Jonathan Cornthwaite - Head of whisk(e)y, William Grant & Sons UK
I first met Jonny on a trip last year to Ailsa Bay and Girvan Distillery. Amongst the many things we discussed, he explained the importance of branding and brand partnerships. On delving deeper, it was explained to me that several brands under the William Grant umbrella had links with other companies. The most notable of these is The Balvenie which has a partnership with The Morgan Motor Company and Michel Roux Jnr, and Aisla Bay with Leica cameras.
The Morgan Motor Company
I had the good fortune to visit the works earlier this year. After a rather interesting cross country train ride from our base in Norfolk and via Birmingham, I was met at Malvern Link station by James Gilbert who picked me up in a Morgan Plus 4, which has a 2 litre engine and a 'fly-off' handbrake. I was looking forward to this trip as Morgans have been one of my favourite cars since I was a child. As we swung into the factory, we met coming in the opposite direction, a Morgan three wheeler. It was then that I started to smile and, to be completely frank, did not stop smiling until I left the works. It is one of those places where everywhere you looked, something creative is always happening.
Morgan was founded in 1909 and has a reputation for traditional craftsmanship and bespoke manufacturing which is when you begin to understand the tie up with The Balvenie. Later in this feature there is an interview with malt master at The Balvenie, David C Stewart MBE, who has been responsible for 'creating' his very own compendium of five bottles that reflect The Balvenie's character.
This is very similar to the creator of the Morgan, one Henry Frederick Stanley Morgan, who built his first motor vehicle back in 1909 and designed the car to climb the steep Malvern Hills and to be built on a tight budget. The first vehicle was a three wheeler which proved to be very successful, and the company is still flourishing and still very much family run and independent. Back in 1989, there was a programme on the BBC called The Troubleshooter, presented by Sir Harvey Jones, a seasoned industrialist whose role was to go into companies and advise where they were going wrong and how they could improve. Suffice to say the management at Morgan did not take kindly to his advice and ignored most of what he said. Now 28 years later, the company is still going strong.
What I found so fascinating was that when an order comes through, each customer is encouraged to engage in the bespoke ordering process. I saw a model coming off the line ordered by a Far East customer, which was completely pink inside and out apart for some very strange reason - the bonnet, which was in its original metal. The customer had specifically ordered it this way. Comparisons to whisky abound as we all know single casks are now all the rage with very limited releases.
When being shown round the works where visitors are welcome, there are no robots, no conveyor belts, just a superb line of craftsmen gradually putting the car together. Each model is hand built, with each part of the workshop adding specific parts. The doors are made from ash which is lightweight and durable and moulded into shape with the use of numerous clamps. The bodywork is from aluminium and I saw the car bonnets having their louvres hand stamped. Not something you would get at any other motor manufacturer. The attention to detail was awe inspiring and I'm not surprised that they do not build more than 1,000 cars a year. What was also particularly pleasing was that because the works are built on a hill, each car can be rolled by gravity out of one workshop down to the next one without any use of the engine.
On leaving the works and after signing my life away, James said I was able to drive the Morgan Plus 4 in a circular route back to the station. Extremely nervous, I soon got the hang of it, but cornering was extremely odd. Due to the length of the bonnet you have to point the car at the corner and then steer round it. What I loved most was the superb noise from the engine - it reminded me very much of when I used to ride a motorbike - a huge thrill. The journey to the station was over far too quickly and oh how I would love to own one - unfortunately only in my dreams or when the lottery comes through.
Not long after leaving college I aspired to be a photojournalist and my absolute hero was a photographer called Larry Burrows. He and three other photo journalists died when their helicopter was shot down in Laos in February 1971. Discovered in the wreckage was the remains of a very battered Leica camera with his serial number on it, still just recognisable. The Leica camera back in the 70s was iconic and I hankered after one.
Many years later, Leica is still an iconic brand and in February 2016 Ailsa Bay was launched and created using the most advanced precision distillation equipment, allowing for the control of every element of production to create a whisky with the perfect balance of smoke and sweet. A first for William Grant & Sons. Ailsa Bay identified that they would like to partner with a brand that shares similar credentials and Leica came out top choice. Meeting with the managing director of the company, Jason Heward, they soon realised they shared similar values and had a great opportunity to share their message to their different audiences.
Leica loaned the team at Ailsa Bay a camera for their brand ambassador to use to take pictures for their social media content, and they have used a number of Leica events to sample Ailsa Bay to their customers at exhibitions and camera launches. 2016 culminated with a whisky and Leica masterclass where guests had the chance to learn about the Leica M camera while tasting a deconstruction of Ailsa Bay.
The Leica masterclass, was hosted by Leica Akademie tutor, Robin Sinha, offering a hands-on experience shooting with the Leica M camera and the brand's legendary M lenses.
The workshop started with a comprehensive overview of the camera and all its features, and an insight into the history of Leica photography, followed by the opportunity to capture some reportage-style images of the experts creating the whisky cocktails.
There was also a chance to win some unique prizes, including a Leica masterclass, a special print and a bottle of Ailsa Bay whisky.
Additionally, on the night Alwynne Gwilt - William Grant & Sons' whisky specialist and now UK brand ambassdor for the The Balvenie, took attendees through a number of whiskies from the Ancient Reserves portfolio.
Michel Roux Jr and The Craftsmen's Dinner
Michel Roux Jr is an internationally known chef and runs Le Gavroche restaurant in London. He has had a long connection with whisky and this is what led him to The Balvenie. The idea was that The Balvenie already had a rich history of celebrating excellent craftsmanship and they are now about to launch the second series of 'The Craftsmen's Dinner' - a series of short films which tells the stories of four exceptionally skilled individuals which will continue the brand's exploration of outstanding artistry. The first series of films was released in 2016.
The latest YouTube film series will see the Michelin starred chef venture out once again to find the true meaning of craftsmanship across a range of talents and secret skills by a set of four individuals; including award-winning cheese makers, family-owned car producer The Morgan Motor Company, an artisan baker and bee keepers based in Bermondsey, London.
The series, which launches in April, will come to a close with Michel creating the ultimate mouthwatering 'Craftsmen's Dinner' for the talented group, using contributions from each artist.
Series one of the Craftsmen's Dinner is still available to watch at www.youtube.com/TheCraftsmensDinner and series two will go live towards the end of April 2017.
It is thus obvious from these three examples that getting the correct two brands together can be of benefit to both organisations. I noted with interest whilst looking round Morgan that they also work with other brands, especially with their accessories where they closely work with, amongst others, Taylor Morris Eyewear for their range of sunglasses.
Jonny Cornthwaite sums it up: "It is always important to remember that a real partnership requires a lot more than simple branding - time, effort and investment from both sides are all imperative.