Karen Peattie meets Jo Graham, whose training and events company – The Whisky Ambassador – is helping bar staff to market Scotland’s national drink.
Back in a chilly Glasgow after a holiday in Tenerife – where the average temperature was 19°C – Jo Graham is feeling the cold.
“A dram would be the perfect winter warmer right now,” says Graham, the managing director and co-founder of The Whisky Ambassador, provider of the UK’s only accredited whisky course.
Rubbing her gloved hands together approvingly as she scans the excellent range of Scotch whisky brands behind the bar in McPhabbs, the popular pub across the road from her office near Glasgow city centre, she settles for a sparkling water. “I’m not on holiday now,” she laughs, exchanging pleasantries about the weather, cats and handbags before moving on to her professional passions: whisky and training.
Why combine the two? “I started my training and human resources (HR) consultancy in 2006 and it is still going well,” says Graham, referring to People Solutions, her company focusing on small and medium-sized enterprises. “We were providing training for the licensed trade and after I started working in a partner’s late bar I became more interested in whisky and how it was sold.
“The bar was popular with tourists – customers were always asking for whisky but it struck me that I didn’t really know much about Scotland’s national drink. I could read the label on the back of the bottles and chat away to people, sharing the little knowledge I had about Scotch and I could see that even at that quite basic level people were engaging with me – they stayed longer and spent more money.”
Graham put her Scotch storytelling on the back burner until a conversation with a potential partner who was organising whisky experiences and described the basis for a training programme, prompting her to start doing some research. “I searched online for bar staff training and there was nothing specialising in whisky,” she explains.
“There’s no doubt that producers and distributors are doing a great job as far as their own brands are concerned but there was nothing for the whisky category and I found that quite remarkable. A sommelier can wax lyrical about wine and a mixologist will nail the art of creating cocktails, so why can’t bar staff undertake training to hone their knowledge about Scotch whisky?”
The Whisky Ambassador came to life in 2012, the idea having matured slowly over time – rather like a good malt. Graham and her team decided that a one-day course targeted at anyone who serves or sells whisky would best suit the industry’s needs. “It’s about giving people the confidence to engage with their customers and provide a great experience for those customers, at the same time increasing sales and making the business more profitable,” she explains.
Initial trials with the bars at the Radisson Blu and Grand Central hotels in Glasgow saw the premises provide sales data before and after the training. “Both saw an increase in the quality of the whisky sold, which contributed to a 64% increase in one and 25% in the other,” Graham points out. “The results told us that if staff are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about Scotch whisky then a bar will sell more. Hospitality is also a people-facing industry so when a customer asks questions then hears the story behind it, clearly that is going to stay with them and have a positive impact on their visit – not just to that particular bar but to Scotland.”
While provenance now plays a big role in the Scottish food and drink industry, there’s something about Scotch whisky in particular that strikes a chord with visitors, Graham suggests. “The Chinese, for example, are really big on the history of Scotch and the mystique around it but they do understand that it’s not all rolling hills, heather and Whisky Galore,” she says.
“People have heard a lot about whisky but might not be able to distinguish between a blended Scotch and a malt,” she continues. “A customer might ask for a mainstream blended brand but a knowledgeable bartender can explain the difference, make a recommendation and upsell.”
As the first accredited course designed exclusively for the licensed trade – it has British Institute of Innkeeping Awarding Body (BIIAB) accreditation – The Whisky Ambassador’s initiative is not affiliated to any brand. The programme is mapped to National Occupational Standards, can be used for continuing professional development (CPD), has been checked by the Scotch Whisky Association, is backed by VisitScotland and was approved by Skills Development Scotland as a vocational course – giving it considerable clout within the hospitality industry.
While UK clients have included top-end hotels such as The Gleneagles, the course is also delivered globally. It launched in China – one of the world’s fastest-growing markets for Scotch whisky – in 2013, with the course being taught in Mandarin. The Whisky Ambassador later struck a deal to train employees at DFS duty free stores in Asia, the luxury travel retailer owned by the Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) conglomerate.
With the number of distilleries opening in Scotland reflecting the growing confidence in the Scotch whisky sector, Graham expects demand for the course to increase in the coming years. The fact that Scotch whisky exports increased in value by 3.4% in the first half of 2017 to £1.8bn suggests that the world’s thirst for Scotch isn’t drying up any time soon.
Boosted by the continuing growth in popularity of single malts across the globe, Scotch whisky remains Britain’s biggest food and drink export, making up almost one-fifth of the sector’s overseas shipments.
Scotch whisky, Graham suggests, touches so many parts of the hospitality industry that it deserves a starring role. Along with some other drinks categories – gin and craft beer, for example – it is benefiting from an injection of enthusiasm from innovative bartenders and mixologists who are unleashing their creativity on cocktail menus.
“There’s much more interest in the hospitality industry as a career now,” she says. “People will always use the sector as a stop-gap or part-time job while they’re studying but we’re seeing much more recognition now that bartending and hospitality is a legitimate career with long-term prospects.
“I think it’s a really exciting industry to be part of just now and there’s a lot of innovation going on, thanks in part to the entrepreneurs who are investing in new distilleries and the forward-thinking bar and restaurant owners who want to equip their staff with the skills to help them develop and, at the same time, grow their businesses.”
Food and whisky pairing is also growing in popularity, Graham says, with many bars and restaurants partnering with brands to offer suggestions while food and drink festivals across the country are tapping into consumer demand. Events like the long-established Speyside Whisky Festival in May attract aficionados from all over the world and there are many other smaller events contributing to local economies across the country.
The Whisky Ambassador itself, in addition to training, can create tailored events ranging from small corporate affairs to drinks festival for hundreds of visitors.
“We want to encourage the industry to look at whisky as something much more lucrative for your business,” says Graham. “When you serve a whisky you’re not pouring a standard pint of lager – you have the potential to upsell, at the same time giving your customers a great experience.
“Our training is carried out by qualified staff who are passionate about whisky, which is important because the course is interactive and has to be an enjoyable experience for the people participating – they’re the ones who are engaging with your customers and maximising sales opportunities. They complete our course and leave as a certified ‘Whisky Ambassador’, armed with information on how whisky is made, nosing and tasting, its history and its culture along with how to sell it.”
It’s also cost-effective at £200 plus value-added tax, with the course delivered in Scotland at venues including The Whisky Ambassador’s offices plus locations such as the Tennent’s Training Academy in Glasgow and Summerhall in Edinburgh.
Courses are also available in England and in Europe, in countries including Spain, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands. Add Australia, the United States, Canada and Asia to the mix and The Whisky Ambassador truly has gone global.
“Our network is growing all the time,” says Graham. “We don’t operate on a franchise basis but we license people to deliver the course and they must adhere to our very strict criteria. They pay us per delegate and it is a very cost-effective business model – we are looking to expand into other territories.”
There can be no question that Graham, who is chairman of the British Institute of Innkeeping in Scotland (BII Scotland), is herself an outstanding ambassador for Scotch whisky. Her company’s mission statement is to “enhance knowledge and skills, one bar at a time”. The Whisky Ambassador is certainly living up to its name.