And now for the fifth installment to my interview series.
As you hopefully know by now, I’ve started series of interviews to help demystify some of the many aspects of the whisk(e)y industry. Who makes it, how they do it, how they got into it, how to they sell, promote it, market it, etc… While this series is called “A Day in the Life”, it will focus on more than on just a single day in the life of a Cooper, Sales Person, Ambassador, Master Blender, Independent reviewer/critic, etc… I try to get a full picture of what they do from day to day. Also, I will try to get a little personal (without making said person or people blush).
For previous interviews I’ve done, please see the links below (at the end of this interview).
It is a privilege and and honor to have had the chance to interview, Ben Ellefsen, Justin Petszaft & Darren Rook (aka The Whisky Guy) of Master of Malt. Ben, Justin & Darren, thank you all again for your time!
On to the interview:
Joshua: Please explain who you all are and what you do for Master of Malt. Also, how did you first get involved with Master of Malt and what had you done prior to this?
Master of Malt: I’ll tell you a bit about the background of the company, and where we stand now… Whilst the company has been around for over 25 years, it’s only in the last couple of years that we’ve started to grow into a larger organization. This has happened as a result of significant investment in both staff and infrastructure, and the growth is still rapidly accelerating. The three of us you’ve mentioned are:
Justin – Managing Director, ultimately responsible for everything (m’lud), but mainly works on making the website ‘cool’. Background in Theoretical Physics, Mathematics, and Web design/coding.
Ben – Sales Director, responsible for most stuff, but heavily centered at the moment in range expansion, stock acquisition and the development of other sales channels. Background in Restaurant Management, and print and web media sales management.
Darren – On-Trade and Events Manager, responsible for selling into all those lovely bars and restaurants we love so much, and running tasting events (coming soon – watch this space!). Background in bar management and hospitality. Most recently ran the London SMWS Members room.
It’s worth noting of course that there are many other noteworthy people involved in the business at many levels – it’s not just us three
Joshua: As you made me aware in our previous conversation, Master of Malt is an online storefront with no brick and mortar. There used to be a physical storefront, when did you decide to close it and why?
Master of Malt: The store was a very useful tool in interacting with customers face-to-face, but with the development of the web into a much more all-pervasive sales medium over the last 5 years or so, we took the decision to concentrate solely on the web for the time being.
Joshua: Do you feel that being an online shop only is an asset or a hindrance to the company and, why?
Master of Malt: Definitely an asset overall, although we do all miss the ability to get in a room with our customers and hear what they’ve got to say. Hence the development of the tasting programmes launching over the next few months.
Joshua: From your standpoint, what would you say your biggest obstacles are in progressing the sales of your whiskies?
Master of Malt: Without a doubt, the biggest barrier to sales is getting customers to try new expressions and whiskies from different distilleries to those they’ve previously encountered. This was (for us especially as we’re web-only) a very serious issue, to which we had to develop a solution. With this in mind, we launched Drinks by the Dram, our ‘try before you buy’ sampling service a few months ago, and it’s been tremendously well received. It makes us very happy to see the positive feedback from our customers and press alike.
Joshua: How many people work at Master of Malt? Who are they and what do they do?
Master of Malt: We’re currently about 20 people, and without going into personal backgrounds of each, we have a significant team involved in web-design, and another heavily focused on analysis and insight – there’s actually a separate business unit called ATOM insight, which consults for larger blue-chip clients on Marketing analytics and data segmentation as well as feeding back into Master of Malt (nice little plug if there are any Marketing officers for large blue-chips out there J). We also currently have 8 full-time staff in our packaging and warehousing operation.
Joshua: You must have a massive inventory – how many bottles do you stock and how many different expressions?
Master of Malt: Wow – well with the products that are going live this week, we’re going to be tipping over the 3,500 mark in terms of lines we carry. I can think of maybe one other retailer that has more than that, but we’re catching up rapidly…
Joshua: Master of Malt has had an online presence for just over 10 years now and within the past years you’ve launched some fantastic features – a chance to win a 40 year Glenfarclas, “Drinks by the Dram”, an opportunity to win a trip to Ireland to visit the Cooley Distillery, etc… Whos brainchildren are these, how did you come up with them and what can we expect in the near future?
Master of Malt: Perhaps the biggest lesson that we’ve learned in the last few years is to listen to your customers. The initial concept of Drinks by the Dram was actually kind of forced upon us by a few rather enthusiastic customers, and as we implemented and developed it further and further, it became clear just what a good idea it really was.
The competitions that we run are our way of having a bit of fun really. We’re all kids at heart, and whilst a £3 discount on each bottle of Glenfarclas would have been an easy (and no doubt popular) thing to do, it’s not quite as fun as chucking all the money into a hat and letting someone win a once-in-a-lifetime bottle of something truly spectacular.
In terms of what you can expect next, you’ll have to keep watching this space, but I can (exclusively) reveal that we’re going to be running an absolute belter of a competition involving Compass Box soon. It’s going to be a fantastic opportunity, and one that everyone (not just the competition winners) can get involved with…
Joshua: Master of Malt has some award winning Single Cask exclusive malts. Can you go into the process of choosing the malts? Also, do you have any new bottlings you’d like to announce?
Master of Malt: Our process for choosing new malts is really quite simple – we only bottle if we’re all convinced that we’ve got something exceptional. We’ll taste, on average, over 100 samples before we select a cask to bottle, so whilst bottlings may be relatively infrequent, you can rest assured that they’ll always be tip-top. In terms of new stuff coming up soon, we’re looking at a few at the moment, maybe in the slightly lower (more affordable) age range, and may have a surprise coming up before Christmas in the shape of a slightly more exotic bottling… Can’t say too much about that now, but watch this space.
Joshua: When someone goes to your site they will see a link to the comments left from your customers. There must be some that have been left that you just HAD to take down. Perhaps it was rude, crude, perverse, etc… I’m not a prude and either are my readers (well, that guy is and maybe her but, not the rest of them), care to share one or two?
Master of Malt: In complete honesty, I think we’ve only ever had to remove two comments. One was rather expletive-packed (might be something to do with the fact it was written at 23:30 on a Friday?), and one (for no real reason we could ascertain) cited some slightly curious views about the French, so we edited that one out. We’ll only ever remove them if they’re downright offensive, racist or potentially libelous!
Honesty is really important to us, so leaving in the ones that are critical is very important to our growth as a business. You don’t get to silence a pissed-off customer in a shop, so why should we be any different? That said, the vast, vast majority of the comments are overwhelmingly positive which can only be encouraging!
Joshua: As you may have guessed, some of my readers may be of the Hebraic persuasion (they’re Jews). While I can not speak for all, many Jews will not partake in the consumption of whisky (or anything from grains for that matter) during Passover. Do you feature any kosher certified tequilas, cognacs, mead, etc…
Master of Malt: Indeed – I have to profess that my knowledge of this area is somewhat limited, and whilst several distilleries (notably Bruichladdich, Auchentoshan and a few others) are now beginning to grasp the fact that there’s a significant market out there for Kosher products, other spirit producers have been less forthcoming with actively promoting products as Kosher. I’ll conduct some research and get back to you on this one, as it’s a very good question. Equally if any of your readers know for a fact that some of the products we stock are Kosher, please let us know, and we’ll be sure to promote them as such!
Joshua: One thing I try to focus on with my blog is what dram to drink for a particular mood or season. Do you approach personal consumption in this manner?
Master of Malt: I think it’s inevitable, yes. We all drink whisky the whole year round, but the ‘diet’ does tend to vary a little more in the summer months in favour of Martinis, Rum-based cocktails, and even the odd beer or two
Joshua: How did you all get into whiskies? Did you have a gateway whisky? Do you have a story that goes with it?
Master of Malt: With a lot of hard work is the honest answer. We started reasonably young on whisky (insert an age that meets the minimum requirements in your particular country), but at first knew it was something that would be rewarding once we got there rather than being something we were immediately into. My personal ‘eureka’ whisky moment was in the tasting bar at the Whisky Experience in Edinburgh with my (now) wife. I described my tastes to the barman, and he immediately pulled a bottle of (very new) Uigeadail off the shelf. I’ve never had a more profound experience with any whisky before or since, and that’s when I knew it was something I wanted to get into in a big way. Goes to show the power of well-trained staff.
Joshua: What passions, other than whisk(e)y do you have?
Master of Malt: Wow, well speaking for the rest of the directors too, I’d put together a list as follows:
Champagne – Paticularly older NV stuff.
Properly made cocktails
Cars (particularly R.W.D. with skinny tyres)
The life and work of Richard Feynman.
Joshua: Do you have a list of Top Drams or perhaps some Desert Island Drams you’d like to share?
Master of Malt: Perhaps the best way to answer is if you were only ever allowed three whiskies – I think mine personally would have to be: Ardbeg Uigeadail (one of the first batches), the recent 1976 Karuizawa from No 1 Drinks, and a bourbon. Which one, I can’t quite make my mind up about. Maybe Noah’s Mill? Then again some barrels of Blanton’s are pretty special too…
Joshua: Without giving out names & places (basically, without getting yourself into any trouble), do you have any funny, interesting or bizarre stories from any of your events/travels that you wish to share?
Master of Malt: What stories Yossi? What could you possibly be talking about? Us industry types are all completely responsible sober types who generally get home of an evening nice and early and curl up with a mug of cocoa before bedtime… Definitely nothing at all untoward, and whoever told you the story about a certain couple of people wandering around London until 6am looking for an all-night Salt Beef Bagel shop is lying. Lying I tells ya.
(yes we found it, and it was worth the walk)
Joshua: Lastly, if you had a message or lesson to give people who are just getting into whiskies, what would that be?
Master of Malt: (not neccesarily something you’ll hear from a retailer all that often) Price does not neccesarily equal quality. If something’s expensive, the chances are it’s expensive due to rarity rather than absolute quality. That’s not to say that there isn’t a correlation between price and quality of course, but the graph is far from linear. If you’re unsure about whether or not to buy that £500 bottle, for goodness’ sake TRY IT FIRST!!! That’s what Drinks by the Dram is for!
Master of Malt people – thanks again!!
My previous interviewees are:
Serge Valentin of Whisky Fun! and Malt Maniacs
Sam Simmons of The Balvenie
Stuart Nickerson of Glenglassaugh (Part one and Part two)
Alan Shayne of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) of America