The Gatekeeper

Dr Nick Morgan is Diageo’s head of whisky outreach. Who is he and what does that mean? Christian Davis meets the good doctor.

VIRTUALLY EVERYONE who writes seriously about scotch whisky will know Dr Nick Morgan. Part of his overarching role as head of whisky outreach for the world’s largest producer of scotch whisky is to keep an eye on all of us. Monitor who is friendly and who might be hostile and, in the unlikely event that one of us should make a mistake, we will get a ‘quiet’ phone call pointing out the error.

In many ways Morgan is the gatekeeper not just for Diageo but also for scotch whisky. Arguably second only to the Scotch Whisky Association itself. He is the scotch whisky equivalent of the Idris Elba played character in the Thor films: Heimdall, the all-seeing, all-hearing sentry of the Bifröst Bridge to the hero’s home, Asgard. Without the fancy costume – toga, helmet, sword and large lever, of course.

One senses he performs similar tasks within the Diageo scotch whisky brand groups, tempering possibly over-enthusiastic, over-ambitious marketing and sales executives who might rashly draw up plans to cut costs by switching scotch production to India.

It is a job for which you could easily be feared and hated. But the quietly spoken Morgan commands respect. Being the son of a police officer and an intellectual, Morgan has the authority to challenge anyone within his orbit. On top of that, he is widely liked. In a nutshell, he is a historian/archivist turned global marketer. You could say he is a historian who has made history, in terms of within the company that is now Diageo and scotch whisky.

He studied medieval history at university and went on to gain a PhD, hence the ‘doctor’, with a thesis on Lancashire Quakers and the Establishment, 1660-1730. Studying never-looked-at-before archives in a Quaker meeting house near Lancaster railway station, he perceived a tension between Quakers in their north west homeland and Quakers in London. Morgan sees an analogy between the National Union of Miners’ battle with the Thatcher government in the 1970s – a movement that set out to be and do one thing that ended up doing and being something else.

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His thesis was published and he’s “chuffed to bits” that in a review it was described as “pathbreaking”. Sadly it wasn’t a best seller and royalties were such that they didn’t cover the cost of writing and posting a cheque.

He landed a research job with the Economic Social Research Council then got a job at Glasgow university teaching Scottish history along with “the application of computers in teaching and research”. These were early days in IT.

COMPANY ARCHIVE

Morgan then got a letter from United Distillers, the forerunner to Diageo, asking whether he would be interested in setting up an archive for the company’s history, going back to the Distillers Company (DCL), Johnnie Walker, Haig, Black & White, White Horse, Bell’s, Vat 69, Buchanan’s, Old Parr, Dewars, et al.

This was around the time of the DCL /Guinness merger and there was a feeling something might be lost in the amalgamation.

“I thought what they wanted was exemplary,” says Morgan. “But what they really wanted was a historian to make it relevant to their business.” He made his case and the history doctor got the gig.

“It was a huge culture shock,” he confides. The project was given two/three floors of a former Crabbies bonded warehouse in Glasgow. “In two, three years we filled it up,” he says. “In pursuit of the quarry, people thought we were asset strippers from Guinness. We had to build trust and establish relationships. As an archivist, I was given exceptional access and it allowed me to understand how the business worked. Building relationships on the supply side helped remarkably when, as a marketer, I needed further help.” Relationship building is key to Morgan’s modus operandi and his undoubted success.

By around 1994, Morgan was spending more time in London talking to marketing people. His boss sensed he had all but completed the project and outgrown the role. It came down to switching or leaving.

He joined the brands publicity department on what he describes as “wacky projects’. In 1997 Grand Metropolitan and United Distillers merged to become Diageo and Morgan became global marketing director looking after classic and rare malts.

Knowing what Morgan does now – explaining and extolling the virtues and artistry of blended scotch, which is the very heart of Diageo’s scotch whisky business and accounts for 80-90% of global scotch sales – it seems a surprise that he forged his career and made his name marketing single malts.

“Diageo did not have a great reputation for scotch. We did not have any ‘killer’ brands, such as Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet. The 10-year plan was to stay in malt whisky, grow them and make them profitable. We over delivered,” he says.

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The story started with the classic malts range. Morgan cites Talisker, the Isle of Skye whisky that benefitted from this new approach. Asked which brand he is most proud of Morgan says: “Lagavulin (from Islay) – the brand in our vast portfolio that transcends the tinkering habits of marketers and has a timelessness and reputation for quality that are beyond compare.”

But David Gates, who is now Diageo’s head of premium core spirits, detected that the company was not taking its blends seriously. Whisky anoraks were hoovering up all the stories around single malts. The smell of elitism among the chattering classes. Morgan had probably done too good a job.

He asked Morgan to write a job spec and basically get on with redressing the balance. He foresaw the role as opening up the company to show what it is doing, get close to key opinion formers and let it be known that scotch is the world’s favourite whisky and about 90% of scotch sales are blends.

He wants to move scotch whisky blends away from the “snobby exclusivity and arrogance of single malt nerds” and talks of making it accessible and easy to understand for everyone.

Asked what is there left to do, the gatekeeper, the scotch Heimdall says: “There is a long way to go to dispel some of the misconceptions about scotch whisky, particularly around the quality and complexity of blended scotch whisky.”

I expect Thor drank, or drinks, aquavit. Silly boy. He should talk to the gatekeeper.

FRONTING THE BAND

It is well known among those who know Nick Morgan well that he is an accomplished electric guitarist and plays in rock/blues bands. Asked how that came about, he explains: “Back in 1967, ’68, ’69, trying to play music is what everyone wanted to do.”

Asked who his guitar heroes are he lists: Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac’s founder, Albert King, Albert Collins, bluesman Lonnie Johnson, Ry Cooder and Bill Frisell.

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Armed with a Fender Telecaster or Gretsch guitar, he plays in two bands. Prince Adewale & The Endeavours boasts Cask Strength’s Neil Ridley on guitar and keyboards and a genuine African prince, Christian Lewis, on bass guitar. Then there is the Copper Dogs, with Sam Simmons, global brand ambassador for William Grant’s Balvenie scotch brand.

With the former, Morgan is up front sharing vocals and swapping solos with the great Ridley but for the Dogs: “I just stand at the back and play away.” Read into that what you will.

The inevitable question: What’s your favourite drink? Morgan replies: “I would be very happy if I started the evening with a Tanqueray Martini and ended with a Johnnie Walker on the rocks.”

On the money, as you’d expect. But fair enough.

(References from The Drinks International)

By Christian Davis

 

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