This statement, the quote opposite, fits Nick Morgan like a glove. At Lancaster University he developed a passion for history. After graduating he studied for a PhD and subsequently moved to the University of Glasgow to teach modern Scottish History. In 1990 the whisky world called and he joined United Distillers (UD), one of the forerunners of Diageo.
At the annual Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival, he tells me about his two passions, whisky and music.
“A friend recommended me to UD for the post of archivist. The company was still recovering from the trauma resulting from the Guinness takeover. Ian Ross, the grandson of UD’s great architect William Ross, was still in the business, and he recognised that between 1987 and 1990 the company had gone through a huge identity crisis, losing not only physical memories but also corporate ones. So part of our role was to remind people where the company, and its brands, had actually come from.”
Early on Nick and his team were primarily busy with stocking the old Cabbies’ warehouse in Leith. “We filled two and a half storeys with archives pulled from everywhere. Initially that was not easy, because colleagues feared we were ‘asset strippers’, treating us with suspicion.”
Morgan and his team only wanted to document the rich history and capture it for posterity. “The damp warehouse was not ideal and we moved to a new facility adjacent to our bottling plant in Leven. Later the archive relocated to UD’s research centre in Menstrie. Today it also houses the largest collection of drinks related documents in the world.
"If you don’t know from where you come, then you don’t know where you are going"
“A fantastic source for our marketing teams and creative agencies. The label collection is astonishing, as are the business records, advertisements, a bottle collection, and a wide range of ephemera. Diageo takes its history very seriously these days. If you don’t know from where you come, then you don’t know where you are going!”
Nick was then asked to bring the material to life and support marketing projects. “My bosses saw the Archive had become well established and didn’t need me anymore. So I could join the marketing guys in London. An irresistible intellectual challenge. I became part of what I look back on as a ‘Wacky Projects Department.’”
Nick’s role shifted from education to consulting with brand teams. Increasingly he spent more time on Single Malts, inheriting responsibilities for the Classic Malts, launching the Distillers Editions and Rare Malts series. When Diageo was created in 1997 Nick became global marketing director for malt whisky.
“There was still a strong focus on Grand Met’s non-drinks businesses, and initially Scotch was a bit of a poor relation. With Cardhu we had a strong business in Spain, but we had to develop other malts in our portfolio to justify our existence.”
Talisker was put on Nick’s plate and grew from 25,000 nine-litre to more than 100,000 cases in 10 years. “The success of the Classic Malts soon created too great a demand. That was mainly the case for Lagavulin and Oban, which temporarily went on allocation. We’ll never have enough of these two, but at least availability is better today”.
In 1999 Nick co-wrote a 10-year marketing plan. “Who knows what will happen in 10 years, but our predictions were significantly exceeded in 2009, aptly caused by the introduction of the Special Releases, under which Port Ellen has become an unprecedented success among seasoned whisky aficionados. It was a great frustration that we sold a great many casks to independent bottlers, who knew how to get outstanding prices for them. Strangely at the time colleagues thought we were crazy, and that we would never manage to sell more than a few dozen bottles.”
A lot has changed in the last decades. Nick sums it up. “The malt business began in the early 1960s. From infancy it moved to childhood with the introduction of the Classic Malts in 1988, and the proliferation of brands and expression that followed. The next 20 years or so were years of innocence, but today the single malt category has reached some degree of maturity, with a commensurate loss of that innocence. Whilst quality remains critical the category is now mainly driven by marketing and malts are increasingly being positioned as a luxury item, a reflection of an increasing awareness amongst brand owners of the real worth of their products.”
“It’s hard not to be aware that people have misconceptions about Diageo, often negative. And I don’t think they realise how incredibly painful the Diageo-bashing phenomenon can be for all the people who work at our distilleries, coopering and warehousing facilities and bottling plants. In addition to the brickbats, we also received justified complaints from writers and journalists that we had become inaccessible. I wanted to do something to change that.
“We are industry leaders, and key to our industry is blended Scotch whisky. We only make all these great malts to make even greater blends. Somehow we’d forgotten to tell people that. We’d allowed the conversation to become polarised around single malts, which are, and will remain, only a small part of what we sell to consumers all over the world. So now I’m a man with a mission and a message. Alongside, we combine the basis, whisky, with other areas such as food and music.”
Nick plays in a band himself. “I never had music lessons, but I picked up an acoustic guitar when I was 12. My first time on stage was in primary school when I sang Sunny Afternoon by The Kinks. My first band played mostly rock and roll covers.”
His current band is The Limelight Bandits. “In the line up are old friends, from the whisky world and beyond. My partner Kate is our backing singer. We play covers from Johnny Cash to Edwyn Collins. I’m also busy with a new band, a contemporary take on the great British blues bands of the late 60s and early 70s, with a modern twist coming from people like the Black Keys and Jack White. I have a lot of fun with that; it’s painfully hard and very liberating. You can book us!”
We return to whisky.
Has consumer knowledge about our favourite drink increased?
“Sure, but sometimes I get a little bit tired of all the technocrats who always view the world of whisky through a very narrow lens. Sometimes it seems that everyone knows everything about whisky, but it often feels to me that everyone knows a lot about nothing.
“For instance in Europe there is a narrative that blends are poor quality. But worldwide that category accounts for 93 per cent of sales. Our 28 single malt distilleries make quality products that mostly go into our blends. And without blends there would be no malts. That is generally forgotten. You must have a global approach and understand the category as a whole, not just scrutinise a tiny segment under a microscope. You cannot lose sight of business realities.”
This is what Nick Morgan as Head of Whisky Outreach at Diageo wants to demonstrate. If you don’t understand from where it comes, you also don’t know where it goes.
A wise lesson from a historian turned marketing expert.