Lukasz Dynowiak is one of the most accomplished whisky professionals in the world. He was a journalist and blogger before joining IBHL. Of many things to his credit, he created the most influential whisky blog in the UK, built a successful spirits consultancy, judged international spirits contests and co-authored the much acclaimed ‘1001 whiskies you must try before you die’. He was recently in India to spread awareness about his brands and of whisky as a category.
Firstpost talked to Lukasz Dynowiak about his passion, job and many other things
I get to work with a number of great spirits brands on a daily basis and I’m a huge Scotch whisky enthusiast. So the lines dividing my work and passion are blurred and therefore there’s no one way of defining myself.
From blogging on whisky to being a consultant to now becoming a Global Ambassador for IBHL, you have traversed a long and fascinating path. Tell us about your pre-whisky life and your initiation into whisky.
I discovered my love for fine whisky when I was at the university. I first worked as a tour guide at the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre and it all moved up very quickly from there. I finished my degree in tourism but my heart was no longer in it; all I wanted was to learn more about Scotch and I think I was very fortunate. When you do what you love, you never struggle to get out of bed in the morning. I don’t think there was ever a shadow of doubt in my mind ever since I tried my first single malt whisky.
And which one was that?
It was Highland Park 18 years. The moment I tried it I realized that it was something I liked to do.
How was the journey from there?
I began my journey by blogging, writing, being a critic and being a tour guide.But all these things that I did then were really just means to see me through my education, while helping me retain my independence. My ultimate goal was to innovate something for the industry and I thought that would take a very long time. But luckily for me, it didn’t and here I am! Being a commentator on the industry from the outside is liberating and empowering because of the power it gives you to influence tastes. But being an industry insider, as part of an organization,it’s a different experience altogether; you get fascinating insights from the inside view. For me however, the transition was natural and that’s why I chose to do it, even though it meant I had to give up on my independence as an outsider.
How do you feel getting your first break at IBHL?
Truly, I couldn’t have wished for a better company to start with. Our brand education function is small, but it’s growing and there is a lot of ground work to be done. It’s an exciting and challenging space to be in. Had I joined a bigger company with more established brand education practices, I would have been thrown into a rut. After five years of working as an independent consultant, I could have felt stifled in that kind of work environment. IBHL on the other hand, gave me a lot of freedom and breathing space.
Could you describe your job function and role?
A brand ambassador’s function is free flowing. As a brand ambassador, I am essentially the link between the marketing, sales and production teams on one side, and the end consumer, the trade and the bartenders on the other. So it is really my job to channelise and direct the information flow. A brand ambassador is also the eyes and ears for the company and its brands. So the information flow is a two-way process and I also gather a lot of feedback from the trade and the market. So yes, it’s an interesting role, quiet a complex one in many ways,but I think it’s where I always wanted to be.
Was there much to learn in your new role as a global ambassador?
Definitely; there was a learning curve. Working for a big organization comes with both rules and opportunities. As a business, we understand brand education well and the brands are always our priority. So in this respect, my current work is not so different from what I’ve done in the past. To describe it simplistically, I’d say it is about taking a great product and putting it in front of great many people.
Which are the markets you are focused on currently?
The key markets for us right now are UK, US, India, Poland, Southeast Asia, Thailand and also established markets like Sweden, Germany, Russia, France, South Africa, Canada, Vietnam and Myanmar. Mind you, all these markets may not be big in terms of volumes. Some of them simply hold a lot of potential and we are still exploring and testing them.
What about your team?
There are two of us in-house – my boss Andy Hannah and myself. He is the brand development manager,but since we are such a small function we can’t focus solely on the brand development aspect.So he takes on a lot of brand ambassador duties as well. We also have regional ambassadors in many countries.
Any plans to have a regional brand ambassador in India?
We would love to, but we have to wait and see. At the moment we have our Marketing Head in India, Kavir Advani, who multi-tasks. He is very knowledgeable and is more a brand representative than a market manager. Among other things, he trains people and does home appreciation sessions. So at the moment he helps our brands grow in the market.
Can you tell us about the Inver House portfolio, its vintage releases and how they are doing currently in the global markets?
Our portfolio is focused on premium and super premium products. Balblair Vintages are a great example. They are limited, small releases and that makes them even more desirable and intriguing. Old Pulteney is another great inspiration for the team with its strong sense of coastal provenance. When you have this sort of quality and you are passionate about what you do, your product will do well.
Since almost all of IBHL’s whiskies are at the premium end of the spectrum, how easy or difficult is it to capture markets, especially the price conscious ones?
Every market is different. But the depth and variety in our portfolio allows us to operate anywhere in the world,while pursuing our goals for select markets. It’s true we are best known for our exclusive brands, but we also make some fantastic spirits at more affordable price points. We have a great blended whisky portfolio, which is cherished the world over, with brands like Hankey Bannister or Catto’s being widely recognized as some of the finest in the category.
What kind of changes have you seen over the years in terms of whisky drinking?And going by the trend, what kind of whiskies will do better in the coming years?
One of the most encouraging trends around the world is the inclusion of new demographics into the category. Women and young drinkers in particular are increasingly drawn to the top-end of the whisky market and I’d like to think that it is, at least to some extent, due to the brand and category education work we have been doing. For many years now, the message has been clearly oriented on the provenance and flavour. And when you remove preconceptions, it quickly turns out that those things are equally appealing to a wider group of consumers, regardless of their gender, age and background.
What’s the core strength of Inver House whiskies and how much tweaking (if any) has been done to their basic blend over the years?
The rich heritage of our brands and the genuine passion behind them results in top quality products and that’s our biggest strength. When you taste any of our malts, you get a feel of that robust heritage,the original processes and the love and care that went into creating every drop.
Jim Murray, who had rated Old Pulteney 21 YO as World Whisky of the year in 2012,had also been very critical of the Scotch industry for not experimenting enough. How do you view his comment?
I couldn’t speak for the industry, but in my personal view, Scotch whisky is such a precious brand that we need to be careful when introducing changes. As a company we make traditional single malts and blended whiskies using time-honoured methods, but we also produce a very modern, hand-crafted gin – Caorunn. We innovate where innovation is needed and respect tradition when it means producing the best possible quality.
Scotch whisky still accounts for merely 1% of the total Indian spirits market. What do you think is hampering the faster growth?
I think Scotch whisky is widely recognized in India as a quality product and from what I’ve seen here, there is definitely a lot of love for it. But as you know, importing spirits into India is not easy and trade barriers mean,at least for the time being,that Scotch whisky capturesonly a fraction of the market. But the situation is ever-changing.Just look at our brands. Introduced in India only a couple of years ago, they already have a strong presence in Delhi and Mumbai and a fantastic following among those in the know.
After your recent multi-city visit to India, what is your take on the marketing push needed for Inver House brands?
My impression, based on the single malt drinkers I met here, is that they are very discerning and don’t like to compromise. They also don’t mince words when it comes to expressing their views, which is a good thing.What we really need to improve now is category education and introducing more ways for people to get that knowledge. In our brand work, we rely on the quality of our product, that’s what we like to talk about. So sampling opportunities are at the heart of what we do in India. You can definitely expect to see Old Pulteney, Balblair, Speyburn, and Caorunn sampled all over the main cities in the years to come.
Can you name the top five whiskies you love to drink?
At the moment, Europe is descending fast into winter and as temperatures drop it will be all about Old Pulteney for me – it has the richness and deep sweetness, which is just very comforting around this time of the year. My other firm favourite is Speyburn — we entertain a lotwith it. It has a soft, easy taste which makes it widely appealing. Outside our portfolio, I’ve tried some interesting new whiskies lately. I really enjoyed single malt from the Cotswolds Distillery. I found the stylishly-packaged whisky from Puni in Italy to be elegant and balanced. Also, while exploring Canadian whisky, I recently got drawn to Shelter Point single malt and I must say I wasn’t disappointed.