SB interviews… Ken Grier, The Macallan

3rd April, 2013 by Tom Bruce-Gardyne

If the Macallan has become the ultimate luxury whisky brand, Ken Grier is the man to blame. Edrington’s director of malts spoke to Tom Bruce-Gardyne

Ken Grier The Macallan

Ken Grier, Edrington’s director of malts

The last time I spoke to Ken Grier on the phone was in October when he was at the London premiere of Skyfall. He wasn’t on the red carpet, but his company’s flagship brand could well have been.

The appearance of The Macallan 50 year old is no mere product placement in the latest Bond extravaganza, and in one scene it plays a starring role. That is not something you could ever say about Heineken for example.

It has been quite a journey for “Big Mac” and its Speyside distillery that was family owned until 1996 when it was bought by Highland Distillers, who were subsequently swallowed up by the Edrington Group a few years later. First released as a 10-year-old single malt in 1978, The Macallan went on to became the most expensive whisky ever sold when a Lalique decanter of the 64-yearold was knocked down for US$460,000 (£291,000) at a New York charity auction in 2010.

When Grier became brands director in 2000, Macallan was selling 100,000 cases a year with over a third of production disappearing into blends. Its sister distillery, Highland Park on Orkney, was doing around 30,000 cases. “Macallan was relatively limited in its market footprint and had quite a small range,” says Grier. “It was a brand that never anticipated it would get to more than 250,000 cases, and was seen as being a very small, boutique, high-priced product.”

While the last part of that statement holds true, Macallan is hardly a boutique distillery these days. In 2008, after a series of expansions, Edrington spent £20 million to boost capacity to 9.5m litres. Only Glenfiddich and Glenlivet were bigger at the time. Yet for all its size, the whisky has somehow retained its aura of exclusivity.

For Grier it’s a question of self-perception, and a belief that your competitive set is more about Lalique crystal, Leica cameras and Bentley cars. “We don’t see ourselves as being ‘just another Speyside malt’. We see ourselves as a true luxury brand that just happens to be a spirits product.”

He believes the whole concept of “luxury” has become increasingly polarised. “It’s either about people who can afford the best and don’t care what they pay, or about people who are more into affordable luxury. What’s happened at Macallan is that we very much appeal to über-collectors, to people who are real connoisseurs for whom price is no object. Once you’ve crossed that rubicon into the Macallan franchise it’s difficult to go back.”

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