Rod Stewart and Duncan Frew talk Wolfie’s whisky
Music icon Rod Stewart has teamed up with Duncan Frew and Loch Lomond Distillery to launch Wolfie’s, a blended Scotch brand.
“Darling, I’ve just washed my hair, so I’m afraid I don’t look very ‘Rod Stewart’ today,” quips the rocker in his Essex twang as the video call commences, although his tresses still look every inch like the rockstar the world knows and loves. “I’m going to have a Wine Gum, which I think is appropriate for someone who likes to talk about booze. What’s your favourite tipple?”
From the get-go, Stewart is nothing but candid, cheeky and fully inquisitive about the whisky world in which he now finds himself. I respond to his question with my two go-to spirits at the moment: whisky and Tequila.
“I think mad people drink Tequila,” he says in jest, before continuing: “I’ve got two girls in my band who drink it and they’re fucking mad – excuse my language.”
While Stewart might not be joining the Tequila fan base any time soon, he is certainly on board with whisky. The Maggie May singer unveiled blended Scotch whisky Wolfie’s in May this year after partnering with Wolfie’s CEO Duncan Frew. Created by Scotland’s Loch Lomond Distillery, the final three-year-old blend (which has technically launched as a no-age-statement Scotch) was the result of 18 months of planning.
“There’s a rock singer in Glasgow called John McLaughlin – Johnny Mac & The Faithful is his band – and he’s been good friends with me for some time,” explains Stewart. “And he said to me: ‘A mate of mine wants to start a whisky company, would you be interested?’ I said: ‘Of course I would – especially if he’s a Scotsman, I’d be really interested.’ So Johnny Mac put [Frew and I] together, and we cracked on from there.”
“A shared love of Celtic also helped,” adds Frew, referencing Stewart’s favourite football team. “I think if I was a Rangers fan, it would never have happened.”
The rascal and the wolf
Wolfie’s has been designed to be the ‘rascal’ of whisky. Bottled at 40% ABV, Wolfie’s made its UK debut on 19 June, coinciding with the whisky’s launch in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. It will become available in Sweden on 1 December before heading to the US and Canada at the start of 2024.
“When we got the first label, I was immediately enthralled because I loved the idea of a rascal and a wolf – it’s just old-time rock ’n’ roll,” Stewart says, before recalling his first encounter with whisky. “I’ll be totally honest with you, I had a whisky when I was about 16, just when I was becoming a professional musician and, after a couple of whiskies, I became sick on it. Funnily enough, the same thing happened with my dad, but with Port.
“Then I went up to Glasgow for a Celtic game, and my dear friend Duncan had laid out a whole table for whisky drinkers, but he made mine into a cocktail, which I absolutely loved. I prefer mine in a cocktail, although I do like drinking [Wolfie’s] neat because it tastes like my favourite dessert: apple tart and custard.”
A Cosmopolitan is Stewart’s cocktail of choice, and Frew demonstrated the versatility of the liquid during that Celtic-game tasting.
“I wanted to confuse him,” Frew says, “so we did normal Cosmopolitans, Lychee Martinis, Appletinis, and we had Wolfie’s ones. And it was a unanimous vote from the crowd that Wolfie’s was the superstar.”
“We were very lively by the end of the game,” adds Stewart.
“There’s a photo I can’t show you of us coming off a plane from Las Vegas, which is when we celebrated the final liquid. I’m glad to see the photo’s framed in your house,” Frew continues, turning to Stewart. “It’s a celebratory photo of us with the whisky, with our trousers down.”
After agreeing an initial bottle run of 50,000, demand has far exceeded both Stewart and Frew’s expectations.
“For the first six months, our plan was to be e-commerce only to get the lay of the land,” says Frew. “We went on sale on e-commerce on the Friday and, by the Monday, Loch Lomond and our sales team had been contacted by over 40 distributors worldwide, so we fast-tracked our B2B [business-to-business] plans. That’s why Loch Lomond is such a good partner, because they quickly adapted to the growth to help us with the partnership.”
Another run of 50,000 bottles is coming on 1 October to meet the soaring demand. “Heinemann, the big duty free company, they’re taking [Wolfie’s] into most of their ports globally. All the orders are starting to come in, so then we need to build out the forecasting and supply chains,” Frew adds.
The packaging has been carefully thought through. At the base of the bottle, the lyrics ‘Rhythm of My Heart’ are embossed onto the glass, a nod to the opening song from Stewart’s 1991 album Vagabond Heart. The song itself acknowledges Stewart’s Scottish heritage and adapted the melody from a traditional folk song called Loch Lomond. With its longstanding history and reputation, as noted by Frew, it made perfect sense that Wolfie’s would be made and bottled by whisky maker Loch Lomond.
“We went to the distillery a couple of months ago and met the guys in the cooperage,” says Frew.
“Oh, it was amazing the way they put the barrels together and the way they recondition the old barrels – it’s extraordinary,” enthuses Stewart. “The biggest thing for the liquid was we wanted to make it as smooth as possible.”
Frew concurs: “We wanted the whisky to be as accessible as possible because a lot of Rod’s fans will be drinking this. They range in age from 18 to 80. We worked with the [Loch Lomond] team on maybe about 40 iterations to make it smooth, a little sweet like Rod said, with that apple-tart sweetness coming through. The guys have been amazing. When we do samplings and tastings, obviously we can serve the whisky straight up, but we also want to show this can be used in cocktails. We’re not taking ourselves too seriously, like a 25-year-old malt; we’re fun, we’re rock ’n’ roll – we’re a good-time whisky.”
Building a brand
Stewart has recently returned to the UK following a three-month tour. While he wasn’t drinking Wolfie’s on the road to preserve his voice for fans, the whisky was front and centre in more ways than one.
“We were in Niagara Falls and on the stage, on the big screens, we had Wolfie’s up there; we’re doing as much as we can to promote the brand,” Stewart says.
Frew holds a photo up to the screen to show the size of Wolfie’s branding against Stewart’s stage: “We like to be very subtle with the branding, not in your face,” he jokes. “This year, as we didn’t have our distribution set up in America in time, we didn’t have our stock there. But it was all about trying to get as much awareness as possible. We’ve got an Asia tour in March, so hopefully we can fast-track our plans there.”
“South America at the end of September, too,” adds Stewart. Line extensions will eventually be added to Wolfie’s – but the core focus, for now, will be building the inaugural bottling globally.
“We need to concentrate on the core product now and make sure that’s as good as it can be, and then look at other line extensions,” says Frew.“We need to walk before we can run.”
For Stewart, Wolfie’s is not a money-making endeavour; it’s about building on his legacy and, hopefully, using the platform further to do some good. Stewart is known for his charitable efforts – and, earlier this year, he called a phone-in segment on Sky News to offer to pay for people to have hospital scans, after being horrified by the rising number of people on NHS waiting lists.
“I do a lot of personal charitable work and it would be nice to do something eventually with Wolfie’s,” Stewart says. “It would be nice to give it to the soldiers of Ukraine, get it to the front line. One bottle per battalion, otherwise they’ll all be pissed and lose the war. This war means a lot to me. I’ve done various things, brought refugees from Ukraine – two of them work at my house. One’s a housekeeper, one’s a gardener.
“And every night I do a tribute, when I do Rhythm of My Heart, to the Ukrainian people and [president of Ukraine Volodymyr] Zelenskiy, and then I say: ‘Fuck Putin’.”
Next year will see a greater focus on trade shows for Wolfie’s, confirms Frew, who has his sights set on the TFWA World Exhibition & Conference in Cannes, France, to establish the brand in the travel retail channel, and Bar Convent Berlin to target the on-trade. This is where Frew’s 20 years’ experience in the drinks industry, working for the likes of Diageo and Red Bull, complements Stewart’s rockstar status – a powerful combo.
“We need to build the brand the right way,” Frew says. “Obviously, Rod’s involved, but we need people who are Rod Stewart fans and we also need younger people who haven’t discovered Rod’s music yet to be drawn to Wolfie’s. Through music and marketing, we just want people to have fun because, as you can tell, we don’t have a bad laugh doing this. In the next 12 months, we’re hoping to be in most major markets in the world with the right distributors and providing a very good liquid and brand to people in a fun way. As simple as that.”
It’s a goal Scotch whisky has been chasing over the past few years – that desire to reignite the category’s ‘fun’ side, and undo the ‘stuffiness’ the category became known for in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Frew explains: “If you take a brand like The Macallan, for example – now, we’re obviously not in the same category as them.” “Yeah, we are,” shouts Stewart, throwing the pair into a fit of laughter, before Frew continues: “It’s amazing what they’re doing and the premium nature of the brand. But, on the more fun, approachable side, I think Chivas Regal are doing amazing – they’re obviously going for a younger urban audience – especially Hispanic and African-American – in America.”
If demand continues as it has started – strong – will there be a Wolfie’s Distillery? “Who knows?” says Stewart. “I’d love it, a little something near Loch Lomond.”
“A Wolfie’s bothy,” says Frew.
“Yeah, I’m going to get a Wolfie’s bothy. And, you know what, I could do concerts every week there in the summer out on the grass. That would bring the customers in,” Stewart adds.
With ideas flowing, I ask Stewart about his ultimate ambition for Wolfie’s. He answers: “I’m just proud because I know my dad would be proud, because he was a Scotsman and he’d be proud that I got involved with whisky, and Scottish as opposed to Irish whiskey. Hopefully, one day, when I’m dead and gone, someone will say: ‘Could I have a shot of Rod’s whisky please?’ and just think of me, maybe.”