Close-Up with Stephen Wilson, Part II

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Diageo’s “Master of Malt” Talks Scotch and Working in the Whiskey Trade

By Kurt Maitland

~Click here to jump back to Part I of this interview~

Cardhu 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch

Cardhu: a genuine example of brand suicide
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

KM – In looking at the work you do for Diageo, you also have other scotches that they also own and you represent. You have Johnnie Walker which is iconic but then you have wildly different brands that you also represent – Caol Ila, Cardhu, Cragganmore, the rest – when you are out and representing those as well, how does that work for you and how do you keep it all straight?

SW – Well for me it’s about three things – good people, good conversation, and great whiskey. I’ve very lucky because it doesn’t matter if it is great blend like Johnnie Walker, or a fantastic single malt like a Cragganmore or a Caol Ila, I have a great whiskey in my hand and that great whiskey comes with a lot of flavor, depth and personality and great stories to share about it. So for me it doesn’t matter which whiskey it is, I have so much passion to be able share it with someone. So it could be that tonight we are going to explore Johnnie Walker together and tomorrow night we are going to explore these amazing single malts together – It’s always that privilege and pleasure of being to share that great whiskey with someone. That’s the most important thing for me at the end of the day.

KM – So what would you say is the hardest part of your job? And when I say that I don’t mean the worst part.

SW – One – probably that I don’t get to spend nearly enough time in Scotland since I’m so busy here and I absolutely love spending time over there and two – and I’m probably the only guy who spends two weeks in Scotland and doesn’t get a round of golf in. I spend so much time within the distilleries and I love to learn so any chance and opportunity I have to get extra time to do that I embrace. I’ve seen some of the most beautiful golf courses in the world and I haven’t had a chance to try my hand at them. If that’s the worst part of my job, I have it a lot better than most.

JW Double Black

Johnnie Walker Double Black at the House of Walker
(Credit: Kurt Maitland)

KM – I wanted to ask, with Johnnie Walker and all of the other brands that are under the label (Diageo) are so well known and so big it’s a different challenge for you than other brand ambassadors. They are trying to get where you are. So what are the challenges for you representing so many top brands?

SW – Well I think it goes back to what we were talking about the Johnnie Walker’s pioneering spirit and the innovation. So you look at how we share the brand with our very loyal consumers and adults who are experiencing whiskey for the first time, it’s all about keeping that in mind. How do we do it in a cool, very innovative way? And when you look at a program like “House of Walker” which you experienced, it is a prime example. We have an incredible team that put that program together and it took months to perfect that. That program really allows guests to enjoy Johnnie Walker mentorship in very unique way. For us, it really a matter of “you always want to be at the top of the game”, we always want to see what’s next, what’s the next way we can do something and it goes back to the team and about teamwork. We have so many amazing folks who work very, very hard to keep us in that Number 1 spot.

KM – How did you start with Diageo?

SW – When I was brought on, we had a program called Johnnie Walker Journeys in 2006 and it was the predecessor of the predecessor of the House of Walker program that you experienced. I was brought on to host those programs throughout the US and at that time we were running about 5 to 6 months of programing per year, touring through the US and all the big cities. My focus was that program and I did that for a while and I still do that. Walker will always be where my heart is because that is how I started and where I started. That’s why I will continue to host those events. From there I started diving in and working with other brands in the Diageo family and learning about those brands. I’m in Scotland at least once if not twice a year depending on my schedule and it’s really a matter of that knowledge continuing to grow. For me I’m a bit of a “knowledge hound” and I spend a lot of my time reading and learning and asking questions and sending emails and all of the things one would do when they are trying to master something. That’s how it really started for me. For each passing year there is more to learn and more to experience. I’m very lucky and fortunate to be able to do what I do.

KM – Are the whiskeys that go into the blends, whiskeys that Johnnie Walker owns or do they ever buy from outside to make a blend or is always in house?

Talisker Distillery

Talisker Distillery, part of Diageo’s holdings
(Credit: Paul Store/Wikimedia Commons)

SW – Well we are very lucky because when you look at Diageo we own just under 30 distilleries. We have 28 single malt and two grain distilleries. Because of that we are very fortunate in the fact that when we blend, it is all part of our family. One of the things that I love to do is to spend time with our blenders and our blending team and our sensory team and we, by monitoring and controlling those whiskeys from day one, it certainly doesn’t make blending easy by any means but it allows Jim and his team that confidence to say we are going to create a whiskey like Double Black or create a whiskey like Platinum, this is the flavor profile we want to achieve, what do we have – we have this, we have that’s been aged for this long. It allows them to really dive into unique whiskeys to create those great blends.

When you look at a whiskey like Talisker for example, when we are making Talisker, we don’t say we are going to put this bit aside for Black Label and this bit aside for Talisker 10. We make Talisker the way we make Talisker and that goes into the wood that chosen, the warehouse it’s stored in etc. When the time comes we can say, this is exactly what we are looking for for Talisker 10 and we might go to another cask and say this is perfect and we are working on Green Label or Double Black and maybe we need a little Talisker for that. That’s what fascinates the heck out of me. Just knowing that we have all those whiskeys at our disposal and we can go in there and really hand select. When we talk about Blue Label, those whiskeys are really hand selected. It allows us that freedom and by having all of those whiskeys under the Diageo umbrella that’s what makes that happen.

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