In conversation (Richard Gordon)

In conversation (Richard Gordon)

Charles MacLean talks to Richard Gordon, Managing Director of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, the world's premier whisky club – now in its 18th year

People | 16 Nov 2001 | Issue 19 | By Charles MacLean

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Richard Gordon joined the whisky industry as Marketing Manager at Glenmorangie plc, having obtained an MBA from Edinburgh University, and via fund management and advertising. He was appointed Managing Director of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in 1994.CM How do you account for the success of the Society?
RG Providing our members with what they want. The Society began as a group of friends who bought a cask of malt whisky, bottled it in a kitchen and divided it between themselves. This group of friends now numbers around 20,000, but the founding principal – the celebration and enjoyment of malt whisky – remains the same. We listen closely to what our members want. We have to or they will resign.CM “Celebration”?
RG By this I mean everything else we offer. Although our key role is to make high quality single malts, bottled from single casks at full strength, that are available to our members, there is much more to it than this. Education and information through our newsletters, whisky schools and tastings programme: we do over a hundred tastings a year, all over the UK, and any member who brings together a group of interested friends can request a tasting, wherever they live. Conviviality and the chance to meet kindred spirits in our Members Rooms in Edinburgh and London. Immersing people more deeply in the whisky experience.CM Do you have overseas members?
RG All over the world. Even in countries which we can’t send whisky to, surprisingly! We also have branches in the USA, Switzerland (with a splendid Members Room), France, Italy, Benelux, Germany, Austria and Japan. These are run by enthusiasts for enthusiasts, under a franchise arrangement. CM Who are your members?
RG People from all walks of life with an enthusiasm for Scotch whisky. The Society has always prided itself on its egalitarian character. They have catholic tastes and are keen to explore different styles of malt – malt whisky drinkers are essentially pluralist, even promiscuous, they will have several favourites but they are not dogmatically ‘brand loyal’. They like to experiment. The very nature of malt whisky, which offers such a diversity of flavours, encourages this – which is frustrating for brand owners!CM How do you relate to the brand owners, the whisky producers?
RG The Society plays an important role in the consumers voyage of discovery. This is wholly compatible with what the brand owners are doing, indeed it supports their efforts. Our constitution states that one of the purposes of the Society is “to promote the good name of Scotch whisky worldwide”. In the early days of the Society some companies were concerned that we would piggy-back on their marketing efforts, while offering whiskies which had not cleared their own quality controls, therefore giving a wrong impression. I understand this, although our own quality controls, through the nosing panel which selects the whiskies we bottle, sets very high standards. But out of courtesy we do not name the distilleries on our labels, although we provide clear clues to identity in the tasting notes. CM Can the industry learn anything from the Society?
RG We are very close to our market – our members – we have to be. We are an open forum and we listen closely. We know, for example, that they have a deep interest in the craft and quality aspects of whisky. They care about this. They want information, but they make up their own minds. They do not want to be patronised by marketing hyperbole. They don’t like being spoken down to. Malt whisky drinkers are among the most intelligent and enthusiastic of all markets. Never underestimate them. We have a staff of 24 to service our members needs – even United Distillers’ Malts Group, responsible for the global marketing of the largest portfolio of malts in the world, has only six members! CM The traditional closing question. What is your favourite drink?
RG Malt whisky and blond rum. Some of the Society’s bottlings have been to die for, but there is little point in my giving the numbers. They won’t mean anything, and anyway, there’s none left!
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