But Mr. Ambassador...

But Mr. Ambassador...

On paper being a whisky ambassador would seem to be the dream job but is it all it's cracked up to be? Dominic Roskrow asked some of them.

People | 11 Sep 2009 | Issue 82 | By Dominic Roskrow

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New York, early evening, and Spike McClune, brand ambassador for Diageo, is about to address a room full of whisky enthusiasts wanting to learn more about the Classic Malts.

Spike is an actor by profession.His main claim to fame so far is that he was in Sex In The City. Well not actually in it. He was the voice used on the show's answer machine, and the male sex noises for its more steamier scenes.

But he has found his vocation as a whisky ambassador for the world's biggest drinks company, and he is looking forward to tonight's presentation.

Then the door flies open and a man, who has clearly enjoyed a whisky or two already, staggers in, spots Spike's kilt, and slurries across to him, enveloping him in a bear hug before he declares how much he loves the Scots.

Spike finally points him towards a free chair in the back corner, and the man negotiates a path to it, sits down, and promptly falls asleep. Relieved, Spike continues with his presentation and it goes perfectly, until he gets to the last malt of the evening, Lagavulin. To show the smoky bacon properties of the malt Spike asks his audience to rub the whisky in to their hands.

"Can you smell smoky bacon?" he asks. "And yet the whisky contains only barley, yeast and water, so how did that happen?"

At which point the bloke at the back suddenly sits up. "Good God," he says, "somebody's thrown a dead pig into it!"

Welcome to the somewhat surreal world of the whisky ambassador, on paper the best job on the planet, but in practice not that straightforward. A chance to travel the world, stay in exotic locations and meet great people who share your love of whisky on the one hand, a litany of delayed and cancelled flights, lost luggage, snatched sleep, broken audio-visual equipment and interminable journeys on the other. And then there are the small number of weird and whacky folk that find their way to events.

"Let's put it this way, there are some people who turn up who seem to already have an excessive familiarity with the product," says Ronnie Cox, director for the Glenrothes and an ambassador for more than 30 years. "Often they want to make jokes while others want to listen so you have to deal with them.

"Then there are others who ask extreme questions such as how many times a minute does the arm in the semi lauter mash tun rotate."

Ask any ambassador and they will have faced the nightmare question scenario, the one that you just can't prepare for. One Scandinavian enthusiast wanted to know the exact make of detergent used to clean the equipment. And yet another faced a barrage of difficult questions from one individual, who it later transpired was using a mobile phone to source high tech questions off the internet.

Glenmorangie's Annabel Meikle says she was left stumped by a question while on the radio in South Africa.

"Nothing can quite prepare you for South Africa when it comes to whisky anyway," she says. "It's insane, completely full on, and I had been there a few days when I went on a morning radio show. So I was quite unprepared when someone asked me what the best whisky was to drink while touring Scottish battlefields. I came up with something about drinking a robust whisky such as Ardbeg but I could see the bemused faces of the other people in the studio."

George Grant of Glenfarclas recalls being confronted by a highly-agitated Belgian, who told him he had been trying to track him down without success for some time.

"He said he'd been coming to Glenfarclas every year for 10 years," he says. "It turned out that each year he'd been climbing over a fence, taking a sample of our water and taking it away for analysis.

"What was making him so agitated was the fact that over 10 years there had been a 0.01 per cent change in the PH level of our water. He was terribly concerned about this and seemed to think it was massively important. I didn't know what to say."

While no-one would deny that there are far worse ways to make a living, and most ambassadors appreciate how fortunate they are, most will also temper it with horrific accounts of delayed and missed flights and lost luggage. Indeed, long working hours may often reduce 'glamour' trips to little more than the inside of taxis, airports and bars with a few short hours' sleep in a stylish but little-enjoyed hotel. Those expecting a life of luxury face a rude awakening.

"In my first couple of years I just saw taxi, hotel, restaurant and airport," says Highland Park's ambassador Gerry Tosh. "You soon realise it's not quite the dream job you thought it was. On one of my first trips, to Paris, I got off a train with my boss to find that we were in the middle of a demonstration of French workers. Just as we emerged the police charged us and started firing tear gas. We had to take a six mile detour around the police cordon.

"On one of my next trips I was travelling from Gothenburg to Stockholm and the train hit a moose and we were delayed three hours while they cleared up the mess. It was then that it dawned on me that there would be nothing predictable about the job - and so it has proved."

Unpleasant encounters - with either side of the law - are all part of the package. Gerry Tosh was chased by a mob of youths just a block from his hotel in Miami. Ronnie Cox has twice had a gun pointed at him.

"In Columbia, a country and people I love, I came across a drugs baron who wanted to buy 40,000 cases of whisky," he recalls."From the second I met him I knew I needed an exit strategy and fast. He wanted the whisky first and then to pay. I got out of it by saying I had to talk to my boss in England and he was currently travelling so I couldn't telex him. I told him I'd get back to him then got out of there as fast as I could."

Flying the flag for Scotch whisky can also cause confusion and conflict with the law, and for the silliest of reasons.

George Grant was stopped in Taipei for carrying peat, which the authorities seemed to think was cannabis.

"You try and explain what peat is and why you're carrying a big lump of earth in your luggage," he says.

"Mind you I should have known better. I had previously been stopped for having a clear plastic bag full of white powder. It's not easy to translate the word 'grist'."

For all the problems, though, the odd hours and timezone-hopping provide enough wonderful and surreal experiences to make it all worthwhile.

Annabel Meikle recalls the magic of arriving in St Petersburg in the middle of the night.

"It doesn't get dark and I just recall arriving at 1am and it was still light and despite the time it was crowded with people watching the bridges going up to allow ships through with supplies. It was fabulous. And then a woman rode by on a white horse with a neon pink main and tail. Incredible." Meanwhile the job continues to throw up curveballs. The best ambassadors learn how to play them with a straight bat.

A few years ago Dave Broom wrote in his column about being asked by a German enthusiast how long exactly, in seconds, a long finish was. When he indicated that he couldn't really put a figure on it, the enthusiast was appalled that a whisky writer wouldn't know such basic information.

A few weeks later I'm standing talking to Whyte & Mackay's ambassador extraordinaire, Richard Paterson, when we're approached by a German, though whether it was the same one, I have no idea.

"Mr Paterson, how many seconds does a long finish take?" he asked.

Paterson didn't waiver for a second."The conventional view is that a long finish is about seven seconds though some think eight is a better definition," Paterson said. "Four to seven seconds is considered a medium finish and anything under four, a short finish."

The German thanked him at which point Paterson looked at me and winked.

What a weird and wonderful world whisky is.
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