Interview with Struan Grant Ralph- Global Ambassador Glenfiddich
By: Leilah Namisango (@leylurr)
Struan is not the first guy from the UK who started his career in hospitality as a bartender and at an early age. ''If you grew up where are I am from, whisky and ale are what you are surrounded with. Most people move to pursue other jobs but if you stay, you become a fisherman, farmer or get into other whisky jobs.''
Struan's first time visit to Kenya is special because his parents lived here in the 70’s and his sister was actually even born here.
Struan who has traveled the world as a whisky ambassador and
bartender in Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia and the United States was in
Nairobi to host unique tasting and training experiences with Glenfiddich. We find out more about his exciting job.
Where did your love for whisky all start for you?
In Scotland it is common to start bartending young, I started when I was 17. I got into the whisky business early probably because I accidentally tasted it when I was 13, liked it and now more than 20 years later I still do.
Do you vividly remember your first sip?
I do, this is how it happened. There’s this tradition in Scotland where people try to climb all the highest mountains and my parents and their friends took us along one weekend. It was a snowy day and when we got to the top they were passing around a flask with what we call a whisky mac, a mixture of whisky and ginger which is arguably one of the world’s first cocktail. The flask somehow got passed to me and I took a quick sip. Although the taste was strong, I enjoyed it and I remember being happier going down the hill than up.
Let’s talk about Glenfiddich. First of all, how is it pronounced?
Glen fi dik… like how you say “chiropractor”. But it doesn’t really matter how you say it as long as you are ordering it.
Scotch whisky makers were over the years guilty of dictating how their customers should drink it. Mercedes do not sell you a car and tell you how to drive it.
How long have you been a Brand Ambassador with them?
I started in 2010/2011, I was working at a whisky bar in Melbourne and doing different works with whisky when they approached me to take a job in South East Asia. My first position was in Kuala Lumpur. Since then I have traveled quite a bit and worked in the US, Singapore and now I am back in the UK as the global representative of the brand.
What’s your job like?
A lot of travel to many different places. Now, I travel to a new place almost every week.
A typical day….
When I am in a market, today for instance, I did a bartender’s brunch, where we hosted 75 local bartenders at J’s for a training session. I then had a television show interview, more press interviews and later on I will visit other bars and restaurants where the bartenders who came for the training work. If I am home, I work at the global office in London and at the distillery.
What do you look out for when visiting the local bars?
A big part of coming to a new country is going to your customers; meeting and talking to them to see how they are getting on. This is called a trade tour and we set out to visit like 4 or 5 places each night.
This is your third day here, have you already visited any bars and which ones are on your radar?
Not that many yet. Staying here, so obviously the Sankara Rooftop bar, and J's Fresh Kitchen and Bar. I know that there is a whisky bar called 1824. We are also having a big tasting event at the Capital Club. Kenya, however, feels like a cool place so far. You can immediately see and feel how energetic it is. The food is nice and you have both well done local and international options, which is important for a frequent traveler. I love how green it is, the traffic is crazy but you have Uber! I did not expect that!
How’d you rate this bar (Sankara’s Sarabi Bar)
This is a nice place to have a drink. Great temperature, you can have a conversation, there’s nice lighting, a pool! You’ve got to love that. In general, I love for a bar to smell like they are making good cocktails- orange zest and vanilla in the air. The crowd and the vibes should be upbeat. Almost all the Top 500 bars can have a good menu, balanced drinks and a trained staff but in world class bars you see how contented and motivated the staff is too.
Do you miss your days working the bar?
I absolutely loved interacting with people. I miss the social and creative aspects of bartending. I made some of my best friends during this time and met many incredible people including my wife. Although in her case, I was the customer. She made me a very good Manhattan at the Golden Monkey in Melbourne and I asked her out.
She’s very big in the industry too, what’s it like being one half of the industry’s power couple?
You should ask her (Laughs)
Advice to bar goers?
I read something interesting about this. Basically, as a customer in a bar you also have an obligation to behave in a certain way. If you are going to have say five cocktails, leave and be polite, do not occupy the bartender’s time. If you are bringing a group of people make sure they are also going to be well behaved.
Do you judge any competitions?
We just concluded one called “The World’s Most Experimental Bartender” which I judged. This year’s winner was from Spain, David. I have judged that all over the world. It is so much fun. All the competitors met in Scotland for the finals, just two weeks ago. The 20 bartenders stayed in Scotland for a week, made their own whiskies from scratch and we had a marvelous gala event at the end.
What do you look for as a judge and even when training bartenders?
The most important thing is true hospitality, having the sense that someone has come to you for a little levity and relaxation, people that do not take it too seriously. I know as a bartender there’s a lot to learn but there is a danger in being too intense. I look for qualities such as ability to entertain, cheerfulness, great story telling, well-read bartenders who understand the art. In terms of the drinks; balance, clean procedures and something extra that stands out like a local ingredient.
How was your training here?
I was truly impressed by the vast knowledge
the trainees had. Everyone was eager to learn, I got asked some hard questions.
Having 75 bartenders turning up at 9am in the morning is brilliant and
wonderful for the scene.
How is the drinks industry transforming?
Today, we are more concerned about wellness, responsibility and low EBV drinks. In the past, it was also a notably male dominated field but is more equal now. Even at the training in Nairobi today, there were as many women as men. The future? Expect continued innovation from us, we release one experimental whisky every year and will continue to do so for the next decade. The trade will continue to be more local. The farm to table concept that started in the kitchen will also be seen at the bar.