In the ranks of the Global Sporting Icon, there are few doubts as to David Beckham's impeccable credentials. His illustrious career in top-flight football, where he made over 500 appearances for the likes of Manchester United, Real Madrid and AC Milan - as well as scoring 17 goals in a 14 year career wearing an England shirt - makes him one of the most successful British players in the history of the game. Off the football field, his commercial activities and media profile have helped launch Brand Beckham into the stratosphere and his upward trajectory shows no sign of abtaing or stopping any time soon.
So it was with great interest when earlier this year, his latest partnership was unveiled. Working with Diageo, Beckham, together with his manager, the media impresario Simon Fuller, developed Haig Club, a brand new single grain whisky which is aimed at bringing the spirit to the attention of a new audience of potential whisky drinkers. With the spirit gaining an early thumbs up from within the whisky community, Haig Club was launched globally back in October, marked by a dinner event in Edinburgh prepared by Michelin-starred Scottish chef Tom Kitchin and attended by the likes of Gordon Ramsay, fashion designer Jimmy Choo and Beckham's wife, Victoria. So with the celebs out in force to support Haig Club, I managed to grab some time with the man himself to get his thoughts on the spirit.
So tell me. Why whisky? What was the motivation behind wanting to actively become involved with the spirit?
"Well obviously I'm not going to sit here and say I know everything about whisky, but it's one of those things that I really wanted to know more about," he explains as we sit down surrounded by bottles at the newly refurbished Diageo archives in Menstrie. "I had a 22-year career in football and in that time I had offers to be involved with alcohol brands, but as an athlete, it didn't feel right. Now I've retired, it was something I wanted to get into. When I sat down with Diageo, we talked about how I always wanted to be a whisky drinker. Over the years I've dabbled in it, but not too much, as A: I've always been a little bit scared by it and B: I kind of didn't know enough about it, so it really interested me."
And why Haig in particular?
"The Haig Club opportunity came up, and as a new single grain whisky, it really sounded appealing. I love heritage and history and the Haig family has over 400 years of association in whisky, so to be part of that is very exciting."
Grain whisky is an unusual choice of whisky to get behind, as it is still quite an unknown category - most new or potential whisky drinkers struggle with the difference between malts and blends, so this is a bold move. Did you consider it because grain is perhaps a more accessible flavour profile?
"I think that's one of the things that really interested me in a single grain," he explains. "As someone who hasn't been a traditional whisky drinker, the lighter, easy drinking style really appeals to me. Also, like you said, it hasn't really been touched upon that much, so that interests me."
With the age range of whisky drinkers changing and its popularity growing internationally, it feels like the right time for Haig Club. You must be excited to see the brand being rolled out around the globe.
"Definitely. I've travelled around a lot over the past two years working on Haig Club - especially in Asia - and the interest in whisky is really exciting. It's a good partnership; Diageo and the team behind Haig know the whisky side inside out and on my side, I've never just given my name to something and said 'go and do whatever you want' - it's a new world to me, but it feels very personal."
I'm intrigued to get your thoughts on how the flavour profile came about for Haig Club. Did you work closely with Master Distiller Chris Clark to get the results you wanted?
"Absolutely - it had to firstly be something that I really liked and when I initially sat down with Chris and the team in Scotland about 18 months ago, we talked about the flavours and tasting notes that I liked, so it was really inspiring to see how that flavour profile was built up using the different cask types. It's like the first time I tasted a really great wine, I wanted to know more about where those flavours came from."
With the spirit being distilled at Diageo's Cameronbridge site, (the spiritual home of Haig whisky since 1824 - and the first distillery in Scotland to distil a grain whisky using a column still back in 1826) the lighter, buttery signature notes in Haig Club come from a trio of different cask types, which are all used for their significant differences in flavour.
A proportion of first fill bourbon casks give the grain whisky a richer, more viscous mouth feel. They are back-dropped by refill casks, which introduce a zesty note, alongside rejuvenated casks, (something which Diageo has focused heavily on, in the light of the continuing demands on oak across the business), which adds additional spice and defined tannic notes. Although there is no clear indication on the age of Haig Club, its youthful notes are well balanced and getting the cask make up right must have been a real challenge for Chris Clark and his team.
It's clear that with any celebrity partnership, there are of course a number of potential sceptics out there, who have their doubts about the quality of the liquid. So coupled with the perceived 'rules' about how whisky should be drunk - and - for many new drinkers, a potentially challenging flavour profile, is Beckham ready to 'challenge the challenges' - and especially the sceptics?
"I think that's what Diageo really hoped that I could bring to the partnership. I'm still relatively young", he smiles, "and it's hoped that I can bring a different kind of crowd into the whisky world. But before my name was mentioned anywhere, I wanted the liquid to be sent to the experts and critics and see what they thought about it, as my association could easily cloud their judgment. When we got great feedback, it really made me feel like we'd created a hidden gem."
So how would you recommend someone coming to the whisky for the first time should drink it? Any specific serves that you've been working on?
"What I've begun to discover since I retired is that drinking whisky is all about personal preference. Someone could tell you how to drink it or what time is best to drink it, but it's all down to personal taste. Personally, I like to drink it neat, as I feel it gives you the best flavours. But we've designed five different cocktails that you can try making at home, so it isn't just about having it neat or on the rocks. There's the Clubman, [see boxout opposite] which is one of my personal favourites or the New Old Fashioned, which shows off the versatility of the whisky."
So have you been making them at home and experimenting?
"I have been," he smiles "and Victoria has been doing the same. She's not a big whisky drinker, but when she tasted Haig Club, she said - 'it's really good!' So for someone who doesn't usually drink whisky to have that reaction is great."
Any of your old teammates tried it yet?
"Not yet, I've held it back from them," he laughs. "But now that we've done the launch, I'm waiting for the calls from them to try and blag a bottle."
As our time together draws to a close, I'm surprised at just how humble, yet enthusiastic David Beckham is when it comes to whisky, and not just his own brand. Over dinner the night before, we discussed some of the legendary names held in high regard by whisky connoisseurs around the world: Port Ellen, Brora and Karuizawa - all whiskies with huge personalities. When such titans were mentioned, I noticed an unexpected twinkle in his eye, a look shared by most seasoned malt heads in fact. So what does the future hold for Mr Beckham regarding whisky and is he going to start to explore others.
"Without a doubt. This isn't a short term relationship with Diageo, this is a long term plan which we're looking forward to being successful and it's taken me into a whole new world - it's great to sit with people who really know their whiskies and get their suggestions on what to try next."
Of course, you realise that the shopping list tends to get longer and more expensive, the more you delve.
"I know," he smiles "and that's the worrying side of things. I just won't tell Victoria the prices…"