Thursday, Dec 08, 2022
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opinion

The Whisky King o’Blighty

On how the Sawhneys became big purveyors of fine spirits

The Whisky King o’Blighty
Illustration by Sorit
The Whisky King o’Blighty
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

I went to school in St George’s, Mussoorie. Some years back, I was in London and a chap called Narinder Singh Sawhney rang me up. He turned out to be from my school, a product of the ’60s who had migrated to the UK soon after and settled in Hanwell, west London. They invited me to their home for dinner but on the way, we took a detour so that I could get a first-hand look at their business. We drove to a rambling industrial site where Sawhney, his young son Sukhinder and I entered a locked warehouse. What do I see—thousands and thousands of bottles of Scotch whisky, of every variety and quality, piled up on shelves up to the roof. Imagine showing such a treasure, and to a Sikh at that!

I had to hear their story. Sawhney told me of his struggles, how he had tried various ventures, and finally set up a liquor off-licence called The Nest. Apparently, it was the first independent off-licence. Today there are many, generally run by Asians.  The Sawhneys focused on rare spirits and special brands. The idea came to them from the Irish, who live in large numbers in Hanwell, and who are, of course, the world’s greatest lovers of spirits, and aficionados of high-quality whiskies, particularly single malts. Soon The Nest became well-known in London for its focus on rare brands, quality and good business practices. By the mid-’70s, Harrods and Selfridges began to seek them out when they wanted rare and limited edition vintage malt whiskies that were distributed on allocations. Word got around in London that if you wanted a bottle of 21-year-old Royal Salute or a 30-year-old Ballantine, the people to go to was the Singhs of The Nest. As I learnt, even the Palace, when looking for a rare malt suited to the palate of a visiting dignitary, looked for the Singhs of Hanwell.

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