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One thing we should never stop applauding in this business is ambition. I’m not talking the naked, money-lusting form but ambition in its purest form as in the desire or aspiration to achieve something, to be better.
Over the past two days I have twice witnessed exactly the right sort of ambition in Singapore, firstly with the Masters of Wines and Spirits event, launched by DFS Group at T Galleria by DFS on Friday evening, and secondly with the level (literally) of Changi Airport’s two most high-profile duty free shops.
For an aficionado of fine wines & spirits like me, it was a privilege to attend Friday’s DFS event. As I write, I’m looking at a beautifully produced coffee table book that details each of the items that make up this exquisite one-off collection, and the story behind them.
And what stories they are. Here’s one for starters – a 24-bottle case of Château Cheval Blanc 1939, from the year that war broke out in Europe. Think what has happened down the ensuing years (starting with the invasion of France by Germany a year later) while this extraordinary wine has gathered grace, elegance and complexity in the still and constant temperature of its cellars in Bordeaux.
And what about this one? Chabot Armagnacs from 1878 and 1900, respectively, presented poignantly by the wonderful John Gentzbourger, whose son Marc so sadly passed this month. History in a bottle is an understatement.
Or the Château Lafite Rothschild SG50 Magnum Vertical. This collection features 1965, 1975, 1985, 1995 and 2005 vintages, five decades of wine-making wonder in magnum format. Just imagine the dinner party you could have. How would the finest Michelin-star cuisine even try to keep up?
Hidden gems? Yes, indeed, and in fact that is the name given to a trio of great Martell Cognacs – two individual eaux-de-vie dating from 1875 and 1898 together with the blend issued from both. They are presented in a vintage Baccarat crystal decanter that was presented to Queen Elizabeth II in 1957 and to Emperor Hirohito in 1971 during their official trips to France.
Then there’s Glen Grant Fiodh, bottled from a cask filled in 1972, the last year that the traditionally lighter, fruity Glen Grant used peated malt. In the intervening years, the cask remained undisturbed and forgotten until it was rediscovered earlier this year with less than 20 litres remaining. The bottles are nestled in a hand-crafted casket of wood, cut from the same tree at the front and the back of the casket and fashioned to evoke the shape of the tree. Each of the ten decanters feature a hand-engraved pattern representing the rings of a tree, each one unique to each of the 10 decanters.
Stories, sometimes legends, in a bottle. Each one of DFS’s partners went to extraordinary lengths to find a unique expression of their wine, Champagne or spirit-making art to grace a collection that is not ‘displayed’ but ‘curated’ as DFS Chairman & CEO Philippe Schaus so rightly puts it.
One of the highlights for me on Friday evening was a presentation by The Dalmore Master Distiller & Master Blender Richard Paterson, who spoke about the Scotch whisky house’s Five Decades Collection, created in honour of Singapore’s 50th year of independence. The collection consists of only nine individual bottles; two bottles each of a 10, 20, 30 and 40 year old expression, and only one bottle of an extremely rare 50yo. He mentioned the pricepoint, then asked – rhetorically as it turned out – “Is it worth it? Actually it’s priceless as far as I’m concerned.”
He then conjured up a suitably magical accompaniment for the splendid malts we were sampling (not the Five Decades Collection but two lovely 30yo and 21you drams, respectively) by calling on a trio comprising a harpist, cellist and flautist (flutist) to play two pieces from Bach.
Without forcing the point, Paterson drew an allusion between the lingering notes of the melodies and the long-lasting finish of the malts. Then he highlighted the wood from which the harp (limousin oak) and the cello were made, skilfully segueing to the various woods used in producing The Dalmore. Just so proceedings did not get too serious, he finished on a note of levity: “Love makes the world go round, people say. Total rubbish! Whisky makes the world go round – but twice as fast!”
Yesterday afternoon, just before I flew out of Changi Airport T2 to fly to Hong Kong and on to Dubai, I took the Skytrain down to T3. I wanted to see DFS’s magnificent duplex wines, spirits and tobacco store (above), of course. But equally I hadn’t had the chance to visit The Shilla Duty Free’s own interpretation of the two-storey formula, opened recently replete with SK-II, Dior, La Prairie and (soon) Chanel beauty boutiques.
Now I know all the cynics say this is a white elephant formula; that consumers won’t go upstairs; that it’s a licence to lose money. I’ll leave that to them. Here I just want to salute the ambition of Changi Airport Group in desiring such a grand stage for the beauty category; and for Shilla and the four brands in delivering it.
Next time you’re in Changi, stand back from the shop about 50 paces as I did. Look how the vista of what would be a pretty one-dimensional shop has changed. Look at the drama, elegance and refinement that the duplex treatment has created. Look how this great expression of great brands in a great airport showcases what is special about Changi.
Ambition. There’s that word again. Forget for a moment if you will the fancy price tags at Masters of Wines & Spirits; forget the economics of duplex stores and whether they’re sustainable commercially. Just admire, as I think we should, the way in which these projects are uplifting the stature and credibility of our business.