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Brand ambassador from Scotland engages in whiskey diplomacy

In every country he goes to spreading the Glennfiddich name, Millar tries to fit his tastings to the local culture.

BEIRUT: There’s no right or wrong way to drink a whiskey, Ian Millar says as he goes through the various ways to enjoy the quintessentially Scottish spirit: with ice, with a bit of water, straight, chilled, warmed. “The best way to drink whiskey is with friends,” he concludes. And that’s exactly what he’s doing here in Lebanon this week, making new friends and reconnecting with old ones, as the global brand ambassador for Glennfiddich, a 126-year-old distillery – among around 70 others in the area – in the heart of northeast Scotland, the land of whiskey and golf.

The Scotsman is working to develop this culture beyond the rolling hills of Scotland and that includes Lebanon, hence his sixth visit to the country whose whiskey imports have increased from around 150,000 cases five years ago to around 540,000 cases today. Glennfiddich has been riding this wave of interest with 2,800 cases sold last year by its local distributor Bocti, compared with just 200 sold two years ago, accounting for 70 percent of the country’s single malt whiskey sales – a sign that not only are Lebanese embracing the drink, but they are also beginning to enjoy the good, single malt stuff.

Millar suggests several factors for Lebanon’s sharp rise in whiskey consumption over the past several years: an increase in foreign travel that leads people to seek out the products they had while abroad, an interest in trying different things, and of course, the influence of one of the world’s most popular TV shows, whose high ratings have coincided with the rise of the world’s love for whiskey.

“‘Madmen’ has increased the interest in whiskey. They’re always holding a big glass of whiskey, and people like that look,” Millar notes. Indeed, Lebanon is known for keeping up with global trends, as well as setting them in the region, and despite a recent drop in tourism due to security concerns it is still a popular weekend dining and drinking destination for those living in the Gulf. This makes it an ideal place to promote a product that needs a bit of buzz.

Millar, who leads a team of 19 Glennfiddich whiskey ambassadors stationed in cities throughout the world, says without hesitation that he has always felt safe in the country. He finds Lebanon similar to his native Scotland due to its long history of arak distillation and “loving life head-on.”

This joie-de-vivre culture drew Millar as a young man to the distilleries of the Scottish Highlands from his previous work as a welding engineer.

In 1971, at the age of 18, he was waiting to hear back from a job he had applied for at an oil field in Libya. In the meantime, he got a job at a local distillery and never looked back.

He recalls it was the age when he was discovering women, drinking and parties – then all at his doorstep thanks to his work with whiskey.

“I don’t think I’d get that great doorstep in Libya,” says Millar, who has managed 10 distilleries since then. “It has provided me with an enjoyable lifestyle.” He is, however, quick to emphasize the importance of responsible drinking, something that he says has unfortunately eluded too many in northeast Scotland, where cold weather and a lack of recreational activities have led to a culture of heavy drinking.

Still, he is pleased to see a growing love of whiskey throughout the world, including among people in the Far East – the fastest growing market for whiskey – where he has noticed a few glasses can break through the etiquette barrier.

In every country he goes to spreading the Glennfiddich name, he tries to fit the tastings to the local culture. In Japan, he says people usually attend tastings wearing a suit and tie and are hesitant to ask questions until the end of the session. In Germany, people tend to be more analytical and ask many questions about the distilling process and the components used to make the whiskey.

It is, however, in the misty hills of Scotland that whiskey lovers will have the best tasting experience. At the Glennfiddich distillery in Dufftown, the can attend a free tasting of 12-, 15- and 18-year-old whiskeys with complimentary shortbread.

And just as Scotland has shortbread, Millar thinks it is time for Lebanon to designate a local sweet that can be washed down with a glass of whiskey.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 30, 2013, on page 2.

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