Liza Weisstuch discusses whisky,music and why talking is a good thing with Glenfiddich's Heather Greene.
At a recent whisky festival, Heather Greene held forth at the Glenfiddich table pouring samples of the legendary whisky’s various expressions, engaging in hurried exchanges with inquisitive tipplers. One man was asking about the use of various woods, which happens to be a point of profound interest for Heather, so she waxed rhapsodic about the nuances of flavour as it relates to wood and age.Of all the spirits on the market, whiskies, especially Scotch and bourbon, seem to remain the province of men. Take a look around you next time you’re at a whisky festival or take note of the kind of lifestyle magazine you’re reading when you come across a Scotch advertisement. But slowly, there seem to be steps, subtle and otherwise, that major, iconic brands, like Glenfiddich, are making to change that connotation.Heather is the American brand ambassador for Glenfiddich. To see her at work at a dinner or tasting, it’s easy to think she defies the traditional profile of a single malt ambassador. First, she’s not British. But perhaps more significantly, she doesn’t wear a kilt. This can, and has, discombobulated not a few people who consider themselves whisky aficionados. But for most of those she’s encountered along her extensive whisky odyssey, the impact has been significant.In a sense, she’s found that consumers – new drinkers and long-time tipplers alike – perceive her as more accessible. Interestingly enough, especially men. “It’s a historic and beautiful whisky, and for them to take a chance hiring me is amazing. A lot of other brands are trying to get visas for guys in kilts. I think it was a chance they took and it worked,” says Heather when I met with her one evening in a sleek cocktail bar in Boston.It was early fall and she was getting ready to helm a William Grant table at the city’s annual Scotch Malt Whisky Society event.The Society was critical in her development as an expert. (More on that later.) “I think guys are not as embarrassed to ask me basic questions as they would be to a guy ambassador. I think I’m less intimidating in a way,” she says. “I get questions about really basic Scotch facts that nobody wants to admit they don’t understand, questions they think they should know but are too embarrassed to ask. I think it actually breaks down barriers.” And in an increasingly competitive market, breaking down the myriad barriers is critical to achieve widespread, enduring success.“I’m really educating the core whisky drinker, now we’re building stronger relationships,” she adds.“And it gets to more women, a different demographic that’s growing.“It’s hitting people who haven’t been talked to in many years.” With their increasingly regular interactions with bartenders, ultimately any brand’s best spokesperson, as well as consumers who are showing an increasing demand for detailed spirits knowledge, it would seem that as the market gets more and more crowded, the stakes are getting higher for brand ambassadors. Heather, while defying the classic brand ambassador profile, has the kind of hands-on, intensive whisky experience that makes her a perfect fit for the role. In a sense, she represents the changing face of brand ambassadors.Before joining William Grant & Sons in 2000, Heather, a piano player and songwriter, was living in New York and working as a bartender at a wine bar affiliated with the highly regarded wine store, Morrel. She bartended on and off for 10 years, focusing on wines and learning from some marquee names in the industry.She thought that was her calling. In 2005 her first CD was released and she went on tour in Europe and the UK. But wanting to work for a bit, she and her husband settled in Edinburgh, where she was lured by the landscape’s siren song. She found her way to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, which has its headquarters in the Vaults, a 17th century commerce building in Leith. “There are huge stone fireplaces, a library, thick slabs of wet stone in front. For me it was magical,” she says. The staff there were excited to tap her knowledge of wine and cocktails, but she wanted to keep her focus regional.“I thought, no, you’re sitting on this wonderful whisky place.” And thus began her whisky passage. Each day she’d go in, light the fires and set out the newspapers, all the while taking volumes of notes. “At the time I didn’t realize that I was doing the closest thing you could get to schooling. I tasted every bottle I could get my hands on,” she says, and credits her casual conversation with the Society’s Douglas MacFarlane for most of what she learned.MacFarlane invited her to a tasting panel session. This is where the animated, evocative tasting notes that are one of the Society’s signature attractions are conceived.With her interest in the spirit, her knowledge of wine and her linguistic penchant as a songwriter, she was an attractive candidate for the panel.“A lot of the tasting phrases used were like what I was used to using around wine: leathery, vanilla, hay, floral. They’re all words transferable to Scotch and I was already trained on wine,” she says. She was invited back, took a lab test, scored high and was “in the club.” “Then it all came together. I always loved food and wine, but then it was validated.” In her work today, she still senses that people hold fast to “rules” around who and how to drink whisky, but in a sense, her livelihood is based on breaking those rules.From her perspective, her role is not only to build loyalty, but to open people’s eyes to new ways of drinking.To make an enduring impact on the diverse American market, adaptability must trump tradition. Ice, she points out, is an accepted American way of drinking that has helped her showcase Glenfiddich’s craftsmanship to markets in warmer climates. “I was on the fence for a long time with ice and Scotch,” she says.“It comes from a cold, wistful, rainy, romantic place. But it’s also really adaptable.To have Glenfiddich 12 on the rocks is light and refreshing.“It’s a beautiful cocktail on its own. The artistry that’s gone into it for 100 years is enough to make it a complete cocktail.”
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