Is 10am too early for a wee dram? Drinks Connexion chief entertainment officer (that is what his namecard says) Foo Ken Vin assures me it is not. He brings out a tray of glasses and we indulge in a taste test of Cù Bòcan, an experimental whisky label from the Scottish Highlands.
It is not to my taste but, within the portfolio of this Ara Damansara-based spirits importer and distributor, we quickly find something that is. The winning tipple is the GlenDronach Peated, which is now available only in limited numbers, although there are a number of others that suit my fancy as well. “I knew we would find something,” Foo says triumphantly, and eagerly goes to get more bottles for us to sample from Drinks Connexion’s enviable portfolio of brands.
It was after a little more than a decade with global spirits company MHD that Foo answered the call of entrepreneurship and established Drinks Connexion with two other partners — a move that allowed him to innovate in an industry he already knew very well.
“With MHD, I was playing with the big brands, which had a huge following,” he begins. “I was beginning to notice that consumers were becoming more knowledgeable and more sophisticated, and they were open to a wider range of products. I knew there was a demand for smaller brands with truly exemplary bottles, so Drinks Connexion was established to serve this niche. We wanted to fill in the gaps and let consumers try brands they wouldn’t have tried before.”
Foo and his partners bought over an existing import company that already had the prerequisite licences — “starting from scratch to apply for everything would have taken forever”, he says — as well as its small portfolio. Because Foo and his team were all old hands at the local F&B game, they hit the ground running and were quickly able to sign up a good number of brands to complement the ones they had inherited. He pulls out a few bottles from under his desk for a bit of show and tell.
“The company we acquired had only Skyy Vodka, Glen Grant, Agwa, which is a coca leaf liqueur, and Grand Marnier,” he says. “We knew the spirits categories we wanted to get into, so we went straight to the principals and outlined what we wanted to do. The brands we bring in are fairly popular outside of Malaysia, and are what I’d say non-mainstream — that was the gap we were trying to fill, so to speak.”
Aside from GlenDronach, other labels within Drink Connexion’s single malt category include BenRiach, Glen Grant, Taisteal, Glenglassaugh and Tomatin (which produces Cù Bòcan) — this is a fast-growing one for the company, Foo says. Other brands they bring in include Bulldog gin, champagne label Louis De Sacy, blended whisky Antiquary, Woodford Reserve bourbon and two cognac brands that Foo is especially excited about — Hardy and Polignac. “Single malt is a fast-growing category and a core focus, but the other categories are important too — I’d say brown spirits is key for us, and then white spirits round up the offering,” he adds, replacing our used glasses with fresh ones.
Hardy is an especially interesting brand — it was founded in 1863 by Englishman Anthony Hardy, who would often escape the bustle of London for the tranquillity of France. He finally succumbed to the region’s charms, relocating permanently and founding Maison Hardy. The fifth generation of the founding family remains involved in the business, which today does especially well in the US.
Because the cognac category is one that many Malaysians are more than familiar with, Foo opted to bring a very select coterie of bottles from Hardy. “Everyone knows VS, VSOP and XO — so, for Hardy, we bring in the Napoleon range, the XO Rare, which is made from fin champagne grapes, and the Noces d’Or, which consists purely of blends aged 30, 50, 60 years and more,” Foo shares. The Noces d’Or is really quite wonderful — a floral cognac with notes of budding lilac, its nose is well balanced and surprisingly pure. A lively alcohol onset gives freshness to its subtle taste of candied cherries.
Aside from working with distributors and wholesalers, Drinks Connexion has a direct-to-consumer business. This has not always been a strategy of choice for alcohol importers, but it is a good fit for the current market, which tends to be nimbler, with consumers increasingly adept at seeking out what they want. “People come to us for weddings, private events — the consumer business is a core part of what we do, actually. I anticipate this part of the business growing to about 30% of our overall sales,” Foo observes. “The rest will come from our wholesale distribution business.”
Even with the shared experience among the partners, a portfolio of brands that the local market is eager for and consumers who are hungry for new experiences, getting Drinks Connexion off the ground was not an automatic success — entrepreneurship brings with it all manner of challenges, and Foo and his team were not exempt. The company is doing well now, but the early days were difficult.
“We are a small part of a very large pie, and we share the space with brands that have large marketing budgets — so it hasn’t been easy to carve our niche. Yes, it’s true that people want to try new things, but many people are also set in their ways when it comes to their favourite drink. Education and creating unique experiences are challenging, and so is ensuring that our brands remain top of mind. Our portfolio is growing and we have our credentials to thank for that — the brand principals and our clients already had faith in us. At present, the portfolio is fairly complete, so the focus going forward is to get people familiar with what we have.”
Creating an awareness of the brands they carry is an ongoing process, as they are generally new to Malaysians. Sometimes, the category may be familiar but not so the individual brands. Foo refers to Herradura as an example of a great brand in the oft-misunderstood genre of tequila. “Tequila has a bad rep because so many of us associate it with shots, but it’s actually an amazing drink,” Foo assures me, uncapping a bottle of Herradura Silver. “This brand has really changed my mind about this category completely. Bourbon too — there is more than Jack Daniels in the market! Woodford Reserves is really quite incredible, and it’s something you have to try out for yourself to truly appreciate.”
He makes a good point. One thing is for sure — Foo is going to need a lot more glasses.
This article first appeared on Jan 20, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.