He started working life as an academic – a historian – who taught history at Glasgow University and came into whisky marketing by an unusual route: working on all the Diageo archive material. Known also for his guitar-playing talents and a fondness for jazz and blues, he always presents, debates, and responds to questions in a very considered fashion. I caught him just after a recent visit to the U.S.
You seem to travel so much – do you even have an office any more? If yes, what can you see from the window?
No one has an office now, but I do have a desk. I can see traffic tailed back on the road from London to Oxford and the Midlands, trees, and in the evening, stunning sunsets.
Well, a desk is something! Where were you born and brought up?
The Royal Burgh of Leamington Spa. My father was a police officer so I spent an itinerant childhood in different industrial Warwickshire towns.
To be honest, no. Interest was ignited by the man who taught me at Banbury Comprehensive School, Barry Tabraham, a Methodist lay-preacher and cricket enthusiast.
How did he do that and did it affect how you taught yourself at university?
He brought history to life through passion, enthusiasm. It’s what I tried to do when I taught at Glasgow University. And it’s what I try to do now when I talk about scotch.
With much success it seems. Do you still get involved with the Diageo archives?
Only as a reader or researcher of their collections and a semi-detached admirer of its continued development.
So who does that work now?
Our archivist Christine McCafferty has a fully qualified team of professional archivists; together they do all the hard work.
It’s fascinating material. You’re now head of whisky outreach. What does that mean in terms of job tasks? What does Diageo want from that role?
Scotch is the world’s favorite whisky. It’s my job to remind people of that and explain how we got there and why we’re going to stay there.
And how do you undertake that – writing, meeting consumers, what methods?
I tend to talk to people who might be called “influencers.”
Opinion formers and commentators who will amplify the message, providing it’s interesting, convincing, or ideally both. Just like teaching history really.
Pretty busy then. A previous role was marketing director – malts. Differences between that and current role?
Then I had far more responsibility for a range of brand projects; innovations, range extensions, annual campaigns.
Rare Malts and Special Releases, sponsorships like the Classic Malts Cruise.
Did that involve more or less travel than now?
Far more travel – Asia, U.S., Europe.
You’ve been in the scotch industry over 25 years. Biggest change/development you’ve seen?
The category has been transformed over the past ten years. In the early 2000s no one would have imagined over 30 new distilleries being built, whisky fairs every weekend,…
Those dots imply you think there’s more than just those activities.
Well, yes. Port Ellen being sold at £2750 a bottle, conversations about “investment grade whiskies,” plus whisky enthusiasts on social media!
Friend – it has exploded informed interest in scotch, allows producer messages to reach more people, and enthusiasts to form global like-minded communities.
How does all that assist you, the whisky makers?
It all helps us understand the mood of our more engaged drinkers.
And foe. Any downside at all?
Foe, because it provides oxygen for ill-informed and sometimes malicious (and frankly damaging) opinions and speculation.
Agree on all counts. No age statement (NAS)– currently contentious. Wrongly, in my view, but how do we wean people off the perceived comfort blanket of age statements?
Over 70 percent of all scotch enjoyed worldwide is sold without age on it. NAS is an issue for a tiny proportion of malt enthusiasts who find it hard to see past a number on a label.
Can’t ignore the fact that we’ve been drinking NAS for over 100 years, a lot longer than we’ve had age statements. So why the fuss?
Some have tried to escalate concern into a ‘debate’ around transparency. The most transparent thing about scotch is its taste and flavor and the enjoyment that brings.
So these diehards are missing the point then? We need to trust our great blenders to do their jobs.
Sadly, some people seem to be unable to assess these new non-age declared malt whiskies on the basis I’ve just outlined here.
Well stated. Those original NAS blends are what made scotch great in the first place. On a different tack, in your experience, do women use whisky differently than men?
Depends on which drinking culture you are in (Asia very different from, say U.S.) and which generation of drinkers you are talking about.
But for people you spend time with?
In my social circle all scotch is generally consumed and savored equally by men and women, with water, or occasionally ice.
It’s a complex picture. And there’s the rise of the cocktail interest in some markets but I don’t know how big that is…
One thing that has made scotch so popular is its versatility; from the simple Scotch and Soda to flavored mixers (Johnnie & Ginger) and complex cocktails.
So is it bar driven?
Bar culture has driven a lot of the buzz round scotch; cocktails are a part. It’s global (e.g. our World Class competition) but it is far from mainstream in most cultures.
Photo courtesy of
Total change of subject. Some of us have seen you play guitar with other talented musicians from the whisky industry. How often do you get to play for an audience?
Not as much as I would like – but it’s hard when so many people travel.
Anything coming up we should know about?
I’ll be playing with Sam Simmons’s band at the Speyside Festival, and will be taking my band to Islay to play during the Feis. [That’s Islay’s annual whisky and music festival]
Well, I’ll be back on Islay that week to do my annual dinner. Hope to see the gig! Likelihood of a third career there in the future?
Possibly, but it won’t pay the bills. After scotch I intend to return to history – or possibly a combination of the two.
I like the sound of that as a life. What, if any are your unfulfilled ambitions a) in work and b) personally?
I have never managed to get to India on business, but it’s the world’s biggest whisky drinking country, in part as a result of the complex legacy of our shared histories.
So that’s work. Personal?
I’ve long wanted to attend a Test Match (that’s cricket by the way) in India – another cultural throwback to a shared past. Two ambitions could be achieved in one trip!
Surprised you’ve not been to India. I always ask which one whisky people would take to a desert island. With your background should that be two – one malt and one blend?
Isn’t everyone’s desert island whisky Johnnie Walker Black Label? Malts are a bit too singular for a desert island.
Intriguing answer and yet despite that singularity…
So, much as I love it I wouldn’t grab a bottle of Lagavulin as the ship was sinking. I’d probably reach out for a Clynelish instead. Do I get to choose eight records too? [This refers to a decades old BBC Radio program called Desert Island Discs where noteworthy people get to choose their ultimate album of 8 music tracks to keep them company on the island.]
Sadly, no. With your music interests might they be all jazz and blues?
Not all. I’d have some folk music (Bert Jansch, Martin Carthy) and probably some country and western. One favorite current guitarist is Nashville’s Buddy Miller.
Nick Morgan, thank you for your time and sharing your thoughts and your own history.