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How to Succeed: Ken Grier, Creative Director of The Macallan

The world is full of successful CEOs, innovative entrepreneurs, and risk-taking business owners, but every person follows their own path to the top. In our monthly interview column, How to Succeed, we pick the brains of industry leaders to find out how they got to where they are today.

Ken Grier is a name that will be familiar to most whisky enthusiasts: As Creative Director for The Macallan, Grier has spent the past 20 years looking after the global whisky brands at the Edrington Group, 14 years of which were spent directly with Macallan. With a long and illustrious career in the industry, he’s come a long way from his days as a controller for Famous Grouse to successfully repositioning The Macallan as the ultimate luxury brand in the world of spirits. Recently, the legendary industry figure announced his plans to step down from the role to pursue his own consultancy business, thus closing a tremendous chapter in his career.

There’s no question that Grier has left behind a lasting legacy: One of the driving forces behind The Macallan’s premium brand positioning over the years, Grier also played an important role in the successful debut earlier this year of The Macallan’s brand new £140 million pounds distillery in Speyside, Scotland.

Following the grand opening event, Grier stopped by Hong Kong to launch the latest release in The Macallan’s popular Edition series, Edition No.4Over an intimate tasting, we nabbed the opportunity to chat to Grier about his experience spearheading marketing for one of the world’s top whisky brands, his tips for success in the spirits business, and why he draws inspiration from the likes of the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Steve Jobs to stay on top. Read on for the full interview below. 

How did you know you wanted to be in the spirits business and how did you first get into it?

I’m a great believer that life is full of kismet and that it’s ultimately about fate. Before entering the spirits business, I was a marketing director at LEGO. I was looking for something to use my creative streak as I’m more of a creative marketer than an analytical data jockey. To me it’s about relations, setting up distinctive brands, doing things that are very different that people notice.

It was actually by chance; I saw a job ad for The Famous Grouse and I was always interested in spirits. I drove up and said I want this job for a global controller for Famous Grouse; they said I was mad. But I got the job and turned out I really enjoyed it. I ran the Europe business for a short time and came back as a marketing director for the business which involved The Famous Grouse, Highland Park and The Macallan. I ran Macallan marketing from 1999-2004 and then they asked me to be Director of Malts for 11 years for Macallan and Highland Park. In 2015 we restructured again and I became Brand Director for Macallan and then Creative Director. 

What has your role at The Macallan entailed over the years?

I’ve run marketing at Macallan for 14 years and have seen volume increase by six times along with a tenfold increase in the value of the brand, which has been quite gratifying. Since then, success has been seeing Macallan perceived as a luxury brand. By acting like a luxury brand, it’s meant we had to do things differently in an engaging way. Because we spent so much making Macallan, particularly investing in sherry casks that cost up to 10 times the cost of bourbon casks, we had to be confident about pricing. We also had to be conscious about brand collaborations, standing with products with some great lineage to stand out from the crowd.

Macallan’s new distillery in Speyside, Scotland.
You were the driving force behind Macallan’s new distillery that recently opened in Speyside. What was the inspiration?

The brand got to the stage where we became super successful six years ago and couldn’t possibly meet all the pent-up demand. At the time, we did the granular top-line analysis by trends, population and data analysis by markets and came to the conclusion that we should aim to sell three to four times the current output in 30 years’ time. That meant we had to make a decision because we could never produce enough to meet demand.

We took this to our head of distillation at the time and said, what if we built something new? We looked at extending the facility that we had and thought it was better to make a strong behavioural statement — so I took a book, “Great Wineries of the World” off the bookshelf and pointed to a picture of Bodegas Ysios in Rioja, and wonderful wineries like Marqués de Riscal and Dominus Winery that make a real statement. No one’s done this in whisky. We had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to set ourselves apart by positioning the brand as the ultimate luxury spirit with a home that reflected a luxury connection to the brand.

The new distillery is the first architect-designed liquor distillery in the world. Tell us more about the creative process, the challenges faced and what visitors should expect.

All luxury brands should have a sense of past, present and future and we wanted to ensure that the spirit of the new distillery was the same as the current one. We held an architecture competition and eventually decided on Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. We loved the idea of something aesthetically beautiful, perfectly crafted and engineered. The brief was to build something man-made and interesting, secret and cool, like a Bond villain’s lair, and to take inspiration from authentic things. For example, the structure sits perfectly with the landscape where the corners are based on what is called a broch, which is a double-walled Scottish fortress.

The architects worked closely with the brand experience company called Atelier Bruckner from Stuggart to ensure a seamless flow and end-to-end visceral experience to the building. It took three and a half years to build, 17 million tonnes of concrete and 1174 miles or rebar steel. We used the same spring water, the same barley as the old distillery to maintain an elements connection. There’s a cut in the land, 8 metres by 3 metres as a constant reference to the house, similar to landing lights from an aircraft. Another echo to ancient Scottish architecture is when you come up to the cut, there’s beautifully polished concrete on the right that releases into the massive space similar to a cathedral. What’s also really unusual is that we built an insert in the middle of the distillery to hold 140 casks which is a big wow moment when you walk in.

The new distillery showcases the full range of Macallan expressions.
The brand recently released the new No.4 Edition. Can you introduce us to this new whisky?

We’ve got a successful series with the editions. Edition No.1 was about the casks with different cooperages and how they impact the liquid. The second one was the relationship with the Roca brothers who have the second best restaurant in the world, and brought some great flavour notes in a culinary way. The third one was about aroma so we worked with [perfumer] Roja Dove to get his take on aroma and how it comes together with whisky.

With Edition No.4 the idea is simple; the brief was like constructing a building but in this case a whisky. The foundation comes from a total of seven sherry casks. We also use cask heads that give strong characteristics of Macallan: dried fruits, a bit of root ginger, wood spices built into the cases. Casks from Diego Martin Rosado provide fleshier fruit flavours like figs and dates and those from Vasyma give notes of vanilla and butterscotch. The last two casks are refill: one American that provides the delicacy and light zest and the other European with more body and structure.

The result is that Edition No. 4 opens with a menthol high note, dried fruits, sultanas, soft and squishy figs, coming down into candy notes, ice-cream or crème brûlée at the end with a long finish, some acidity and lemon juice. It’s incredibly structured whisky, true to nose and mouth. For me the weight of the mouth is good; it’s weighty without being chewy. It’s very supple whisky.

The new Macallan Edition No.4. 
What about the packaging design?

It’s a pine green colour to mimic grass, with the abstract graphic on the side of the box representing the roof of the new distillery. This edition goes down for me as one of most quaffable and enjoyable whiskies; there’s a casual elegance to it. It makes for a great aperitif and perfect now for a summery, well-crafted drink when you mix with soda or lime. There’s only 5,000 cases in the world, with 600 cases in Hong Kong.

What are your tips for running a successful luxury brand?

My kind of view of brand is contrarian — every great brand starts with the truth. It’s about living as a luxury brand because this conditions the way that you run the brand, conditions the people that you speak to, the way you travel, the events that you run, the language that you use. It dictates the type of partnerships Macallan has done with the Roca brothers, Leica and Bentley. It dictates the space that you’re in and gives you an aesthetic.

I’m all about adding value for the consumer, making sure it fits with how the brand is seen and having your own tone of voice. As a leader you need to challenge and reinvent yourself because the future is always reinventing itself. Almost 80% of the current portfolio that we sell now by value wasn’t there before. We’ve broken three world records with projects such as what we’ve done with building a collectibles market with high-end items like Lalique decanters and Oakley flasks and projects with photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Stephen Klein.

From a business perspective, you’ve got to have a good vision that stretches, an eye on the past, present and future. Have an idea of the authenticity, heritage, rooting of the brand and a view on what makes you different — what makes you distinctive, engaging, interesting. How can you play in a way that you carve out your own space? How do you do it in a way that cuts through, from all aspects: liquid to lips, media to hand-selling, to mass media where appropriate.

What would you say are the overall keys to success?

Success is simple — be true to yourself and be very clear in your decisions. Choose great people and leave them to get on with it and always be humble. Build a team where you have a diversity in ethnicity, age and the way you view things. Look at problems as a whole and people that bring people skills. I’m an ideas guy but not a project manager. I have fantastic partners who are brilliant about taking the triage that I create and turning it into order from chaos. As a result, we’ve been braver, ballsier and able to go further and faster than anyone.

“[Edition No.4] goes down for me as one of most quaffable and enjoyable whiskies.” – Ken Grier, Creative Director of Macallan
Where do you draw your personal inspiration from?

I’ve been very lucky to work with a fantastic company where people are cherished and valued for doing things differently. That’s what drives me.

I also love doing things that people say is impossible. For instance, getting a budget for a £140 million pounds distillery that was completely revolutionary with superb aesthetics and the best craftsmanship. That was a big challenge. A lot of people said it couldn’t be done and it was insane. Yet we’ve done it. It drives me to do things that people say are mad, bad, insane, but great for the brand. It particularly motivates me to work with fantastic people. How can you not be inspired to work in an environment like that?

It’s like playing golf — you don’t look at what the other guy is doing on the course. We never compare the brand to other brand, we never share the platform with any other brand and never make a direct comparison. It’s all about Macallan — true thought leadership and doing things appropriate to the brand.

You’ve accomplished so much over your time at Macallan. What are some of the achievements that you're most proud of?

The day before we opened the new distillery to the public, I was in a t-shirt and jeans, covered in mud and cleaning away the shipping pallets that had been left from the event. You do these things because you believe in it. That’s the key. I’ve done the proudest thing I could possibly ever do, which is launch a new distillery; now that that’s done, I want to do something different. I retire in September this year and will start my own consultancy helping others with their vision.

Some other achievements that are noteworthy: we first changed the brand in 2004 which involved a big change with the bottle; people said “my gosh, it’s not in a conventional whisky bottle.” It’s stood the test of 14 years now as we’re now gently evolving it. Getting into the Bond film “Skyfall” was one of the most interesting things that I’ve ever done. To sit in a movie premier for a Bond film and hear the famous words, “I have your favourite scotch Mr. Bond, Macallan 1962,” was one of the coolest things ever.

When we first set the world record for the price of whisky sold at an auction, we had no idea it was going to be $460,000, I had my heart in my mouth. When it hit $300,000, I turned to the barman and said get me a big Macallan 18. That was a big moment.

There’s been so many great moments and it all involves people. I’ve had a blast; It’s better now that I hand it over when Macallan is selling more than 1 million cases for the first time, [earning] 10 times in profit since I took it on; an incredible new distillery; strong brand health and a vibrant business. It’s time for new people to make their mark and take it in a different direction. You never really own brands; you curate them for the next people.

Macallan’s new distillery opened to the public in June 2018.
Any final words of advice?

The single most important trait of success is to get the best people you can, give them freedom, empower them, trust them to a great job and they won’t disappoint you. They will work hard and do their best. You can only ever ask people to do their best. 

Be very tolerant, open-minded and look for attitude. The reverend Jesse Jackson said, attitude over aptitude equals altitude. I’ve always loved that. I don’t judge people, male or female; 23 or 83; Hong Kong or British. It’s always about whether you have a real genuine ability and drive to really love it and want to do great work. I know it’s very Steve Jobs; some of the stuff that you read about his management style may be very polarising but he had genius in demanding the best, getting people behind him, genius for vision and doing things really differently.

The world has changed and you only get one life; you can choose to be a passenger, to be passive or make choices. And that’s what I’ve done with leaving the business; it’s my choice. The greatest thing about it is that I’ve loved every minute of it and I love Macallan but I’m done and want to do something different. I don’t want to become the premier league football player who plays division one and ends up playing non-league football. I want to go out on an absolute high and do stuff for other people. I’ll do this for another 10 years until I get absolutely tired of it.

How to Succeed: Ken Grier, Creative Director of The Macallan

Christina Lau Tam

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