Struan Grant Ralph, global brand ambassador for Glenfiddich, the single malt whisky from William Grant and Sons Distillers Ltd, is a qualified chemist and bartender, with a background in media. He travels across the world sharing the brand’s heritage and hosting unique whisky tasting experiences. In Mumbai to launch the Glenfiddich, 26-year-old Ralph talks about how a century-old brand can stay relevant, especially to millennial consumers, why he’s not balking at the idea of adding stuff to good whisky, and the importance of innovation in product and retail. Edited excerpts:
How will you define your role as a global brand ambassador? What are the qualifications you need?
On a week-to-week basis, I represent our brand around the world, through all the storytelling of our homeland, celebrating whisky as a category. For the whisky category, typically speaking, we come from a production background. I am a chemist and a bartender. I spent 15 years on the bartending side, in a variety of places around the world, from Mongolia to Iceland. I was also in production, and as a qualified chemist and graduate of Glasgow University, it allowed me to examine whisky at the molecular level and explore the true origins of all its incredible flavours. But in terms of qualifications for our team, we have 20 brand ambassadors for Glenfiddich around the world, one is a tailor, another a fireman, essentially people who have a love for the single malt category, and a passion for meeting people.
How do you prepare for your job?
When you are working in production of whisky and also bartending, you rely so much on your olfactory and the calibration of your palate. You need to take a break, the palate can only anticipate so much flavour, and single malt whisky is a strong flavour. So it’s a good idea to avoid extremes of citrus, of garlic, chili, espresso, because your palate can only pick up so much. Smelling something familiar, like the back of your hand, or cleansing your palate with something like bread and butter, in between each tasting, helps. I was doing a lot of blind tasting. As a global ambassador you need to have a very good sense of how your whiskies taste and how they may work with local cuisine. In India, a Glenfiddich 15 and butter chicken, it’s a combination you can’t beat.
How does a 130-year-old brand stay relevant? How do you shake off the imagery of old men sipping scotch and smoking cigars at the bar?
Certainly, one element of our business is great whiskies and cigars. I suppose, in the modern era, we are looking to reach out to young consumers and people we haven’t reached out to before. We recently did the Experimental series, one of them was the first single malt to be finished in an IPA (India Pale Ale) beer cask, so it was really talking to that craft beer market. The other is Project XX which was created in conjecture with our malt master Brian Kinsman. The product is a vatting of different casks selected by our brand ambassadors from the warehouse at the Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown. The DNA is definitely Glenfiddich, but there are the influences from all 20 ambassadors from China, Australia and America, among others.
But most connoisseurs would balk at the idea of using a single malt in a cocktail.
Yes, we have a portfolio of whiskies, some of which that you would never ever see near a cocktail. But for our 12-year-old and 15-year-old Glenfiddich, you have to be open to the fact that cocktails are a new way of presenting a single malt. It’s not the clichéd scotch whisky drinker any more. People have a thirst for the new and the unusual, and we’re constantly trying to deliver that as well. It gives us a whole new opportunity to be relevant.
How imperative is innovation in the business?
We have been working with VR (virtual reality) in one element. So it gives us the ability to have people visit our distillery without coming to Scotland. Reaching people through avenues of social media and through new innovative digital media is something we embrace as a company. The challenge, however, is to keep it solely focused back on the product—the actual tangible single malt whisky in a glass. Because it’s really the integrity of the product that does the talking, but there might be new ways for us to reach the consumer. So whether it’s apps, whether it’s virtual reality or even innovation in retail. In China, for instance, you can scan a bottle of Glenfiddich while you’re at a bar, and it will be delivered to your doorstep. That’s next level innovation.