Glenfiddich regional ambassador Matthew Fergusson-Stewart on the rise of single malt whisky in Asia


It used to be the case that when you stepped into a bar here in Singapore 10 years ago, you’d find the options for single malt Scotch whisky to be rather limited.

But over the years the appreciation for fine single malts – both on the on-premise and consumer levels – has grown to the point where these prized liquids are now taking centre stage alongside its premium blended cousins. People are starting to learn that you can get excellent, premium single malt whiskies for the price of a Johnnie Walker Blue Label.

This in part is thanks to Glenfiddich, who in 1963, pioneered the single malt category. Today, it is the world’s best selling single malt whisky, and also, the most awarded at the International Spirits Challenge awards.

matthew2-003We figured then, it would be interesting to talk to someone at Glenfiddich about their unique perspective on the single malt Scotch whisky boom in Asia. How about Matthew Fergusson-Stewart, the regional ambassador for Glenfiddich at William Grant & Sons (WGS)? Going by our last conversation at the Glenfiddich Deconstruction workshop, this chap seems to know more than just what makes a good whisky.

So in the first of our two-part interview with Matthew, we quizzed him specifically on the state of Scotch whisky growth in Asia.

SSG: The demand for single malt Scotch whiskies in Asia has been skyrocketing. How much and how fast is it really growing?

MFS: The Scotch whisky market in Asia has grown about 87% over the last ten years, which is almost double-digit growth every year – and it’s still growing very quickly.

Demographically speaking Scotch whisky has been sometimes seen as the drink for middle-aged white men, but that’s largely changing. You now see a lot younger men and women drinking single malt whisky. People ask me why single malt whisky has suddenly become popular; the question for me is really, why hasn’t it been popular before? It’s always been a fantastic product, but it took people some time to discover it.

average whiskey drinker

Not your typical whisky drinker. Really. (Image from Kansas Clean Distilled Whiskey)

Everybody expected China to be this huge growth engine for Scotch whisky but it hasn’t been so, largely due to the recent government crackdown on spending by government officials. That did put a damper on the market and hit some companies particularly hard.

We were quite lucky though, we managed some growth; our strategy had been to target more corporate customers and not government customers. But some of the other more established companies were hit quite hard. So the China market hasn’t really grown by much.

Looking at Asia generally, Taiwan is a huge market while Southeast Asia is the fastest growing and is expected to be the second most important market in Asia. The real growth drivers – Singapore is still growing, although it is a fairly developed, mature market – are Thailand and Malaysia where demand is growing like crazy, and we expect Indonesia to take off soon as well, especially for us here at WGS.

It’s one of the reasons why we did the recent Glenfiddich Experience in Bangkok earlier this year – the idea was that since we can’t take a thousand people from Bangkok to see the Glenfiddich distillery, why not bring elements of the distillery to Bangkok for them to see? We might do one next year in Penang or Kuala Lumpur.

SSG: At the same time we’re also seeing the demand for American whiskies, especially bourbons, take off in Asia. How do you see that factor into the whisky or spirits market on the whole?

MFS: There’s this big trend, not just in Asia but around the world, that pretty much started alongside the craft cocktail movement: that of quality craft spirits, not just in Scotch whiskies, but also in American craft whiskies, craft beer, and a bunch of other categories as well.

It’s been a huge change in how people approach spirits: a behaviour that has been in the wine market for a while, where people appreciate and pick up quality vintages for their own collections.


 

“People ask me why single malt whiskIES haVE suddenly become popular; the question for me is really, why hasn’t it been popular before?”


 

SS: Industry insiders and observers have always commented that Europe is generally a blended whisky market; for Asia it was previously aged premium blended whiskies, but in the past few years moving into premium single malts. What’s your view?

MFS: I don’t necessarily agree. Some parts of Europe have always appreciated good single malt whiskies, like France, Germany and Sweden – in fact I think there are more whisky clubs in Sweden per capita then anywhere else.

Worldwide, 92% of the Scotch whisky market is blended. If you look at Asia, we have two extreme examples: Thailand is always a huge market for blended whiskies, with single malts being quite hard to get. Compare this to the world’s great outlier, Taiwan, which is unique in the world with about 50% blended to 50% single malt.

There are many appreciators of good single malt whisky all over the world, so I don’t think I would want to generalize the market in that way.

SS: How important is Taiwan as a market for William Grant & Sons? After all, you launched the Kininvie exclusively in Taiwan first, and also The Balvenie Tun 1858. And how about Japan?

Kininvie 17

MFS: Absolutely. Per head population they drink so much single malt whisky that they are an important country for any company that makes single malt whisky. They are the leading market in this part of the world.

Japan is much like Singapore in many ways, a more mature market that’s been drinking good whisky for a very long time. They are also a big market for American whiskies, but now their own whiskies are coming to the fore.

SS: What do you think is the most challenging thing that the markets in this part of the world are facing right now?

MFS: It’s an incredibly diverse region. We’ve got the most populous Muslim nation on earth, the most strongly Buddhist nation on earth, and then a very secular nation – Singapore. We’ve got countries that have got a couple million people through to hundreds of millions of people. We’ve got governments that are constitutional monarchies, republics, dictatorships; there are coups, and contested presidential elections.

There’s also a huge range of cuisine, there’s a huge range of languages; some of which are english based, some are latin based, some are hieroglyphic, some are based on sanskrit.

This is an incredibly diverse market culturally, and also in terms of how we can do our marketing. Singapore’s quite free and quite open. For example, we can’t – and don’t want to – market alcohol to children, but we can still advertise in magazines, and provide information for all those kind of things.

However, a lot of markets are what we call ‘dark markets’. You can’t advertise. The rules are different in each place. Like Thailand; if the rules are followed basically it would make it impossible to do any brand ambassador work. You’re not allowed to do any promotion of alcohol.

Some markets are very challenging in terms of certification and getting your licenses, and not all are run with quite the efficiency and transparency of Singapore.

In all that’s a lot to manage, and a lot to understand and to be on top of; the cultural differences and the differences in terms of how we go about it.

SS: What do you think are the main factors that have led to the growth of the single malt whisky category in Asia? Do the whisky communities in these markets help to spur growth?

MFS: One thing that is true across Southeast Asia, especially in the last twenty years, is the growth of the middle class. Before there weren’t just that many people who were exposed to things from around the world or able to afford it. We’re getting growth now because people can finally buy them.

Among whisky drinkers there’s a core group of us that are quite fanatical about it. But there is a mistake that the whisky geek community worldwide tends to make, where we usually have very strong opinions and think of ourselves as a real driver of sales and trends.

We’re really just part of a trend that’s happening around the world. We do have an influence, but are really a small part of the community. We may drink more per capita than regular consumers, but there’s not a lot of us so we are not as influential as we sometimes like to think we are.

Glenfiddich component malts

Sadly only a small segment would enjoy sampling component whiskies

We complain about filtering processes, non-age statements, for example; but we do need to remind ourselves from time to time that we don’t actually represent the market. Our opinions may not be that of the rest of the market. And just as well – imagine how much more expensive rare and collectible whiskies would be if everybody wanted them, and not just us?


“There is a mistake that the whisky geek community worldwide tends to make, where we usually have very strong opinions and think of ourselves as a real driver of sales and trends. There’s not a lot of us so we are not as influential as we sometimes like to think we are.”


 

SS: Where do you see the market growing for the next three to five years?

MFS: Some people like to talk about whether we’re going to see a whisky bubble, where we continue to see the same growth. I think we’ll continue to see growth, but it may not be at the astronomical levels that we’ve seen over the last ten years. It should still be solid.

If you’re a whisky investor, there’s still some growth to be seen.

 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Matthew Fergusson-Stewart, where we discuss the direction of Glenfiddich and its WGS stablemates, and new releases as well.