Ian Millar, Global Brand Ambassador, Glenfiddich makes for a witty educationist. So we sat down with him to understand the various nuances behind single malts and decode them for you
By: Soumya Jain
Posted on: March 10, 2011
Dressed in a traditional Scottish kilt, Ian Millar, Global Brand Ambassador of Glenfiddich, welcomes you with an affable smile - even if you are late by half an hour for the interview! Having spent 30 years in the scotch whiskey industry, you feel humbled in his presence. We sat down with him to get a little slice from his vast amount of knowledge on whiskeys and single malts.
Mr Millar begins by explaining the market a bit. “Single malt is less than 10% of whiskey sold across globe. So there is still a long way to go. Glenfiddich launched its single malt category with the first single malt launched in 1963. Some 4-5 years later, the Glenmorangies and Macallans started producing single malt too. We have a good hold on the single malt category with 17-18% being Glenfiddich’s share.” Aparna Batra, Marketing Director, William Grant & Sons India, who was also a part of the discussion, goes beyond a little – “It’s a minority but a huge segment in number terms! The whiskey category grew by 18% while the single malt segment saw a 34% CAGR growth in India!”
You see a well-dressed man holding a well-defined cut glass with the golden liquid and ice clinking in it. It immediately gives the impression of a man who is mature and knows what he wants. Unfortunately, a lot of them don’t.
Mr Millar also rues the fact. “It’s unfortunate that whiskey is a generic word for many things. And it’s very important to know the difference between different kinds,” he says. The key to finding your kind of drink is to experiment, of course, but also to know first what you are getting into!
Mr Millar explains the difference between a whiskey and single malt in the few words – “Single malt is made with only malted barley, while blended whiskey is made with two types of whiskey – grain and malt. Grain whiskey is a little harsh. Therefore blended whiskey is a mix of 60 per cent grain whiskey with malt. Another huge area of difference is that single malts are generally much older than blended whiskey. Blended whisky tends to be between 3-6 years old. And because they are young, they are harsh, and quite difficult for the younger palette. Single malts, on the other hand, are softer, milder and easier on the palette since they are given more time to mature.”
So is single malt more superior as well? Mr Millar, instead of giving a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, gave a through explanation of the production process of a single malt. “Single malts are certainly more expensive to buy and more expensive to make as well. We have to malt barley and barley is very expensive – much more than wheat. Even the distillation is more expensive. And remember, you don’t get return of investment before at least 12 years. For 12 years it is sitting in a cask in a warehouse. We also lose 25-30% of the content due to evaporation during this period. And also the strength, which starts at 63.5, might become 55% after 12 years! But the longer it is in the wood, the more time it has to develop and evolve the flavours inside. So you’ll find a 15 year old softer than a 12 year old.”
Glenfiddich, as most of the whiskey and single malt aficionados know, has an extensive range of single malts, starting from 12 YO, 15 YO, 18 YO, going to 21 YO, 30 YO, 40 YO and 50 YO. “And if you have 850,000 HK dollars, you can buy the 64 YO at duty free!” adds Mr Millar cheerfully.
He gives us a glimpse of the future when he says, “We actually have a liquid which is 80 years old and we have a cask which will be 70 years old in 2015. So we have an opportunity in the future to do a 60, 70 and 80!”
From beginning to end
“If you are beginning, I would recommend you to buy a very small amount of whiskey, because if you don’t like it, you will lose a lot of money!” Mr Millar spells out the first step on how to get started with whiskeys. Ms Batra chips in, “Or you could raid your father’s cabinet!” Mr Millar teasingly praised Ms Batra’s idea – “That’s a very good idea, nobody would have thought of it! But yes, 90% of the population has their first collision with alcohol through their parent’s liquor cabinet. The mom’s cabinet would be having some good single malt, while the dad’s would be having cognac.”
I immediately voiced out my doubt that wasn’t single malt mainly a ‘men’s drink’? Mr Millar quickly responded, “No, I would say 30-40% of women in Europe and America prefer single malts. In fact, the lady sitting next to you is a malt drinker!” (Pointing towards Ms Batra). “Yes, I am a malt drinker (even before I joined the company), my mother is a malt drinker, my grandmother is a malt drinker, and my mom-in-law is a malt drinker. And I know a lot of women who drink malts!” pitched in the effervescent Ms Batra. “It’s true that you would see majority of the women in India with wine or champagne, but around 2% Indian women prefer whiskey or single malts. And in India, 2% is a huge number!” she continued.
Coming back to the guide, Ms Batra said that whiskeys from different regions have different tastes, and Indians are starting to understand that. The origin of the whiskey also defines your choice of whiskey, depending on what stage you are.
The top five malt brands are from Speyside (Scotland) – including Glenfiddich, Macallan, and also Glenmorangie (which is not really in Speyside but made very much in the Speyside style). Speyside malts are crisp, very fruity, and so it has an easy flavour. Mr Millar says, “Younger people prefer malt whiskeys because blended whiskey is younger and slightly harsh. So I would recommend people, who are starting with whiskeys, to try single malts, and to try Speyside ones. If you are going to start with blended whiskey, it might totally put you off the whiskey category.”
Mr Millar enumerates some ways to enjoy your drink as per your taste. He mentions that like a cognac, malts need to be enjoyed at the right temperature which is 15-20 degree Celsius. It expands the whiskey which gives you much more aroma and flavour when you warm it up in your hands. And if you add ice to it, the opposite happens and the flavours contract. So a connoisseur may prefer slightly warmer malt with more flavour and aroma. And somebody who is starting might want to dilute it a bit by adding ice which contracts the flavours and makes it easier for the younger palette to consume.
What are the characteristics of the perfect single malt? “There are five characteristics of a good whiskey: good aroma, good flavours, depths of flavour, a complexity of flavours with many dimensions like spicy, fruity, nutty, caramel, etc, and a long finish (it should linger in your mouth for long),” explains Mr Millar.
Partners in taste
Glenfiddich had held a City Trail in Delhi and Mumbai during Mr Millar’s last visit to India. So when asked about food pairing, Mr Millar’s thoughts naturally went back to the trail.
Ms Batra explained, “In the city trail, we had invited leading F&B destinations in Mumbai and Delhi to experiment with Glenfiddich 12, 15, 18 and 21 year old malts and see what dishes work with these liquids. It was a great initiative to encourage engagement and to know more about food pairing with single malts.” To which Mr Millar responded, “Yes, and for me, it was great, because since then, I am hung up on Indian food! There were so many hot dishes which we thought won’t go well with the malts. But they did! And we were stunned!”
So as per the city trail, here is a little knowledge on what could work the best with your malt.
Glenfiddich 12 YO
Murg Khushk Purdah: A resplendent boneless chicken, cured in star anise marinade, grilled in a tandoor. Dum cooked with an assortment of vegetables and sprinkling of mace behind a purdah of puff pastry.
Thai Chicken Satay: Tender Chicken Supremes flavoured with lemongrass essence, coconut milk and Peanut Hoisin sauce, served char grilled with pickled vegetables.
Glenfiddich 15 YO
Jhinga Lasooni: Jumbo prawns marinated in garlic, flavoured mixture of yoghurt, red chilies and turmeric
Soba Salad: A chilled salad made of buckwheat noodles tossed together with crisp vegetables
Glenfiddich 18 YO
Burberry Duck: Burberry duck prepared with Orange and Pecan Wild Rice and Nectarine Jus
Steamed Scallops with malted black beans: Delicate Atlantic scallops enriched with flavour-rich maturated soy bean paste
Glenfiddich 21 YO
Shafaq Qaliyan: Lamb from Shoulder, Simmered in brown cardamom & ginger, tempered with clove and cooked on dum with garam masala.
Mirabel of strawberry dacquoise, mascarpone, custard apple, and candid persimmon ice cream.
Mr Millar has been working with Glenfiddich for the past 12 years almost – time long enough to make you bored with a single workplace! But not so with him. “It’s not a duty. It’s our life. And it’s a very good life. I love my job. When Monday morning is the same as Friday morning, you know you are in the right job. I think variety is very important. If you are working at a lot of different levels, in different cultures, and enjoy travel, it becomes instantly enjoyable.”
Mr Millar is involved in a lot of aspects at Glenfiddich. He is involved in product development – like making and testing the malt. Then they have a lot of old stock, so they have strategy meetings on what to do with the old stock – “And most of the times we just want to take it home and drink it!” he adds cheekily. With 16 brand ambassadors working on Glenfiddich around the world, Mr Millar provides them support, education, and brand knowledge materials.
“Variety is absolutely the spice of life. I have spent 25 years making whiskey, and I will be retiring in two years. Or maybe I won’t,” he winks.