Riddle gets up close and intimate with Dr Nicholas Morgan – Head of Whisky Outreach at Diageo, and surely one of the most foremost authorities on fermented grain mash…
Article by Ian Buxton
Dr Nicholas Morgan – ‘Dr Nick’ to most of us – is one of whisky’s more interesting and thoughtful characters. If I did not know that he came from a background of serious academic study, I think I would have guessed – or placed him, perhaps, as a member of an austere monastic order, given to contemplation and wry observation of the ways and follies of the world.
As something of an autodidact (an amateur of whisky, if you will) I am always faintly intimidated by the depth and range of his knowledge (I can imagine him smiling as he reads this), though he wears his scholarship lightly and could not for a moment be mistaken for an intellectual bully or academic snob. On the contrary, it is his nature and his mission to share what he knows.
Today he rejoices in the title of ‘Head of Whisky Outreach’ for Diageo. That’s not a common job title; indeed, I cannot think of any other company in the industry employing someone in such a position. But it reflects a frustration within Diageo – at heart a company that makes great blended whiskies – that while blended whisky accounts for more than 90 percent of Scotch sales it is drowned by the clamour and chatter surrounding single malt, and has only a tiny share of the ‘whisky conversation’. Part of Morgan’s role is to restore a better balance.
In that respect he has, I feel, been successful. Certainly Diageo has been an easier and more open company to engage with since he took up that position. So I was delighted to sit down with him and discuss a wide range of issues about whisky. But I began by asking about the man himself…
Ian Buxton: Dr Nick Morgan, BA, PhD, FR Hist Soc, FSA Scot – could you explain the abbreviations?
Nick Morgan: Bachelor of Arts, Doctor of Philosophy, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. [Top industry taster and writer] Charlie Maclean and I were having a competition to see who could get the most letters after their name. Charlie won, but most of his were made-up.
IB: So, an academic historian by training… How did you get into whisky and why?
NM: Having studied early modern history at Lancaster, and – eventually – written my doctoral thesis about the Religious Society of Friends [AKA the Quakers] in Lancashire in the later 17th and early 18th centuries, I ended up (via an Archive, Our Price Records and University College London) teaching Modern Scottish History in the University of Glasgow (‘Modern’ starts in 1707, by the way). Subsequently, I was approached by United Distillers to set up an Archive in the fallout from Ernest Saunders’ merger of Guinness and the DCL. I should add that at Glasgow, I was lucky enough to work very closely with Michael Moss (co –author of The Making of Scotch Whisky) who mentored me, along with my then father-in-law, in whisky appreciation.
IB: Firstly, you created the archives from scratch. That must have presented challenges?
NM: Understatement. I was given a bonded warehouse in Leith (the old Crabbie’s Bond). We had a couple of floors shelved and were then expected to fill it up. During the dismantling of the DCL, which was rather an ugly process, records and artefacts had been stolen, lost, hidden, taken home for ‘safe keeping’, destroyed or forgotten about. In addition, there was a real lack of trust, so initially me and my colleagues were just viewed by many as just Guinness asset strippers, and as a result people who did have material, or knew of its whereabouts, were suspicious of giving it up. So I would say the first two years or more were as much about building relationships, and trying to give people a vision of what the archive would be, and why it was important, as anything else. I’ve got to like the word ‘relentless’ over the past few years, and I would say we were pretty relentless in getting ourselves in front of people in distilleries, bottling halls, offices, warehouses, quite simply anywhere and everywhere. Not once, but twice, three, four times. Just as long as it took. And eventually because we established trust and understanding the floodgates opened.
IB: Your first role built on your training and background. How did the marketing role come about?
NM: Well, I was never an archivist, I was a historian. I was lucky to be able to appoint professionals who did all the hard work for me. And even after just a couple of years, I found myself spending more and more time in marketing meetings, helping, I suppose, to bring brands to life for various projects. So one of my colleagues became archivist, while I had a job title that had ‘Heritage Development’ in it, and it was not too long after that I was told I’d outgrown my role in Scotland, and could either quit or move down to London to take up a full time marketing role. By that time I had more than got the bug, so the decision was easy.
IB: That’s more than 15 years in marketing. What’s changed over that time?
NM: Everyone seems to be getting younger. In terms of Scotch, it couldn’t be more different. When Diageo was created there was a view that Scotch was about the past and not the future. Now, of course, it’s not just a critical part of Diageo’s current business – it’s also the main driver for growth in the future. I would say that, in terms of marketing, there’s also much more focus now in terms of what we do, more process – which is helpful – and more discipline. But thankfully, it’s still great fun.
When I reflect on how much has changed in Scotch, particularly over the past ten years or less, I think it’s quite astonishing. Most of the things which we now take for granted were almost unthinkable ten years ago: a booming bourbon category; some thirty new distilleries being built in Scotland; Port Ellen at £1,750 a bottle; a booming Scotch category in the USA; a whisky show or fair taking place somewhere in the world almost – if not every – weekend; whisky based investment trusts… The list could go on. But if you had predicted any of these things ten years ago people would have thought you were crazy.
IB: UD/Diageo were late into the world of single malts. How did you catch up?
NM: The Classic Malts were created by former colleagues Mike Collings and Roy MacMillan back in 1987, a quick response from UD (along with Johnnie Walker Oldest, which quickly became Blue Label) to the City’s demand for the newly-created business to show it really could do something different.
But malts in UD were always pretty much on a back burner, and when Diageo was formed serious questions were asked about whether we should even participate in the malts business, which, as I had just been made Global Marketing Director for Malts, was a bit disappointing, to say the least. But we had a brilliant and perfectly formed team working on the malts business, and for whatever reason we were indulged with enough time – and occasional forgiveness – to demonstrate that drinkers really wanted the single malts that we had, and that there was a lot of value to be had in letting them have what they wanted.
IB: What do you see as Diageo’s major achievement (in whisky) over that time?
NM: It would have to be the rebirth of Johnnie Walker, a process that actually started before Diageo was formed but which took off with a vengeance after 1997. Great creative thinking turned into brilliant and consistent activation, and some great innovation work too. Twenty million nine-litre cases speaks for itself.
IB: And what has been your personal contribution – what do you look back on with particular satisfaction?
NM: It would have to be the way we transformed the malts business. Getting behind Talisker and taking it from around 25,000 cases to over 100,000. Being part of the small group that dreamt up The Singleton of Glen Ord, which has been hugely successful in Asia.
The 120-ish Special Release bottlings we’ve released since 2001, all good, the majority excellent, and some just beyond belief (Convalmore – who would have thought it?). Demonstrating to the colleagues who said we would never be able to sell Port Ellen for £100 a bottle that they should think again.
Single cask bottlings for the Islay Festival (“Nick, we don’t do single cask bottlings”). All this and more, but all achieved because of that very early lesson I learned about the power of relationships. That’s how you get things done in a firm the size of Diageo, by having great relationships with colleagues in every part of the business.
IB: What remains for you to achieve personally? NM: I’m not a great setter of goals and targets, as I’m often reminded when it comes to annual review time. I consider working in the Scotch business, working for Diageo and having been allowed to get away with as much as I have to be an absolute privilege. Such great brands, such remarkable liquids, wonderful places and memorable people. It’s probably payback time now, as I seem to spend a lot of my time talking to younger colleagues in Diageo, and those outside the business with a genuine interest to write and comment about it, and explaining how Scotch really works. That’s good enough for me.
IB: Where does Diageo stand in 2015? The recent results were disappointing. How will things improve? Do they put the expansion of whisky distillation capacity in doubt? NM: The volatility in emerging markets has affected Scotch adversely. However, this is a cyclical issue and the structural growth opportunities remain. The £1bn investment we announced in June 2012 sets us up well for the long-term growth. There will be 1.3bn more emerging market consumers and 400m High Net Worth individuals over the next 10 years – Scotch is an aspirational product which they will continue to want to buy. Drinkers enjoy the association with a product which has such heritage, quality and provenance.
IB: In broad terms, how do you see the malt whisky market developing over the next decade? NM: The category is suffering a few growing pains as it moves towards maturity, with some pretty important changes taking place. The first is a long-term shift away from age-statements for what you might call ‘entry level’ malts by producers determined to maintain both quality and sustainable growth. And there’s a shift in pricing to reflect the value and relative scarcity of these liquids too. At the other end of the spectrum ‘super aged’ malts and rare and scarce liquids will continue to demand ever increasing prices. In the middle there will continue to be a bewildering range of offerings, some aged, some not, which offer great tastes and flavours, and great value. So in effect the way the category is segmented will begin to look a lot more like the blended category, which I think is what you would expect as maturity approaches.
IB: And what will be the dynamic between blends and single malts?
NM: In Diageo it’s very simple. We make great Single Grain Scotch Whisky and great Single Malt Scotch Whisky in order to make great Blended Scotch Whisky. Single Malt drinkers are the lucky beneficiaries of our obsession with producing the very best blended Scotches.
IB: ‘Non-Age-Statement’ is the new ‘age’. Talk me through that briefly. NM: There’s a long-term shift away from age-statements for what you might call ‘entry level’ malts by producers determined to maintain both quality and sustainable growth. So-called non-age-statement malts give you both flexibility, and when it comes to innovation, greater scope for creativity. In a sense this is a function of the category reaching some sort of maturity. It was easy (and very lazy) to use age statements as signifiers of quality or value back in the 1990s, when the category was just trying to establish its credentials with consumers who knew nothing about Malts, but in the long term it’s not sustainable. That’s why somewhere between 70 and 80 per cent of all the Scotch Whisky that’s sold has no age statement. And we all know that age is not a signifier of quality – it’s what’s in the bottle that counts, not what’s written on the label.
IB: Tell me about Diageo’s US whisky interests? NM: I was very sad when we took a step back from Bourbon in the late 1990s, but you have to remember that at the time the category was foundering. Happily we retained George Dickel, and subsequently acquired Bulleit, whose performance over the past five years has been quite exceptional. And now we’re building a new distillery in Kentucky. What’s not to like?
IB: Outside of work you are known for your personal enthusiasm for jazz and blues. Tell me a little about that?
NM: I’ve played the guitar since I was a teenager, brought up on a mixture of folk and blues – not I should add, by my parents, but by my friends, and their older brothers and sisters – and developed a passion that has never been extinguished. I made a decision around 10 years ago to take playing far more seriously than I had in the past, before my hands gave up on me. That meant not just practice, but also getting out there and performing for people. I’ve been lucky enough to find like-minded people and have been in a couple of great bands. Aside from my friends and family I sometimes wonder which is most important to me -music or Scotch whisky. I think they run each other close.
IB: Might you ever publish something substantial on whisky? A really good and up-to-date history is needed… NM: Don’t start me off on bad history. It’s possibly one of the most prevalent and annoying things about not just Scotch, but the spirits industry in general. There’s so much nonsense talked about Scotch – phrases like ‘might have been’, ‘believed to have been’, ‘quite possibly could have been’, all that sort of stuff – mixed with a heavy dose of wishful thinking from ‘Golden Age’ romantics. It would be good to have an opportunity to set the record straight, writing from what I believe is a uniquely well-informed position.
IB: Blogs..articles..books – how do you keep up? NM: Often not as well as I feel I should, but I suppose in my own way I’m something of a whisky obsessive, so it’s rarely too difficult or painful to follow what people are talking about, no matter what sort of rubbish they’re coming out with.
IB: What’s your favourite place in the world? NM: Without doubt, the Hebrides. The West Coast of Scotland is simply one of the most magical places in the world. If I was allowed a second it would be New Orleans.