Serving the Queen, and now Singapore

They've served the British royal family since the reign of King George III, and now the UK's oldest wine and spirits merchant, Berry Bros & Rudd (BB&R), has set up shop in Singapore. That means wine lovers here now have access to over 4,000 bottles offered by the family-owned company - including those served at Buckingham Palace.

And, while that might sound like awfully expensive wine, BB&R's chairman, Simon Berry, says the reverse is true.

"Buckingham Palace is not just the Queen's house. It's where heads of state meet, and there's a lot of entertaining done there - whether it's for a reception of 300 people, or for lunch parties of four. So it's a bit like a hotel; you need to have a wide range of wines, (most of which) are probably not the most expensive, in fact."

He would know - as Clerk of the Royal Cellars since 2008, Mr Berry heads a committee tasked with choosing wine for the Queen. No amount of prodding will make him spill on the British matriarch's drinking preferences, though.

"The most important part of (my appointment) is looking after the Queen and the royal family as we would private customers . . . That includes being incredibly discreet about it - we won't talk to wicked journalists about what (any of our clients) have bought from us," says Mr Berry with a grin.

Much like other foreign firms, BB&R is looking to use the Republic as a launchpad to the rest of Asia. In particular, the company is hoping to grow its presence in the key markets of Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines.

But the company is also eyeing Singapore for its own domestic market. In addition to the scores of high net worth individuals here - of which there are certainly plenty - BB&R is also interested in cultivating the burgeoning wine scene in Singapore.

"The Singapore market itself is arguably the most sophisticated wine market in the whole of Asia," says Mr Berry, who thinks Japan might come a close second. "People are now much more interested in niche (bottles).

It's not a question of saying: 'Look at me, I'm drinking the same (wine) as all my friends.' It's now a question of saying: 'I know enough about this, and you, my friend, know that I know enough about this. And I'm going to come up with something you've never tried before'."

Introducing customers to rare and fine wine is exactly what BB&R has done in Britain for the past 316 years. And with its new office and tasting room at Amoy Street, the company is now itching to do the same here.

As part of a series of educational seminars, BB&R plans to fly in some of its eight Masters of Wine, who are best described as wine wizards who have aced gruelling blind-tasting tests. It also wants to reach out to the average Singaporean as well, through affordably priced bottles starting from S$25.

But for richer millionaire and billionaire folk, BB&R will not disappoint either. Its most expensive offering, a Magnum of 1971 La Tache, Domaine de la Romanee Conti, will set you back a cool £26,500 (S$55,670).

As a British company steeped in tradition, BB&R has traded from the same shop at No. 3, St James's Street since it was established in 1698.

Its colourful history is peppered with anecdotes that are both chilling and charming.

For instance, framed at the back of its London shop is an original letter, dated April 15, 1912, informing the company of the loss of 69 cases of wine and spirits that sank while on board the Titanic. BB&R also supplied smugglers with contraband alcohol during Prohibition-era America. But all that history doesn't mean BB&R is old-fashioned, insists Mr Berry.

"Everyone assumes we must be very ancient and covered in cobwebs and that we haven't moved at all since when we were founded," he says, before pointing out that BB&R had its first website up and running in 1994 - a year before Amazon did.

In addition to being the first wine merchant to launch a website, it also created the world's first online wine trading platform in 2013, known as Berrys' Broking Exchange (BBX). There, wine aficionados can bid on over 4.5 million bottles of wine stored by BB&R, but owned by its customers.

The company charges a 10 per cent commission on every sale - about half the rate charged by auction houses elsewhere.

BB&R has also launched iPad and iPhone apps which allow customers to browse through its list of wines and spirits, complete with maturity guides and tasting notes.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, Mr Berry credits BB&R's ability to re-invent itself to the fact that the business has been passed down through the generations. "There's one thing that new generations of every family do, and it's that they always rebel . . . The children come through, and say: 'Why are they doing it like this, we want to change it.' And that's very healthy for the business, as long as change is coming from people who understand the business through and through," says Mr Berry, who has been at BB&R for 30 years and represents the seventh generation of his family.

Under his guidance, the firm is innovating not just on the technology front, but also in terms of its geographical footprint. With deep roots planted in the UK, BB&R is stretching its reach to other parts of the world, and now has operations in the United States, Dubai, Japan and Hong Kong.

Today, Singapore's contribution to BB&R's overall revenue is negligible, while Asia makes up 15 per cent. The company is aiming for that to jump to 50 per cent, with Singapore and South-east Asia making up 30 per cent of that.

A daunting task, to be sure. But Mr Berry says the highlight of his job is guiding the business towards its next 300 years - and he's hoping Asia provides the next high.

This article was published on April 18 in The Business Times.

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