Diageo Responds to Masters of Whisky Controversy

August 14, 2016 – Following several days of criticism on social media over its decision to dissolve the long-running Masters of Whisky education program, Diageo North America executives are reaffirming their commitment to on-premise and consumer education – and plan to retain at least some of the brand ambassadors that are currently scheduled to lose their jobs when the program ends at the end of September. Executives from Diageo and ENTHUSE, the agency tasked with creating a new on-premise education program, plan to meet this week with the 24 Masters of Whisky ambassadors to discuss the new program.

In an internal staff memo provided to WhiskyCast by Diageo representatives, Reserve Brands President Stephen Rust praised the program set up in 1993 that has provided training to bar and restaurant staff as well as thousands of consumers at whisky festivals in the United States. Rust described the decision to move its on-premise education program contract from MKTG, the agency that managed the program for Diageo, to the ENTHUSE division of Inspira Marketing Group.

“We are not walking away from this program. We’re simply revising our approach to ensure we’re meeting the needs of on-premise accounts and other key stakeholders. We’ll do this by working with a team of experienced men and women with deep category expertise and a continued focus on mentorship and education.”

The 24 current Masters of Whisky were notified in a conference call earlier this month that the MKTG-run program will be terminated September 30, with their jobs to be eliminated along with an unspecified number of support staff. Much of the criticism had focused not only on the decision to end the popular program, but also on its timing. The conference call was set up two days after the July 31 death of Evan Cattanach, who helped create the program in 1993 following his retirement as a veteran of 33 years at Diageo’s distilleries in Scotland. His son, Gregor Cattanach, has been a Master of Whisky for many years and is one of those to be laid off when the program ends.

According to Steve Beal, a longtime Master of Whisky who retired last year, the decision took the program’s staff by surprise. “They’d all gone down to Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, executed some fantastic educational programs and probably the best industry party of the week, and they’d all come back with a really strong forward-thinking view of the future,” he said in an interview for this week’s episode of WhiskyCast, noting that they had all been hit hard by Evan Cattanach’s passing. “Probably 24 hours after that news, they’re all called to have a group conference call and the announcement that their program had been terminated…I think it’s only a coincidence, a very unfortunate one.” Coincidence or not, the news was not taken well by the whisky and cocktail community following initial reports this past week on ScotchWhisky.com.

Twitter reaction to the end of the Masters of Whisky program. Image courtesy Twitter.Twitter reaction to the end of the Masters of Whisky program. Image courtesy Twitter.

Faced with a backlash from bartenders critical to the success of Diageo’s Reserve Brands, which include Johnnie Walker, the portfolio of single malt Scotch whiskies, and Bulleit Bourbon, company executives apparently pivoted quickly to try and retain as many of the current ambassadors as possible. Sources close to members of the Masters of Whisky program indicate that many of them were still waiting for details on severance packages as of this past Friday (August 12), and had not been given any details on the new program or whether they would be considered for positions. The undated memo from Stephen Rust provided to WhiskyCast on Friday may give more guidance on that than disclosed so far.

Dear Colleagues,

In light of recent reports around Diageo’s revised approach to its Reserve brands in the on-premise and our ambassador program, I wanted to reach out to provide clarity about the recent changes.

The Ambassador program, including the Masters of Whisk(e)y and tequila ambassadors, is near and dear to many of Diageo’s former and current employees, including myself. It has allowed us to reach countless consumers, media and members of the Trade, and has elevated brands across all categories. It has also laid a foundation of education unparalleled in our industry and that is a direct result of all the passion from those involved throughout the years.

Through our partnership with ENTHUSE, we are not walking away from this program. We’re simply revising our approach to ensure we’re meeting the needs of on-premise accounts and other key stakeholders. We’ll do this by working with a team of experienced men and women with deep category expertise and a continued focus on mentorship and education.

As the future of the industry changes, we must adapt to ensure we’re setting our portfolio of brands up for success. We feel confident this new approach will allow us to increase our coverage in accounts, creating customized business solutions and providing additional resources in the on-premise.

We are not moving away from education. This new structure will allow us to provide a more customized and beneficial resource that will drive accounts’ business needs, create additional resources for them to utilize and increase awareness of and knowledge base around our products.

As we continue to support our distilleries and the incredible people who create our spirits, we look forward to working with ENTHUSE and their team of National Educators and Reserve Account Experts to help on-premise accounts utilize our brands and build their business. In partnership with ENTHUSE, we will meet with all current ambassadors in the next week to provide greater clarity on this new model as we hope many of them join us in this new journey.

If anyone has questions or would like additional details on this revised approach, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

Regards,
Steve

Diageo did not make Rust or other executives available for interviews, but in an email to WhiskyCast, Inspira Marketing Group Chief Possibilities Officer Kim Lawton confirmed that her company would be working with Diageo to “provide the current Ambassadors and MOW a more formal communication plan.”

This story will be updated as necessary.

Links: Diageo | MKTG | Inspira Marketing Group | Steve Beal/SrWhiskyMaster.com

Mark Gillespie

I'm the host and executive producer of WhiskyCast.

Comment 1