Stewart Buchanan, Global Ambassador for BenRiach, GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh was in Australia as part of Whisky Live events and to host an evening with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Drinks World caught up with Stewart to chat all things whisky and about their new partnership with Brown-Forman.
Drinks World: Tell me a little about your current role as Global Ambassador for BenRiach, GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh and working across three distilleries?
Stewart Buchanan: BenRiach wise, I go back to 2004 when it was first started up. I’ve actually worked there for 30 years and prior to that I worked with Billy Walker at Bowmore since 1992. I actually started off as a still man, so I’ve almost done every single angle of the distillation. Still man, also doing maintenance at the distillery, fixing the boiler, fixing the pump, getting my hands dirty, blood, sweat and tears. So from production all the way through. It’s funny when people ask me do I miss production, actually production is probably the easiest thing, because you have to do the same thing day after day, so as long as you’re ordering your yeast and your barley, apart from that you’re sometimes looking for a break for something else to do. So actually the thing I most enjoyed was sampling the whiskies in the warehouses, not only BenRiach but then acquiring GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh. And that was just getting into every cask we have. So that’s where my passion was built, as opposed to the whisky in the glass.
What I love about my job is, I’m there to talk about whisky, I’m not doing sales. In fact, I wouldn’t even know the price of one of our bottles of whisky! As a company, we’re extremely transparent, I’ve always told everybody, every corner, every nut and bolt, every process, every cask style, how we mature whisky, make our whisky, there are no secrets with us. It’s literally an open book and maybe that’s my production background because I love talking about these things. We I go to a tasting, I talk production, production, production.
DW: What do you think the partnership with Brown-Forman will bring to the portfolio?
SB: The mantra for the takeover was ‘business as usual’ at least for me. Do you know what they’re going to bring? Just that little bit of sprinkling of magic dust. Apart from that, it’s business as usual. We were never a marketing company before, we had one marketing person in the office and she spent most of her time on label design and those kinds of things, we would never spend money on marketing. Prior to Brown-Forman, Billy would rather spend £100,000 on casks than a marketing campaign, because our marketing was the whisky in the bottle; it marketed itself. People taste the quality of it and that marketed itself. And we sold everything we made, I think we expected growth of around 15% each year, we were hitting 30-40% each year, and we did no marketing! Liquid to the lips! Brown-Forman will bring their brand building expertise.
DW: You mentioned that Australia is a strong market when it comes to Whisky consumption, and we do like to have a drink. What is it about the BenRiach portfolio that you think will attract Australian drinkers?
SB: I think we’re in a very unique position from how you would go about any business because we’re actually starting at the top and have to work our way down. We’re not having to work out way from the ground up. So how do you flip that around? We already have a consumer base where knowledgeable whisky drinkers know us, they respect us and the big publications like Whisky Live magazine, and Malt Advocate, the American publication. In both of these magazines we have been voted global distillery of the year. And that’s not the Scottish distillery of the year, that’s Global distillery of the year. So in our 12-year history, 2004-2016, we’ve won Global Distillery of the year three times, no other distillery can say that with honesty, that they’ve won Global distillery of the year three times in 12 years. That the thing that I think is the funniest thing about our whiskies, we’ve got the top tier sorted, it’s about how we trickle down.
What we haven’t done in the past is on-premise and global travel retail. And again, with not having the shop window of travel retail, that’s maybe not giving us the push with the general whisky buyers that’s going to walk through the airport. We never put any really pressure or focus onto the on-premise, so again that’s not giving us visibility on the back bar. Our on-premise visibility is with bars finding us, rather than us going to find them. So you will see us on back bars, but it’ll be your Baxter Inn, Whisky & Alement, The Jefferson in Auckland, so they came to find us rather than us pushing the on-premise. That’s another thing that I think I’m loving about Brown-Forman, that on-premise part of their sales structure or route to market is extremely strong. I’m looking forward to personally getting more exposure of our brands into the on-premise.
DW: What’s your overall impression of the consumer market here in Australia? In terms of knowledge, appreciation, and interest.
SB: It’s a vibrant market. The thirst for single malts and the knowledge of single malts is high. It’s a younger demographic. What I don’t see in any other country, like I mentioned, is when you see these whisky forums, clubs and appreciation societies, you see they are going through all different avenues to source whiskies, that’s next level. They’re searching all over the world, and if they can’t get it, they’ll find a way to get it!
DW: Is the aim to bring as many expressions as you can to Australia, or are you just starting with a limited core range?
SB: We’re still actually working on that, because there’s a bit of change in the peated stuff because of some of them are older than they were originally labelled, so we actually went through a bit of a re-structure of the portfolio globally, updating the ages of the whisky onto the label. There’s also a couple of new expressions of Glenglassaugh to add onto the portfolio. What I think about Australia, is that most companies have starved Australia of supply or of expressions. I’ve got a feeling with the market here, that Australia will take whatever we’ve got, because there’s a thirst for it. I think there’s something like 65 SKUs across the three distilleries, now that is confusing if you’re going into that in one big jump! So even if it is a slightly narrower range from the outset, it’s not that we don’t have anything else, we just want to get stabilised with a range and then build onto that in the market. We’re not coming out going all guns blazing, with a frightening big range. We’re walking before we’re running. And Brown-Forman are looking at the long game.
For more information on the BenRiach range, head to benriachdistillery.co.uk