’t do it with special ones. I’m not trying to act snobbish, it just doesn’t make sense to spend so much money on very good bottles and to waste them with some ice.

Are their good pairings when it comes to whisky? For example, the cigar, does it change the whisky’s flavour?

Well, I usually don’t pair whisky, I enjoy it with no food, nothing. As for cigars, it is one of my passion, I love to smoke cigars. If you take a cigar, the flavour of your whisky will change indeed, but the flavour of the cigar will change as well. So, cigar-whisky is a good match for sure, you just have to chose the right pairing. Usually you would choose something that is not too strong, a little bit old with more of a woody aroma that comes from the cask. Something like a toffee, chocolaty, caramel kind of aroma, something a bit smooth and creamy that will balance the dryness of the cigar. That is the best match for me

What kind of clients come to the Auld Alliance? Are they pros or casual people?

We have both. A lot are casual customers and they probably don’t care about my story or the fact that I have special and old bottles, they just come to enjoy an evening at the bar with their friends, their family or their partner. When people come here and see the number of bottles we have, they always get impressed and end up taking pictures.

Then, we have people wanting to learn about whisky. We offer lots of services to educate people. For example, we organise a lot of tasting sets, we have more than 30 sets, those are very popular. Sometimes when you come at night, everyone has a tasting set on the table. We have sets that cover a lot of topics: whisky of Scotland, whisky around the world, different types of wood use, 4 Irish whisky-4 American whisky-4 Japanese whisky etc. There are tastings for other alcohols as well. And we also hold blind tastings using black glasses: Can you recognise whisky apart from rum, cognac and Armagnac? People usually think it’s easy, but many can’t tell them apart.

And then we have the ultra-whisky-lovers, people who just travel, come here, taste small samples, drink and buy to enjoy the whisky at home or rave about it.

So The Auld Alliance must be very busy, right?

We are very lucky to have a lot of visitors. And I’m not saying that to brag, I know we are not that famous compared to other bars. But we’re probably the only bar that has people traveling only to come here. And that’s because our whisky attracts so many passions. Sometimes, when I post on Instagram about a bottle I just opened, I have people sending messages and asking me to keep a sample for them, sometime we have a waiting list. When I opened this bottle (points at a bottle of the menu) it was sold out in one day. I put the picture on Facebook and I received messages from all around the world of people who wanted me to sell it. Obviously, I didn’t. I kept the name of those who would come at the bar to drink the whisky, so it was quite crazy. Last month I opened a rare bottle, it was a Black Bowmore 1964. It’s a very famous bottle, and no one opens bottles like this anymore. Yesterday, they sold a bottle for 30 000 pounds in an auction I think.

It’s funny and crazy to think we have a waiting list on rare bottles. People get on the list, travel all the way here just to drink. This phenomenon is so unique to whisky.

How has the bar evolved since its opening?

Hmmm… more and more stocks (laughs). Yes really, and I reinvest a lot in stocks. Every time we make money I try to reinvest in stocks. And I was smart maybe to have done this because the prices have gone so high. It would be really difficult today to buy if I did not reinvest in stocks. You just can’t, it’s way too expensive.

But from day one, the philosophy has stayed the same and I never tried to change or adapt the bar and the concept to any trend at all. For me it’s simple, I want quality and good value for money for consumers, that’s all. Sometimes, when distilleries go too crazy with their prices I don’t hesitate to remove bottles event if those are popular. If I judge the price excessive for the customers I remove. And I have the freedom to do whatever I want, it’s the advantage when you have your bar. We never accepted any money from any brands, we’ve done what we wanted to do from day one, without boundaries.

So the bar has not really changed. I bottle more single casks and I probably sell more. Now that we have become quite famous we have many bars in Japan, in Hong Kong or Australia that buy our whisky from our bar with our name on it to sell it in their own bar, and that’s really nice. Otherwise, I really try to keep the original philosophy of the bar. I always say that the bar could exist 50 years ago or 50 years later, it wouldn’t make a difference. There is no fashion in this bar. Look, everything is old school, but it lasts! I don’t want to label myself as a trendy bar. So many famous bars open in Singapore, then they close 2 years later. As for us, we keep quiet, we don’t make too much noise, but we’re here.

The bar could exist 50 years ago or 50 years later, it wouldn’t make a difference (…) everything is old school but it last!

Are there any Singaporean whiskies?

No, since there’s no distillery in Singapore. But there are Singaporean bottlings. So, no production of whisky, but for all of my bottlings here, I consider them as Singaporean. I put to distance the fact that I’m French or that the whiskies are Scottish. For me, it’s important to consider The Auld Alliance as a Singaporean company, the bottles are here for Singapore. And when Australians sell my bottles, they know it’s from The Auld Alliance Singapore.

Singapore is completely a part of the bar’s identity. For the 50th anniversary of Singapore I made a magnum of Armagnac 1965 that was 50 years old. I think it’s crucial to link The Auld Alliance to Singapore, because we are in Singapore after all.

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