Creativity in focus

Creativity in focus

As creative director of The Macallan, Ken Grier spearheaded the brand’s most iconic projects

Interview | 25 Jan 2019 | Issue 157 | By Christopher Coates

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One meeting with Ken Grier is enough to tell you that he’s not the kind of guy who sits on an idea. Exuding a restless energy, he speaks with such a degree of knowledge and conviction that one can’t help but pay attention. Ken has a seemingly insatiable appetite for data, opinion, art, side projects and risk-taking. In the course of our short interview, he mentions attending two conferences in as many months, one on how AI will disrupt retail and another focussed on how to pitch luxury to millennials; how he casually read a copy of Annie Leibovitz’ 247-page Women, gifted to him by the author, in one night so he could talk to her about it the next morning; and how the Macallan M decanter was the result of him making a $100,000 wager with Fabien Baron.

“I believe that if you can dream it you can do it,” he tells me with sincerity. “I believe in innovation and great ideas. I believe in being highly distinctive.” And distinctive he most certainly is. It would be easy to characterise Grier as part Willy Wonka, part Hank-Scorpio-esque mastermind. This is, after all, the man who envisioned the new Macallan Distillery as the volcano base in You Only Live Twice. Yet, if one listens closely and can keep up, it’s apparent that Ken is simply passionate about the subjects he loves – especially whisky and photography – in an endearingly earnest way.

Now running his own brand growth consultancy, De-Still Creative, just months ago Ken stepped down from his role as creative director of The Macallan. This departure marked the end of a 20-year career with The Edrington Group, having joined Highland Distillers in the late 1990s. This move into the world of whisky followed a stint as Head of UK Marketing at Lego Group, five years with United Biscuits, and time at HP Bulmer and Strongbow.

Grier explains that his time at Edrington began after responding to a job ad for a role with Famous Grouse, “I phoned Bill Farrar, who went on to be my boss for 17 years – a wonderful man, a tremendous strategist, a very talented marketer and a super human being. He said, 'The job is almost filled’ but I said I was going to come up, sleep in the car park and see him tomorrow. He said I was mad. But I did it... He phoned me the day after and said, 'Well I suppose we'd better give you the job, hadn't we?’”

After a brief spell looking after the company’s commercial interests in Europe, he was named as malts marketing director and before long was launching a new range for The Macallan.

Early on during his time with The Famous Grouse, Ken would need to seize the initiative again when his agency forgot to bring tapes of new adverts he was meant to be presenting at a global marketing conference: “I got the guys to move the stuff off the stage and I acted out the advert as the Grouse, which went down phenomenally well. I was telling this story to a group of people back in Perth, so I stood on the boardroom table and acted the Grouse, and in walks our Chairman with the Robertson Trust. He just looked, shook his head and walked out again. It was enormous fun doing stuff like that, and quite a lot of success.”

After a brief spell looking after the company’s commercial interests in Europe, he was named as malts marketing director and before long was launching a new range for The Macallan. With sales far outpacing the distillery’s ability to lay down and bottle the sherry-cask-matured stock for which it was famous, a new direction would be needed for the brand to grow.

“I can always remember coming up with the Fine Oak idea,” he recalls. “We didn't want to buy back stock, mix it all together and have a new core [style].” Instead, Grier put forward the idea that an entirely new range, with an American-oak led character, should be launched to complement the core ‘sherried’ Macallan expressions. However, to pull it off would require a £60 million stock buy-back to supply a commercially untested product.

The final decision would be made following a presentation to the board at The Macallan’s brand home, Easter Elchies House. Unfortunately, then-Chairman, Ian Good was delayed by bad weather on the road to Speyside.

“This is the classiest thing and why Ian will always be one of my heroes – a man of enormous intellect, fantastic integrity, an incredible guy to work with," Ken recalls. "He came in late. We were standing with a glass of the Fine Oak whisky in our hands, and he said to John [Ramsay, then quality whisky manager], 'Is that the whisky?' So he took it and asked if it was any good. And John said, 'Yes, it's pretty good.' So, he turned to Ian Curle [then Edrington’s CEO] and said, 'Is there any reason we shouldn't do this?' And Ian went, 'No.' And so said, 'Let's have dinner.' And that was it. £60 million over a glass of whisky. That's the trust that he had in myself and Bill.”

The year was 2004 and this new range was presented simultaneously with a new, more premium look for the brand that drew on design elements found in the distillery archives. “We found the triangle element that we'd had on an 1861 bottle, so we brought it up to date and came up with an amazing bottle,” says Ken. “To me it was based on a very tall and stately male, because it's got high shoulders, a tight waist... with a little front label harking back to the past but [a design that] also made it stand out on a New York back bar.”

This new direction came shortly after the launch of Fine & Rare, an early 2000s project that saw the release of some of the distillery’s oldest stock, which was spearheaded by David Cox, Director of Fine & Rare, and Jason Craig, now brand director of Highland Park.

Ken mentions offhand that he bought a bottle of the 1972 release for £750, the RRP at the time, to allay fears that nobody would buy a bottle of Macallan for such a steep price. “Always lead from the front as an example,” he says. “So I paid £750 for one. I've no idea what it's worth now. £20,000, maybe?”

With the two-pronged approach of Fine Oak and Fine & Rare further developing the The Macallan’s status as a sought-after whisky, the brand took its next steps toward both more mainstream popularity, as well as super high-end fame and fortune. The latter focus was bolstered further after a partnership was forged with master French crystal maker Lalique and an initial release that pushed retail prices even higher. “Some of the guys round the business said they just never thought they'd sell a bottle of Macallan for $7,500. How little did we know?” Ken adds. “We really built the luxury whisky auction business.”

I've tried to put incredible zest in and amazing creativity. I've tried to push the boundaries and do things nobody else has ever done

From then on, it seemed that the sky was the limit when it came to achieving eye-watering auction prices and making the headlines for most expensive whisky ever sold. “I remember the Cire Perdue bottle," Ken continues. "When it got to $300,000 I turned to the barman and said, 'Give me a large Macallan 18', which I then quaffed when it went for $460,000. It was amazing. We gave all the money away to charity.”

Records were broken yet again in 2018 when Bonham’s Hong Kong sold a bottle of The Macallan 1926 60 Years Old with a label by Valerio Adami for £814,081 — a record that the Edinburgh branch promptly broke a few months later by selling an identical bottle for £848,750. Unsurprisingly, The Macallan tops the Whisky Magazine auction index, more often than not, and, according to analysts at Rare Whisky 101, the brand holds 34.4 per cent of the auction market by value — more than the next nine brands combined.

During Grier’s time on the brand, the Macallan brand grew “seven or eight times” over. He believes this is the result of presenting great liquid in a great bottle, but also the fruit borne by daring to run with unique campaigns and category-transcending side projects that attracted attention from the mainstream media and collectors alike.

“People call me a creative genius or shaman (I'm not sure what I am), but I just love ideas and I love different stuff. To do things that gets noticed is really important. But also things that are aesthetically beautiful, things that are layered, things that are thoughtful, things that always link back to the whisky,” he explains.

It was this philosophy that informed the launch of The Macallan’s Masters of Photography initiative in 2008, which saw the brand collaborate with Scottish-born photographer Rankin. The ‘Spiritual Home’ project, as it came to be known, saw more than 4,000 shots taken over a few days and, raising a few eyebrows in the industry, many of these were tasteful nudes of Rankin’s partner posing around the distillery.

“I'd not actually told anybody I was doing this and my wife said, ‘You know, you will finally get fired.’ So I went to see Fraser Morrison, the company secretary, and he went white,” Ken recalls with a laugh. However, after taking the results to the CEO, Portman Group and the SWA, the project was cleared to go ahead. Exactly 1,000 special-edition bottles of 30-years-old spirit were released, each bearing a single Rankin image on the label and accompanied by an original polaroid.

Next came collaborations with Albert Watson (The Wood Journey), Annie Leibovitz (The Feeling), Elliot Erwitt (The People), Mario Testino (The Six Pillars), and Steven Klein (Time). Recently, the six Magnum Photographers have captured the new distillery on film, bringing the Masters of Photography project full circle.

“I've tried to put incredible zest in and amazing creativity. I've tried to push the boundaries and do things nobody else has ever done. I'm a lucky guy, and I've had amazing fun doing it,” Ken says, reminiscing on his time in the whisky industry so far. “I'm 60 now. I've been with Edrington for more than 20 years and the big thing was I wanted to stay to finish the distillery. Once I did that, I felt I'd seen my big idea. It was a moment to stop and think. I've still got a good 10 years in this. I'd like to help other people to inject a bit of creativity.”

Though Ken is now working as an independent luxury brand consultant, it’s clear that Scotch whisky is still very much in his heart. “There's not anything quite like the Scotch whisky industry. It has made my life, and hopefully I've put a little bit back into it.”
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