Whisky diplomats charm South Africa

The world of whisky is so gracious and so evolved that it even has its own emissaries.  I recently had the privilege of meeting with and interviewing the Global Brand Ambassadors of two of Scotland’s leading single malts: Karen Fullerton from Glenmorangie and Ian Millar from Glenfiddich.

Big thanks to the local Glenmorangie and Glenfiddich teams, and to Manny and Phillip Myburgh, the inimitable owners of Café Della Salute on Sandton Square, for setting up and hosting the interviews.

Ian with the Myburgh brothers

Ian with the Myburgh brothers

Karen with local sidekick Niel Hendriksz

Note: The interviews were conducted separately, but the questions were the same so I’ve consolidated them below.

WOW: You’re the Global Brand Ambassador for Glenmorangie/Glenfiddich.  Tell us a little bit about yourself, your work and your time away from work.

KF: I was born on the west coast of Scotland, and then I moved to England as a young lass.  I started my career in wine, but I’d inherited a love of Scotch whisky from my father and my grandfather.  In 2002 I joined Glenmorangie in a sales capacity, and shortly thereafter I had the opportunity to work as the brand’s Ambassador in the United States for some five years.  I left the company at the time of the Moet Hennessy acquisition, to work on Dewar’s at Bacardi.  It was a fulfilling experience, and it gave me the opportunity to work with blended whisky, but I always dreamt of returning to Glenmorangie, which I was then lucky enough to do when I was offered this role.  In my leisure time I enjoy the outdoors – spending time in the mountains, running, and playing golf and hockey.

IM: I’ve spent 40 years of my life working in the whisky industry.  In fact I’m about to turn 60 and I’ll be celebrating the occasion with two very special bottles: 1952 vintages of Glenfarclas and Linkwood.  I worked in production until 2006, managing distilleries for first Diageo and then William Grant’s, before moving into my current role.  My responsibilities are varied: aside from my ambassadorial duties I work on whisky innovation, I manage a team of 18 ambassadors, and I act as a guardian of the Glenfiddich brand.

WOW: What do you most like and dislike about your job?

KF: My likes: travelling to interesting places, meeting amazing, likeminded people, the variety inherent in the role (every day is different), the access to special insights, and, I won’t lie, the perks: I get to stay in the best hotels, eat in the best restaurants and taste the best samples from the Glenmorangie and Ardbeg distilleries.

My dislike: the industry isn’t as progressive as I’d ideally want it to be, and this occasionally impacts on my ability to do my job.

IM: My likes: experiencing different cultures and meeting different people.

My dislikes: travel problems – I’ve just had a nightmare journey to get to South Africa.

WOW: I would imagine that you meet a tremendous number of whisky drinkers, and that you must have close insight into the latest developments in the market.  In your opinion what are the latest whisky consumer trends?

KF: We’re seeing the introduction of more and more multi-vintage, no age statement whiskies (for malt as well as blended whisky).  There’s a lot of mixing of whisky taking place in developing markets, particularly for blends; malt whisky to a large extent is still being drunk traditionally.  Most encouraging for those of us in this sector is the continued strong growth of malt whisky.

IM: Let me respond rather on both whisky development and consumer trends, which are somewhat interlinked. Malt whisky only makes up 9% of the Scotch whisky market but it’s driving innovation in my opinion.  There are large numbers of interesting new expressions being released onto the market and attracting people to malt whisky, an example at Glenfiddich being Snow Phoenix.  Whisky tourism is growing, people are experimenting increasingly, and we’re seeing a proliferation of no age statement whisky as whisky stocks (not ours, I should add) come under increasing pressure.  Glenfiddich will be introducing only a small percentage of no age statement whisky, but with transparency about the contents.

WOW: Glenfiddich cracked the million case mark last year – the first single malt to do so.  Whilst this signals the increasing prominence of malt whisky, the market remains very much dominated by blends.  What’s your view of the future of the whisky market?

KF: I think that the market will always remain dominated by blends, but continuing education about whisky, and the introduction of younger malt whiskies intended to bring down the price gap will continue to makes malt whisky increasingly prominent in the future.

IM: As long as the price difference remains blends will continue to dominate – although having said that the weighting will continue to shift.  I would predict that malts will make up 15% of the market in 10 years’ time.  Higher disposable incomes, increasing longevity, younger malt whisky drinkers and the opening of new markets are all contributing to a bright future for malt whisky.

WOW: You’ve been to South Africa before.  You’re pretty much obligated to tell me that you enjoy visiting so I’m not going to ask you that question.  Rather what is it about the country firstly and about the Whisky Live Festival secondly that you most enjoy?  What sets them apart in your experience from other countries and other Festivals?

KF: I really enjoy interacting with South Africans who I find to be energetic, warm and progressive. And of all the whisky festivals in the world I most enjoy SA and Stockholm.  SA’s Whisky Live is a lifestyle event; it’s social and there’s a great balance between seriousness and fun.  It’s broken down barriers to engaging with whisky.  I always find it refreshing to see the large proportions of women and younger people attending the festival.

IM: I find it a joy to visit this country.  It has a rich history and culture, and the people are happy.  It’s a great environment in which to work.  I particularly enjoy the SA social scene.  The festival is the biggest in the world and it gives us the opportunity to engage directly with the consumer which is an important area of focus for Glenfiddich.

WOW: South Africa regularly ranks within the top 10 markets for Scotch whisky exports.  Whisky Live South Africa has become the most well attended Whisky Live Festival in the world.  Why do you think whisky is so popular in this country?

KF: For many of the reasons that it has succeeded elsewhere: whisky tastes great, it offers complexity, there’s a depth, a story behind Scotch whisky, and it’s a well regulated product.  The local education programs are also generally excellent.

IM: African spirits consumers are looking for something with credibility, and in this regard whisky stands on its own.  It makes a statement, and people are proud to be seen to be ordering whisky.

WOW: Wood is generally acknowledged as the principal influence on the flavour of a whisky.  Peat smoke is probably the most obvious.  What are the other influences that might be perceptible to the casual drinker?

KF: That’s not an easy one to answer.  In fact our Signet logo is made up of 32 interconnected icons, signifying that no single element dominates.  Having said that I’d suggest location and water source for Glenmorangie.  Our hard mineral water, which filters through stone for 100 years before we use it, has a significant influence on the fermentation process, producing particularly fruity esters.  Our tall stills, the tallest in Scotland (they’re about the height of an adult giraffe), also contribute to a distinctly lighter and finer spirit.

IM: Fermentation time.  This is crucial in building spirit character.  It brings out the fruity, floral and nutty flavours which we enjoy in so many whiskies.

WOW: What makes Glenmorangie / Glenfiddich such a special whisky?

KF: The tall stills that I’ve just mentioned.  Our expertise in wood management, which is highly scientific: we use a carefully calibrated mix of early and late growth white oak from the Ozarks.  Glenmorangie was also one of the first whiskies to use ex-Bourbon wood for maturation, and it was one of the pioneers of extra maturation (what others call “finishing”).  Our first extra matured whisky, a 1963 Glenmorangie, was released on the market as far back as 1987.

IM: Its long term credibility and trustworthiness.  You can be guaranteed that any Glenfiddich whisky will be enjoyed.  There’s also comfort in the fact that the brand is long established and is still owned by the same Scottish family.

WOW: What do you drink when you’re not drinking Glenmorangie / Glenfiddich?

KF: Wine, G ‘n’ T, and hoppy beers.  I also enjoy certain island style whiskies – salty, spicy whiskies with a rich sherry influence.

IM: I drink from my top 10, which is as follows: Glenfiddich 15YO, Glenfiddich 30YO, Glen Elgin 12YO, Scapa 14YO, Glenfarclas 14YO, Mortlach 16YO, Springbank 15YO, Edradour 10YO, Balvenie 21YO, and Bowmore 12YO.

WOW: Are you a purist?  How do you respond if someone asks you to mix a dram of Signet / 15YO with Coke?

KF: Don’t do that!

IM: I would certainly discourage it.

WOW: Lastly, how do you prefer to drink your whisky when you’re just having a casual dram with friends?

KF: It depends on the mood and time of day.  When it’s warm I’ll drink Glenmorangie Original on the rocks with orange zest, although I’m not generally a fan of whisky cocktails.  In the late evenings I’ll tend to favour older whiskies drunk neat.  For the most part though I’ll drink whisky with a splash of water.

IM: It depends on the whisky.  I take my drams of Glenfiddich 12YO with two drops of water, and I find that water is not needed with the 15YO.

Thanks again to Karen and Ian for sharing time with me.

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4 responses to “Whisky diplomats charm South Africa

  1. Great interview, Patrick! Thanks so much for sharing this – really great read.
    Happy New Year!
    Allison

  2. Thank you Patrick for your ongoing support, and a great picture – great interviews. Wishing you a successful 2013.

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