Struan Grant Ralph, if you hadn’t already guessed, is Scottish. Born and raised in Speyside, he has the lucky job of travelling the globe extolling the virtues of Scotland’s most famous export – Single Malt Scotch Whisky. Glenfiddich, to be exact.
So, how did he land such an enviable role? Quite simply by living and breathing whisky – and displaying the same level of passion and innovation that goes into making Glenfiddich itself. Chemist-turned-bartender-turned-ambassador, Struan has been immersed in the whisky world from day one, growing up just 10 miles from Dufftown and passing no fewer than two distilleries on his daily walk to school. “My first job was working at Knockdhu distillery – it was there where I cemented my passion for Single Malt and it allowed me to learn the practical foundations of whisky making”. Inspired by the scientific process, he went on to achieve a master’s degree in Chemistry and a Distinction from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, leading him into the billion-dollar industry.
Struan is no stranger to mixing single malts, his role has taken him across the world, where he has since mastered his trade as bartender, exploring global cocktail culture in locations including Osaka, Manilla, Melbourne and Kuala Lumpur. This month, he will take his skills to Scotland to be one of the judges in the finals of Glenfiddich’s annual Experimental Bartender competition.
Before the cocktails start shaking, we sat down with Grant Ralph to discuss modern mixology, culture shocks and why whisky endures around the world…
This is the third year of Glenfiddich’s Experimental Whisky Bartender competition. Other than drinking some very creative cocktails, why has the brand invested so much into the tournament?
“First and foremost,” begins the Global Ambassador, “what we wanted to do was cultivate community. In the competition, bartenders are encouraged to find a collaborator to expand their skills — and that changes what would normally just be a cocktail competition.
“So they have got out to find a fellow artisan who can help,” he adds. “For example, our winners in France were a a bartender and a chocolatier, who had sat down together and virtually created their own product. We’ve also seen tattoo artists, fashion designers, psychologists, DJs — people who are creative in every space.”
Grant Ralph himself has judged regional finals this year in the USA, UK, France, Germany, Spain, Ukraine and India. It’s a jet-setting judging schedule — but how has he seen audience’s approach to whisky change around the world?
“In Ukraine last week, at one bartending finals, there were competitors from Kazakstan, Azerbaijan, Kurdistan — all the best bartenders from these places. And, whilst they may not be as technical as bartenders from London or New York, or as intricate, the sense of welcoming is second-to-none.
"We’ve seen tattoo artists, fashion designers, psychologists, DJs..."
“You might not know this,” continues Grant Ralph, “but Azerbaijan is really famous for melons. So the bartender, for the first five minutes of his presentation, was just standing with a massive knife, chopping up and talking about melons. It was incredible.
“So I think the sense of hospitality can be very different around the world. Sometimes it can be very quiet and calm, and then you might go to some markets such as Dubai and Latin America and it’ll be a bit more flashy. There’ll be more theatre. But, wherever you go, drinks are trending towards lower-strength. Modern mixology is all about fresher ingredients, lighter and more of a daytime aperitivo.”
But whisky, with its grand Scottish history, must still have its puritans — those who are scandalised by Glenfiddich starting a cocktail competition?
“Actually, it’s been really refreshing,” laughs the Global Ambassador. Even though I’ve been engaging with a younger, creative audience with the Experimental Whisky Bartender competition, I’ve seen that the traditional, old guard of whisky understand now that maybe they’ve had their day.
“Whisky no longer has to be neat. You no longer have to drink it sitting in a leather chair by the fire with your dog. That’s been and gone. And that core whisky consumer of the past seems to have accepted that whisky is now positioned more as a lifestyle. As long as we continue to treat whisky with the reverence that they do, everything will be fine. So, when making a mixed drink, we source ingredients that have the same quality and provenance that the whisky does.
“The sheer fact of it,” says Grant Ralph, “is that whisky cocktails have been around since before Prohibition. They are the cornerstones of all good drinks: Sazeracs, Old Fashioneds, Whisky Sours, Rob Roys. They’re nothing new. But, as with everything, sometimes it just takes people a bit of time to come around.”
The competition is obviously going a long way to broaden people’s horizons — even Glenfiddich’s themselves. How have previous winners surprised you, and what’s in store for the finals judges this year?
“Last year’s winners were Spanish,” says Grant Ralph. “They were a bartender and an ice cream maker he partnered with from a valley up above Alicante. Interestingly, they flew across to Scotland for the final, the airline lost their luggage — so all their ingredients were gone.
“Whisky no longer has to be neat. You no longer have to drink it sitting in a leather chair by the fire with your dog..."
“But, over the few days beforehand, they searched around Scotland to find the ingredients they needed. Somehow they managed it, and they won. It was stunning — a flavour pairing of three ice creams, each created to bring out a different flavours from the whisky.
“The year before,” he adds, “the winners were the head bartender and chef from The Nomad in New York, who recreated a meal that William Grant would have eaten back when the distillery was being built, using ingredients they had foraged from around the distillery.”
The entries sound incredibly different and distinct. How can you fairly judge between such disparate cocktails and presentations?
“We look at flavour,” says Grant Ralph. “We look at story, and if it evokes that innovative brand spirit of Glenfiddich. We look for that maverick mark, and ask: Has someone just completely flipped our noodle here?
“This year, our regional winner in Spain was a performance artist and a bartender. We were blindfolded along the bar and, as the performance artist told us the story of Scotland, of rain and of snow, the bartender was flicking water in our faces!
“It’s immersive, sounds and smells. It was just ten minutes of an experience, but you were transported. That’s what the Experimental Whisky Bartender competition was all about, after all. Many of us sit down for cocktails all the time, but we’re looking for something extra…”
To learn more about the Glenfiddich Experiemental Whisky Bartender competition, click here…