Here’s a question for you. What kind of life motto do you try and follow? You know, the set of values that are most important to you that you trot out when asked at a serious job interview? For Ken Grier, the legendary whisky figure who for the last 20 years has helped transform The Macallan single malt whisky brand into an iconic global luxury tour de force, it all comes down to “dedication, hard work, delivery and virtue”. Four values he has not only tried to live up to personally, but deliver for the whiskies he has looked after. Here’s how he thinks he has got on…
Ken Grier loves to tell stories. Probably because he’s very good at not only delivering them, but passing on those story telling skills to the whisky brands he has looked after over the last 20 plus years at the Edrington Group. As he looks to set up his own consultancy business, Richard Siddle, looks back over his career and tries to tell his story for him.
If you just picked up the biography of Ken Grier and looked at some of his career highlights then you might think you had stumbled across some mover and shaker from the world of film, TV, music, art and literature. A candidate for his own programme on the South Bank Show perhaps.
For this is someone who can tick off working with some of the word’s most famous photographers, artists, super models and has even been involved in a blockbuster James Bond movie and the corridors of the White House in Netflix’s House of Cards.
That’s before you even get onto what he is actually paid to do. Which for a large part of his career has been helping to transform the fortunes, appeal, profile, allure and profitability of The Macallan Scotch malt whisky during a 20 year career with the Edrington Group, including 14 years as director of Malt Whiskies.
A role that has taken, as we can see, him into all sorts of areas you would not expect an unassuming former FMCG marketing executive, who started his career worrying about the success of a McVitie’s Digestive or the fortunes of Lego, than one of most sought after luxury brands in the world.
He admits its been quite a rollercoaster and as he prepares for a life doing his own thing, outside the corporate world. As he does he can look back on a host of wonderful experiences and forward to creating some more in his new brand and marketing consultancy role.
There should be plenty of takers for a man who has been able to work, and develop the brands of some of the world’s most recognised and sought after malt whiskies. Two decades spent looking after the global affairs of Scotland’s biggest selling whisky, The Famous Grouse, before taking on the role of marketing director for Highland Distillers and its single malt portfolio including The Macallan and Highland Park.
In fact you could say Grier’s role, impact and creativity has matured and developed as much as the premium malts in his care. With some of his best coming as director of Malt Whiskies, and most recently creative director of The Macallan, where he really has lived up to that title.
“I have helped a 150,000 case brand become a 1m case one and increased its profitability ten-fold,” says Grier.
Distillery of dreams
The beauty of anyone working their life in whisky is that they have tens of vintages they can look back on. But Grier can go one step further. He’s leaving a spanking new, state-of-the-art £140m distillery and visitor centre dedicated to The Macallan behind as well. A facility that only opened in June, but has already been heralded by The Telegraph as the ‘the most ambitious project in Scotch whisky history’. Which is some accolade.
The new distillery is also a reflection of how far The Macallan brand has come and what potential future growth it still has.
Grier says much of the inspiration for the distillery actually came from the wine sector and, in particular, the ambitious architectural designs you can find for leading wineries in Napa, California and Rioja, like with Marques de Riscal.
All in all the distillery took six years from concept to the final build, which in itself took nearly three and a half years. Which is still relatively quick going in the history of an average whisky.
Not surprisingly there is an enormous level of detail and sophistication that has gone into the new distillery, which can also claim to be fully sustainable and environmentally friendly. The roof alone is made up of 380,000 different components.
“It has been very well thought through and we have not seen another distillery being built in this way. Ultimately it is a living, breathing distillery and we have been able to go from 21 stills to 36 stills.” All housed on the same estate as the previous Macallan distillery in Craigellachie, Moray.
It’s an achievement he is rightly proud of and one that has caught the imagination not only of the whisky world, but Scotland and the world at large with over 800 articles and pieces of PR on its opening, and 500,000 views of the “how it was built” video. The equivalent of £30m PR spend, says Grier.
Whilst a distillery and visitor centre is taking creativity to a large scale, it’s no different to what Grier was looking to do with all the whiskies and brands he has worked with. Create brands that will last. That have a legacy. A unique offer that some consumers will do almost anything to own.
“The challenge is to always keep the brands relevant and to use whatever creativity you can do so.”
Which in Grier’s case has been to link brands like The Macallan to the worlds of photography, film, television and art. “We are creating partnerships that hopefully people will want to talk about,” he says.
Which meant associating and aligning the brand with the right endorsements and sponsorships.
Here Grier really has come into his own in terms of the level of interaction it has had. A Macallan 50 year-old acts as a protagonist itself in the above scene from James Bond Skyfall. The Macallan also has a minor but significant role as the whisky the US President turns to in Netflix’s House of Cards. The malt whisky that is behind the Saloon bar in Sky Atlantic’s sci-fi Westworld series.
“We spend a lot of time seeding The Macallan brand into the right TV shows and films,” says Grier, who works closely with those in Hollywood that can make such deals happen. Although he is a little more circumspect about how those deals are actually done.
As the appeal and allure of the very top malt whiskies is very much about their look, their feel, and personality as it as how they taste it seemed a natural connection to associate The Macallan with the world of top photography, design and fashion.
“We have been able to have some great associations in photography, but we have always done so in a way to make the brand more relevant to our customers,” says Grier.
“It’s also how we have managed to develop a large younger demographic for The Macallan compared to other malt brands,” he says.
The key has been how you take brands that are highly revered, but in danger of appearing a little too aloof and making them appealing to younger drinkers who are looking for brands to aspire to that they can also relate to.
“There has been a big demographic change in terms of who know drinks The Macallan,” says Grier.
Having that younger audience has also made the brand much more appealing and relevant to the influential bartender community and high end cocktail bars. Which, in turn, has given Grier and his team the chance to work with some of the leading bars in the world and find out what bartenders and mixologists are looking for and how relevant malt whiskies and brands like The Macallan are to them.
“It all comes back to people wanting to go and not just have a good time, but to have a real experience and enjoy seeing a drink being prepared by a great mixologist in a top bar. People are prepared to pay for that,” says Grier.
“They are creating real theatre in these bars with so much care and attention given to the ingredients they use, the ice, the peels, it’s just fascinating to sit back and be entertained by what they can do,” says Grier.
Grier is fascinating to talk to as you pick up on themes, trends and changes in consumer behaviour that have clearly influenced his thinking about how different whiskies can stay or become relevant to different customer groups.
The fact, he says, that 5O% of the US population are now millennials is a factor that every brand creative and marketer needs to know and understand what it means for their own brand’s future.
All brands, particularly those that aspire to have Luxury credentials, must appeal to consumers who are largely living in big, busy, cities that are looking for brands they can connect with, that match their lifestyles and have a contemporary appeal.
“They are looking for that back story and are prepared to spend money on what they like,” he says.
It is also a case of understanding what the key factors are for collectors and enthusiasts alike that makes a particular product so much more attractive and interesting than another. What makes them collectible? The fact, he says, malt whiskies will sell for eight to 10 times more if they are matured in sherry casks rather than a bourbon one.
Which is also about a consistently high quality product to work with in the first place.
“There is no doubt The Macallan is better now than how it was being made 25 years ago. Our knowledge and experience of making it so much greater for a start. We remain committed to making the best possible malt whisky we can. We are always searching for perfection.”
It’s also why, he believes, there has been such a growth and fascination with single malts all over the world. “There are just so many stories to explore,” he says. “And the next generation is always looking for a more intense experience than the one before. Single malts have been able to draw people in because of that. It’s something they can tell their friends about. It reveals something about your personality in the same way which restaurants you go to, what cuisine you like, what boutique hotels you might go to do as well.”
“There is just something about a glass of Macallan. It’s the love glove of a pirate.”
Which all comes back to Grier’s most enduring line about The Macallan and the desire to “live a life less ordinary”.
Part of his role has been creating limited editions to live up to that ambition. Like the development of the Fine Oak, 1824 Collection, and 1824 Series, and the highly sought-after, limited edition, ultra premium collections of Fine and Rare and Lalique ‘six pillars’ decanters series.
“I think with The Macallan we were able to tap into that in a very interesting way,” says Grier.
Feel the luxury
It is one thing claiming you have a luxury brand, it is another being able to prove and demonstrate it. For Grier a brand to have true luxury status means there has to be a community of consumers and customers that will do what they can to get their hands on it. They must have that lure, that collectibility, that raw appeal.
Which for Grier is something they have now been able to achieve with The Macallan. “Up to 30% of sales at auction are The Macallan,” he stresses.
Breaking auction sales at the same time. Only in May was the whisky auction sale price broken when two bottles of 60-year-old Macallan whisky sold for more than $2m at a Bonham auction in Hong Kong. This included HK$8.63m ($1.2m) for a bottle with a label designed by Italian artist Valerio Adami, went for HK$8.63m, a new world record for whisky sold at auction.
One bottle, featuring a label designed by British pop artist Peter Blake, the man behind the album sleeve of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was sold for HK$7.96m ($1.01m).
Grier now hopes to be able to share and use his experiences with malts and The Macallan in particular in his future consultancy work. “I hope I can help other brands connect with their customers. It’s about helping people understand what makes their brand special. What is the ‘why’ that makes their customers want to buy it. It’s certainly not about cost cutting. It’s going to be a very interesting new journey for me to go on. But I am so thankful for everyone I have work with at Edrington for the opportunities I have had. It is now a great chance to work with other people.”
When he’s not doing that he hopes to have more time to spend watching his beloved Queen of the South football team, particularly in its centenary year. Who knows there could be something pretty special he could do at half time to liven up a hot pie on a Scottish winter’s afternoon.