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An Experienced Whisky Palate

Hamish Torrie
Hamish Torrie is the global brand ambassador and director of sustainability at Glenmorangie. PHOTO | COURTESY  

Hamish Torrie, the Glenmorangie global brand ambassador, wears his decades-long expertise in alcohol lightly and with an obliging smile. Other than his frame and elegant black Barker shoes, his infinite influence is somewhat obscure.

Torrie loves to talk about Scotland, whisky and Ardbeg. Half the Scotsman’s life has been spent crafting, designing and marketing whisky, 37 years in total.

He recently toured Kenya ‘‘the regional lighthouse’’ to promote one of Scotlands most famous exports — Glenmorangie.

“Kenya is key in our mission to gain a foothold in Africa,” he says when I ask him about the niche single-malt whisky maker’s focus on the country.

Long before whisky came calling, Torrie worked at Grants of Dalvey, a “prestigious gentleman’s” boutique gift shop in Scotland. So, what are his gifting habits, and does he intend to give this Christmas? Thanks to his stint at the shop, the art of gifting now runs in his veins, and every year, he must surprise those that he cares about.

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“I gift people who have helped me through the year. The mailman must get some liquid same as the man who delivers my newspapers. And my family too,” he says.

When I ask him the most outrageous gift he has ever received or given, his lips burst into a “gosh’’ as he touches his balding head.

“That’s a good question,” he says, still gazing away, as if to admit that he can’t figure out a fitting response. After a near desperate search, he seems to conjure up a distant memory.

“We used to make round whisky flasks at Grants of Dalvey,” he says. “When I left, the owner gifted me a solid silver version of his whisky flask. I’m one of probably the only two people in the world who have that kind of flask.”

Any gift that he has always hoped for but has been elusive?

“I would love to go on a niche luxury cruise around the world,” Torrie says chuckling, not out of the absurdity of his desire, it seems, rather because he thinks he has waited for a lifetime already.

“I don’t want a big cruise vessel. Just a luxury schooner,” he explains still consumed in mirth. “I’ll keep waiting.”

This Christmas, Torrie plans to host his relatives, in keeping with the family tradition.

“My uncles, cousins and aunts will spend this Christmas under my roof. I’ll also help my wife to make the Christmas meal,” he says. Torrie holds a Master’s in History from University of St Andrews in Scotland.

How did he find a career in whisky?

“I grew up in Elgin, the home of Speyside whisky. My first student job was to roll and haul whisky barrels at a warehouse.”

Unlike today when most careers are well-defined “back then you grabbed whatever job came your way.”

But History and whisky have a cork-and-corkscrew intimate connection.

“Whisky has a long history. History teaches you, among other things, good communication skills — how to read and write properly,” he explains.

Is he a good writer then?

Considerably, he replies.

“I spend a lot of time writing descriptions for our various whiskies. Creativity is vital and the literature must resonate with the consumer,” he says, adding that the seal on the Signet whisky was his brainchild.

When I ask him about his drinking, he lights up. He pours himself an Original without an attempt to mask his relish.

“I drink every day,” he says after taking a slug off the glass. “After a meal, during rest and while hanging out with friends.”

Other than Glenmorangie, he indulges in McClelland — he worked for them for three years — Highland Park and Talisker whiskies.

With such a practised palate, are there drinks that still intrigue him?

“Oh yes!” he exclaims. “There are more than 3,000 scotch whiskies. I’m not a taste qualifier but I try to learn about new whiskies coming from India, Australia and elsewhere.

“Sometimes I want to become anonymous and taste all of them.”

The universe of the single-malt whisky has bulged, he adds.

“The whisky market was so tiny back then that we sold whisky in the UK and few other European markets only. Today, we are in more than 170 countries across the world,” he says. Touring the world to meet whisky enthusiasts is the most exciting part of his job. This “helps us to maintain the slippery balance of responding to market preference dynamics and to retain our distinctiveness.”

“When we produce whisky, we go out to talk to and listen to our consumers to understand them,” he says.

To succeed in a saturated market, especially for a niche whisky, engaging consumers has to be done in a personalised “conversational way” rather than a “big bang Nielsen research-led style.”

“The other thing, obviously, is to tell the guy behind the (bar) counter to remember your drink after you’ve left,” Torrie says, letting out a mechanical if contagious laugh. “After all he has many whisky brands to sell.”

His biggest headache? Continuity and legacy, he says.

“In whisky business, you must keep people’s enthusiasm under control, but still make sales,” he notes. “It’s all about balance: getting the price right, the promotion right and not selling it all at once.”

“While most businesses have five-year long strategic plans, for whisky you have to have a 15 or 20-year plan. You have to predict the market 10 years in advance when the whisky will be mature for sale.”

Keenly studying this crystal ball is what keeps Torrie awake at night.

Among his milestones in life, launching the national beer in Antigua in 1993 was extraordinary for him, having been in the country for six months only.

But it is working for Glenmorangie for 22 years that is head and shoulders his most humbling experience. He now feels he’s perched on the right twig—very likely his last twig.

Moments to forget? Like every professional, Torrie has had his low points.

“I have been part of the decision to sell too much old whisky too early,” he says reflectively. “When you’re in the whisky business, the longer you look back, the more mistakes you spot.”

He also feels he has sometimes left a company too soon ‘‘when I should have stayed longer to make more impact’’. Not that he regrets it.

“I was looking for an avenue where I could be more influential. The best thing is to look forward and not behind you,” he advises.

During his visit, Torrie helped to promote Glenmorangie, and specifically the Signet, in high-end Kenyan bars and restaurants.

A Signet 750ml bottle costs between Sh18,000 to and Sh25,000.

So, what makes this whisky special?

“We’re a category within a category. About 90 per cent of all whisky in the world is blended whisky,” he explains. “The single-malt whisky takes only eight or nine per cent. We’re in this small premium bracket.”

Torrie says it’s like cheese and chalk the difference between whisky palates in Kenya —a fairly new market —and those in larger markets in Europe and North America.

“The cultural approach to single-malt whisky is very different globally. North Americans use whisky almost like a chaser. Their mentality is to drink Scotch on the rocks. Here and in Japan, whisky is treated as a special drink and even revered.”

I enquire whether the giraffe symbol bears any significance to the flavour, aroma or character of Glenmorangie, to which he notes:

“It’s a metaphor for the size of the copper still in our distillery in Scotland, which is the height of a fully grown giraffe.”

“When you distil spirit or whisky, the height of the still determines the softness and elegance of the drink produced.”

“The taller the still, the more delicate, light and fruity-scented the whisky produced is, which makes it easier to drink. Low stills produce oily spirits,” he says.

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