From the editors

Whisky education: The rusted lock

  • To say that the news of the axing of the Masters of Whisky programme came as a shock would be an understatement. I’ve had the privilege to work with most of the ambassadors, either here in the UK or in the US, and know how dedicated and talented they are in teaching people – be they consumers or trade – about the ways of whisky.

    I know they will all get jobs, but that isn’t the point. The issue here is the rejection on Diageo’s part of a proven educational model. No matter how it is dressed up, there has been a strategic shift away from education, to delivering sales-oriented ‘experiences’ – a very different thing.

    The initiative unlocked the multifarious secrets of whisky. That lock is now rusted, opportunities sealed up, jobs lost, and disillusionment rife. The diminishing of the importance of education removes everything special about Scotch (and, by extension, all whiskies and premium spirits).

    It rejects the importance of people, place, provenance and pride, and replaces them all with one word – profit. It is a decision that says: ‘Actually, we don’t care how it is made, where it is made, or who makes it, as long as it sells.’

    It says: ‘We are in the business solely of shifting boxes, and what these boxes contain doesn’t matter hugely, as long as they deliver profit quickly.’ It is a short-term approach which sits uneasily within Scotch.

    There is a profound irony that the people who are paying the salaries and pensions of the people who make decisions such as this are the very folk who care deeply about the product, who work in distilleries and blending labs, and are out there talking and teaching, keeping the narrative evolving and fresh.

    Diageo Masters of Whisky

    The rusted lock: Diageo’s Masters of Whisky programme opened up opportunities for education within the whisky world

    Ambassadors such as the Masters talk to the people in bars and stores, who then, enthused by the story, pass on the knowledge to those of you who walk up to the counter and ask for a recommendation.

    In other words, there is a chain of people involved, all of whom drive interest in – and passion for – the product. And you know what? Ultimately, the boxes sell because the Masters have built a network of fresh ambassadors. They just might not sell as quickly as a careerist executive wants them to.

    In this world of reductive thinking, everything’s (and everyone’s) worth can only be measured numerically, a spreadsheet realm which blankets the messy, fascinating reality of life. This sales-oriented approach might work in the world of washing powder or biscuits, but it cannot be one which should prevail in whisky – or any drink.

    It is also counter-intuitive. Scotch is facing challenges from other whisky styles, and other spirits. These, when viewed in the right way, offer Scotch huge new opportunities. It does, however, have to work harder to show consumers, bartenders and retailers why it matters, what makes it different and compelling. In other words, it needs to educate.

    Diageo’s competitors must be delighted that such highly trained ambassadors are now available. Having gleaned the wider trade’s reaction to the decision, there is dismay because of the impact it will have on the category. The Masters of Whisky (like any ambassadors) weren’t just talking about Diageo brands; they were helping to build a category and were best-placed because of training – and because of their number and geographical reach – to deliver.

    As the biggest player in the whisky category, there is also a moral responsibility on Diageo to take the lead on this. By turning its back on the programme, the firm is rejecting a category-building strategy at the precise time it is so badly needed – and Scotch is all the poorer for it.

    The spin is that they are continuing to educate – just in a different way, with luxury experiences replacing the previous approach. The experiences might be fun – look at the balloons, listen to the cane rapping on the ground, eat the jelly, marvel at the dancers, sip the whisky – but it is no more than a tawdry facade.

    There is no depth, no room for discussion, no – in a word – education. Instead, there is a show whose aims disappear into air like scented dry ice.

    By reducing a whisky to ciphers, you miss the point, eliminate (or ignore) the questions, and stem the dialogue. The message becomes didactic and simplified. A successful mentoring/ambassadorial initiative does exactly the opposite. It enriches and deepens, and builds resonance over time.

    I was angry when I heard the news. Now, I’m saddened because a firm which I know is staffed by people who do care deeply and profoundly about its whiskies has had this new approach foisted upon it.

    I’m bewildered as to why a programme which the drinks industry in the US regards as the best in class has been scrapped, and its highly-trained members cast aside; while the callous nature of the manner in which Gregor Cattanach was told of his sacking two days after the death of his father – the man who effectively set up the scheme – will always be remembered as an unforgivably shameful act.

    Whisky is long-term; it is complex, frustrating, captivating and contradictory. It takes time to understand it, it takes time and patience to explain and engage people into its weird vagaries. It takes shoe leather, knowledge and empathy.

    This is what the Masters of Whisky had. All of that has been cast aside for short-term gain, and you know what? I don’t understand it. 

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