Haig Club: Goldenballs' golden child

25 November, 2016

Britain’s two most famous Davids recently visited the Cameronbridge distillery in eastern Scotland – former prime minister Cameron and former England captain, style icon and all-round superstar Beckham. It’s not hard to guess which one caused the off-duty female staff to come into work simply to catch a glimpse. Beckham has regularly been voted the world’s best looking man, while Cameron has been described as a “slightly camp gammon robot… a C3PO made of ham”.

Workers at the distillery note that Beckham had a lot more security personnel than Cameron, but they all piled in and were delighted to see him, even the Liverpool fan in the control room. 

Virtually everyone loves Beckham because he’s just such a nice bloke. He’s the perfect man to front a whisky brand. You couldn’t imagine Roy Keane doing it – half the target market wouldn’t buy it on general principle. 

Haig Club, the whisky created in a partnership between Beckham, his manager Simon Fuller and Diageo, is just like Goldenballs: successful, stylish, gentle, versatile, inoffensive, luxurious and extremely good looking. If Keane made a whisky it would have to be a fiery peated malt that alienates the majority of drinkers due to its strength. 

When it got Becks on board, Diageo could have chosen a single malt or a blend, but it opted for a single grain whisky. Single grain as a category is minuscule, representing just 0.3% of whisk(e)y value sales in the UK off-trade (Nielsen), and most of that is thanks to Haig Club. 

For the staff at Cameronbridge, the largest Scotch whisky distillery and the largest distillery of any kind in Europe, Haig Club is a huge deal. The grain whisky produced there is used in virtually every Scotch blend on the shelves – not just Diageo stalwarts such as Johnnie Walker and Bell’s but also in those brands owned by rival companies. Yet the only whisky using liquid solely made at Cameronbridge has been Cameron Brig, which only enjoys local distribution in eastern Scotland. 

Now the 100 or so workers have Haig Club to boast about, catapulted to global fame by Beckham and Diageo’s huge marketing reach. Celebrities around the world have sipped it, and millions have enjoyed it in homes and bars across the globe. 

“To actually have a brand now associated with the distillery is a great thing for us,” says Scott Harrison, business leader for production at Cameronbridge. “Scotch whisky is such an important part of Scotland’s history and when we come into work we feel like we are making history.”

For master distiller Chris Clark it has been a bit of a whirlwind. He has spent his whole life making single grain whisky to be used in blends – he undertook a diploma in distilling after
more than 20 years as a master distiller because he knew so little about malt whisky. He has simply made grain whisky to the best of his ability and someone else has blended it with various malts. 

But now his handiwork is enjoyed unadulterated by millions, backed by Beckham and sold at virtually every supermarket and independent drinks merchant in the UK. 

“It’s exciting for the guys who work here and for me, because most of my working life has been working with grain whisky,” he says. “People ignore grain whisky but it’s the backbone of Scotch whisky. Without it we wouldn’t have the global reach of blended whisky.” 

When asked why he and Diageo did not start championing single grain Scotch sooner, Clark smiles and said: “I don’t have much imagination.”

Global phenomenon

He is self-deprecating here as he has the requisite imagination to produce a consistent liquid that is essential in making Scotch a global phenomenon. Haig Club Clubman – a new expression that has a lower price point and a sweeter taste – has just released its first TV ad, narrated by a young Englishwoman. “Let’s talk about the rules of whisky,” she says. “They say you should drink it neat, never with a mixer. You’re only allowed a splash of water, or if you must, a single cube of ice. They say it’s best enjoyed alone. Take it seriously, swill it around, let it breathe. Whisky is a man’s drink, drunk by an open fire, waiting until it’s old; waiting until you’re old. But you know what they say about rules – make your own rules.”

People in the spirits industry tend to go one of two ways when it comes to mixers – they are either an abomination, a view shared by enthusiasts and aficionados; or they are a welcome way to boost sales in the vein of “they’ve bought it, let them drink it how they want”.

When asked which side of the fence he is on, Clark shakes his head, winces and says he cringes when he sees Scotch mixed with soft drinks. 

But Ewan Gunn, global whisky master at Diageo and Haig Club brand ambassador, says: “When people develop a taste for whisky they try it in different ways. Walking into a big, smoky Scotch is a big step. I disagree with Chris a little bit because I don’t mind if they are drinking it with cola, because it has brought them into Scotch. It doesn’t put people down. That’s a big part of the ad. 

“For so long people looked at Scotch as having all these restrictions about how you can drink it. These weren’t put in place by the Scotch industry. They were put in place by other people. If you want to drink Scotch, great – we want you to. 

“In the earliest production people were drinking inconsistent products and adding hot water and lemon and spices to make it more palatable. Drinking Scotch with a mixer or adding ingredients is not a new thing. It has been going on since Scotch began.”

The new ad is full of pretty young things drinking Clubman and cola with Beckham in a trendy bar. It is these millennials that Diageo is targeting. “It’s about the accessibility of the liquid,” says Gunn, when asked why Diageo went for single grain rather than a blend or single malt when it teamed up with Beckham and Fuller. “It’s about a new generation of Scotch drinkers. Scotch is seen as elitist, which it shouldn’t be.

“It’s a very gentle style of Scotch whisky. People want to drink Scotch and this is an easier step for them to take. This is a great place to start the journey.”

But he adds: “It’s a style that connoisseurs love. People in the industry have always admired it. People have referred to it as Scotch’s hidden gem for decades. It’s not just a beginner’s Scotch. It’s a very approachable style but one that connoisseurs appreciate too.”

It is designed to appeal to younger drinkers, but Haig is the oldest distilling family in Scotland as it can trace its origins back to 1627. 

Alia Campbell, who curates a collection of more than 500,000 items of drinks heritage at the Diageo Archive, is just as excited by Haig Club as the team at Cameronbridge and the men making the barrels at Diageo’s enormous cooperage nearby. She says that in 1655 Robert Haig was charged with breaking the Sabbath because he was caught distilling on a Sunday and that within 50 years it had been established as a commercial distillery. 

It was his descendant, John Haig, who established Cameronbridge in 1824, and “he had nearly 200 years’ worth of weight behind him when he set it up”, says Campbell.

“Haig Club is all about style and substance,” says Gunn. “Everyone has seen the style but there is a lot of substance behind it too.”  




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