Bon Vivant sat down with Jamey Merkel to talk about the perfect whiskey pairing, the keys to success for startups, his latest entrepreneurial adventure and why it will matter to all of us.
You have undoubtedly a passion for whisky, but your background is in marketing. How did you get into the beverage industry?
I somewhat have a background in marketing, but not exactly. I grew up in hospitality, working in nine different countries, mainly with beverages. I have been in bars since the 90s, starting as a bartender, becoming a director of beverages and eventually travelled the world. Ten years ago I came to Asia, Malaysia and Singapore, and got headhunted by an alcohol company looking for an ambassador. Ever since I worked with Suntory.
When starting a new project, be it education, a new startup or creating a food-drink pairing, what is it that initially interests you in a project?
As a whiskey ambassador for Suntory I don’t always get a lot of choice, but about five years ago we started whiskey dinners. Until then people never really thought of how they go together. I got to work with some very good chefs, using the flavour qualities, textures and temperatures of food and relating them to the flavours available in whiskey.
Then Suntory and Valrhona did chocolate-whiskey pairing. Working with chocolate masters, we realised that there are many similarities in how chocolate and whiskey are made, as both can be aged and refined. It was a lot of fun comparing the chocolate of a single origin with the Japanese whiskey. Moving beyond whiskey as a drink and emphasising the connoisseur qualities of it – that’s what interests me.
Besides being a whisky connoisseur and educator, you are also an entrepreneur. How do these two sides feed of each other?
Inspiration – nothing is more inspiring than a couple of glasses of whiskey. Jokes aside, as I get to meet a lot of people, I also get to talk to them about my ideas. In that way I get immediate feedback and can improve my product while it’s being developed – that’s what they call lean startup.
“It’s about overcoming the fear of talking to other people about your job – that’s where the synergy of my various jobs is.”
The hard part isn’t getting an idea, but validating it. Family and friends are good, but you need to talk to total strangers, which can be intimidating for some people. You have to work with strangers to develop your product further. As an entrepreneur you have to face their brutal honesty, which takes a lot of courage. It’s about overcoming the fear of talking to other people about your job – that’s where the synergy of my various jobs is.
Being an entrepreneur yourself and what are your views on Singapore’s startup environment?
There are several advantages to being in Singapore – firstly, it’s really easy to start a company here. There are plenty of resources too. Another advantage is that Singapore stands up very well to international scrutiny. When you are looking for investment, you don’t necessarily have only Singaporean capital. There is a lot of foreign investment pouring into Singapore, especially in the tech sector. Because of the transparency, people are at ease. Singapore is also a very good test market, due to the vast internet penetration.
The disadvantages on the other hand – if you want to pitch a billion dollar company, you can’t use Singapore as a base market. It just doesn’t have the growth numbers. Singapore is a good place to test startups, but not to grow them.
Food tech startups are growing fast, be it delivery service or on-demand chef. Is Singapore especially fertile for the food-tech combination?
I don’t know if it’s specific for Singapore, but it’s undeniable that Singaporeans love their food and everybody has an opinion too. Singapore is also very tech orientated. Every time you get two things that everybody knows well, they will match well.
“With other startup founders I often joke that you need to develop bi-polar disorder, because you’ll get incredible highs and lows.”
Moving beyond the two-sided marketplace, like reviews and ratings, to more experimental startups, like Clubvivre, it’ss about providing people with something that they didn’t really have access to before. I don’t think we have seen the end of food-based startups in Singapore.
What are the keys to success when it comes to startups?
You need a validated idea. What you need is a good product-market fit. Is your product going to be appealing to enough people to be a viable business? Can you attract, retain and monitor your users in a way that makes your business model look enticing?
The most important thing is perseverance. With other startup founders I often joke that you need to develop bi-polar disorder, because you’ll get incredible highs and lows. As an entrepreneur you need a high level of personal resilience. As a startup you need the courage to keep.
Kluje, your contractor platform, has been very successful. Tell us more about your new adventure, Keygo, and why I need it too?
Take me for an example – as an ambassador I have a public image, but also a private life. The sad thing about the internet is that whenever you post something it’s either recorded or catalogued – in order to serve you better advertising.
Keygo is a messaging app that allows you to store photos, texts, videos and files in order to share them with a trusted group of friends – all working on end-to-end encryption. It’s a privacy app that allows you to share your more intimate moments. We build our product with a security-first mind set. Keygo is for private expression, instead of throwing everything up on Facebook.
Recently we also took part in the Security Startup Challenge 2015 in Luxemburg. We were one of the 40 selected startups, which was a good opportunity as an accelerator to meet the world’s experts on cyber security. A lot of companies built great apps, but only later think of security. We put security first.
Singapore has drastically changed in the last decade. What were the most important chances in the bar scene for you?
When I first joined Suntory about 6,5 years ago, I was for example going to bars giving training. When I asked questions like “do you use fresh lemon juice?”, I got looked on like I was from Mars. People neglected the fact that a cocktail is only as good as the worst ingredient. I am happy to say that it really changed considerably – now it’s possible to get good cocktails.
Where do you see the bar scene growing?
Many bars start to use small batch spirits and more fresh and handmade ingredients, which adds a lot of class. Unfortunately it limits cocktails to a certain audience. Not everybody is willing to spend $25-$30 on a drink. It’s a sad trend that the prices are going up, but it isn’t necessarily the bar’s fault. It would be nice though if there were bars that could start to watch the pricing a little bit more. Bespoke cocktails and an increase of available drinks have put Singapore on the map.
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However, Singapore will eventually hit the ceiling. 75% of F&B establishments are failing in the first year, so there is definitely a lot of competition. How do you create a sustainable business? I believe that the most successful places aren’t about their prices, ingredients or cocktails, but rather about the people that work there.
What would be your dream whisky pairing (be it food, chocolate, cheese, cigars, …)?
My favourite is definitely chocolate. I am not convinced by whiskey and cheese, although many other whiskey ambassadors swear by it. I also like whiskey and food. If you really detect the layers and layers of flavour, you can get great pairings. Food is better than any single ingredient, as there is complexity.
As you have travelled to many places around the world, where wouldn’t you mind being stranded for a while? (And what would you be drinking?)
The favourite place I have lived in was the Caribbean, especially the Bahamas. I do like the lifestyle there and it’s also very close to the rum distilleries. That’s my pick.