Beamish International's Charles Beamish was recently featured in the Straits Times - Sunday Times Edition as he discusses the world of rare whiskies and his journey so far.
Words by Ravi Velloor.
You could say that it is not entirely surprising that Charles Beamish, whose forebears founded Beamish & Crawford beer, the brand of Irish stout now owned by Heineken, would one day find his calling in Scotland’s most famous export.
After all, he was born in Singapore’s Gleneagles Hospital, which stands on the spot where once stood a luxury hotel named Gleneagles which possibly took its name from a similarly named facility in Scotland.
Spending his initial years here and in Hong Kong – his father used to be a senior figure in Asian banking circles before moving to Aberdeenshire, Scotland to live on the shores of the River Dee and work in a senior position at Aberdeen Asset Management while he indulged his love for the outdoors – the young Beamish was not short of connections.
In his early 20s he spent a couple of years in Cuba, working with Havana Holdings that owns the right to franchise brands including the Floridita, the bar in Havana famously frequented by Ernest Hemingway.
Back in the United Kingdom, he worked at stockbrokers Whitman Howard and later Panmure Gordon before marrying late prime minister Alec Douglas-Home’s great niece and moving to Scotland’s West Lothian area, a two-hour drive to his father’s place.
There, in 2015, thanks to private connections, he was introduced to Mr Jonathan Driver, recently appointed as rare whisky director at the firm to promote brands such as Dalmore and Jura. Mr Driver probably thought he could use a person who was familiar with handling private clients and Mr Beamish was hired as a rare whisky private client manager.
Thus, he got his first taste, so to speak, of the preferences of the super rich when it came to rare spirits, their appetite for exclusivity, and at the top end, discreetness of the highest order. As for whisky education, he had a great teacher in Mr Richard Paterson, Dalmore’s longstanding master blender.
“He is arguably the greatest whisky maker of our generation,” says Mr Beamish, 40. “He taught me for six months. Learning from Richard how to make whisky was so useful in communicating with clients. I was let loose after six months and it helped me that so much of the demand for rare whiskies was coming from Asia.”
It was a time when the shift in interest to single malt whiskies had just begun in a serious way. Of the £4.5 billion (S$7.2 billion) worth of Scotch that Scotland exported every year, most of it was still blended Scotch such as Johnnie Walker, Teachers and Ballantine.
“I came on just as the world was discovering this amazing elixir – it was still an exploratory liquid – and there was an increasing demand from customers who wanted high-end bottles, and even barrels and casks,” he recalls.
A breakthrough client was a Chinese entrepreneur who had just completed a successful initial public offering. The tycoon wanted 200 bottles to gift to the people who had supported him as he built the firm, and he needed it to be completely unique with a specific decanter. It cost him more than a million pounds for the old Dalmore cask, numbered 8 as it turned out.
“Whisky is like watches – you can personalise it by engraving on the front of the bottle and box,” he says. “Once you do that, though, it becomes a very personal journey. But what happened was that all the people who received the bottles wanted to know how they, too, could order something similar. I ended up travelling a lot to China and Hong Kong.”
From there, setting up his own business seemed a natural progression, and Beamish International was born in April 2018. And Whyte & Mackay itself was happy to work with him, says Mr Beamish.
In a commentary published in The Scotsman newspaper last May, Mr. Beamish explained how his trade works.
Bottles at the ultra-rare level start at around £10,000, and casks range from £100,000 to more than £5 million, so discerning buyers understandably want to ensure they are acquiring products that are verifiably special, he wrote. The discerning tastes and demands of a collector must be met on a “project-by-project” basis, where solutions at every step of the way are customised.
Directly accessing Scotland’s leading distilleries to find rare and original casks and bottlings is possible through a “private clients” channel, which some distilleries offer in-house, while businesses like Beamish International offer a private office advisory service to allow access to rare liquids across the wider distillery landscape.
Until now, this latter approach has been seriously explored only in other lifestyle categories, such as in art and wine collecting.
Beamish itself gets paid by the whisky producers, not clients. It says the fact that clients pay producers directly, and not a middleman, adds a measure of reassurance and confidence for them.
“This way, you get a direct price and guaranteed provenance, authenticity and quality. Of course, they can try to go direct but we have the (whisky) allocations, advice and services – so customers need to be aware they have to behave.”
Aside from Whyte & Mackay, he says, William Grant & Sons – which owns the Glenfiddich and Balvenie brands – came on board in his initial year. Beamish had some £3.3 million in gross sales that year, working mostly from his dining table. It reported gross sales of £15 million in the year ended April 2022. Financials to be announced on May 1, 2023 are “looking extremely positive”, he says.
The firm has more than 70 clients, and seven in 10 are Asians – mostly in Hong Kong, Taipei, Bangkok and Singapore.
“The scary thing is, I haven’t even touched India, or South Korea and Japan,” he quips.
His other big worry is fakes.
That is why he deals only in branded single malts and the most respected independent bottlers, because he can guarantee provenance.
Beamish does not work with Japanese, or Irish whiskies for now, and he refuses to be drawn into commenting on whether some of the Japanese offerings are overpriced.
Personally, I told him, I find all the buzz about single malt Scotch a bit of a fetish, a trifle overdone. A Ballantines 21, in my mind, is as fine a blend as some single malts of matching age, which often are more expensive.
“I don’t agree,” he responds. “The single malt, historically, has been regarded as an old man’s fad, but I am experiencing new clients coming in – from the ages of 25 to 70, and even younger than 25. My own favourite is Glengoyne. The other is Glendronach. And Macallan always will be fantastic quality. Like a Patek Philippe watch, it also tends to be extremely limited.”