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The importance of being enthusiastic and engaging

Colin Dunn catches up with The Drinks Report to talk about his recent Icons of Whisky Scotland win and what Diageo has in store for Scotch in 2016

Colin Dunn Diageo

When did you decide you wanted to work in the whisky industry?

In January 2000 after visiting Islay and seeing the passion and commitment of the staff at the Distilleries. I thought that this was a category that had not been promoted that much and I wanted to be part of it going forward.


Tell us about how you got to where you are today with Diageo.

I started my career in whisky with Suntory promoting the single malts of Bowmore, Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch and latterly Yamazaki Hibiki and Hakushu – introducing these whiskies to the UK on- and off-trade. In 2008 I was offered the opportunity to work with Diageo, and after seeing their portfolio of whiskies it was a no-brainer . The range of distilleries and expressions at Diageo is so vast that it was like being in a sweet shop, so many flavours !   


What does your role as Scotch brand ambassador at Diageo entail?

Primarily, I work with bartenders, sommeliers and off-trade staff, educating them in our range of whiskies as well as presenting at festivals, exhibitions and events in our accounts. This entails presenting our brands in many different ways, such as working with chefs to produce whisky and food pairings.  


What brands do you represent from Diageo’s portfolio?

I represent the 28 Diageo single malt distilleries as well as their blends, particularly the Johnnie Walker range.


You are widely known for your engaging and enthusiastic ambassadorial style – how important do you think this approach is in getting your message across?

I believe that when you stand up in front of an audience, whether small or big, it is important to be engaging. I want them to remember the message I am giving and this means stamping your love of the liquid on the audience. I remember spending a lot of time learning from other ambassadors at that time on how to present and the ones that resonated with me were the people who were enthusiastic. These were the ones that I remember even to this day.  


You are also known for being a musician and playing with whisky rock band, the Lagavulins, does this take up most of your spare time?

Not really, I love music, and when I was approached by a group of musicians to do some gigs based around whisky and blues, it was an opportunity to blend the two together and we created whisky infused rhythm and blues. Our music is a cross between Seasick Steve and ZZ Top, and the sound is like four flat tyres on a muddy road! Great fun and a great hobby. As David Bowie famously said, “We can be heroes just for one day” and that’s how I look at it when I go onstage.


You were recently named scotch whisky brand ambassador of the year in Whisky Magazine’s Icons of Whisky Awards 2016 – what do you think makes you stand out from other brand ambassadors in the industry?

I don’t see me standing out in what I do. I get a big kick on seeing people that I have engaged with developing their passion for whisky and if I have played a part in that I am happy. I am passing on what others have done in the past and I just have a slightly different take in the way that I do my work.  


What plans do you have for the future of the brands you represent?

That would be telling! We’ve had a great year for single malts and we’re looking forward to more success in 2016. Look out for Talisker, The Singleton and Mortlach. Of course, there will be a new portfolio of our Special Releases in the autumn: a high profile annual event, eagerly anticipated by both on-trade and off-trade customers as well as consumers. We will be busy, and there will be many more releases and announcements before then. Sorry, but I can’t say much more at the moment.


As an ambassador, what importance do you place on educating both the trade and consumer on history, production, legislation etc?

I think it is really important that trade and consumers need to see the whole picture. Whisky has such a huge history that I would be failing if I did not touch on that, I should say that while innovation plays such a huge part going forward in the Industry, the history, production methods and legislation give a better understanding of how Whisky has got to be where it is in 2016.   


What can we look forward to from Diageo in 2016?

It’s a big year for us as we celebrate Lagavulin’s bicentenary, and you can expect to hear more from us about that over the next few months. More generally, you can look forward to some excellent new releases – some new-to-world expressions, and some new variants of familiar brands. Diageo is rightly proud of its history and traditions, but at the heart of Scotch – all Scotch – is the spirit of innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship that inspired determined young men and women to create our brands in the 19th century, and which has been our lifeblood ever since.

We invent strong brands for today and for the future, and take great pride in nurturing our iconic brands that have been around for hundreds of years. Scotch will remain the world’s favourite whisky.  No other spirit can offer the same range of tastes, textures and flavours; made the same way for over 500 years in distilleries small and large, the length and breadth of Scotland.

8 February 2016