Going off-script with Stewart Buchanan — The GlenDronach whisky story
This admirer of scotch travels the world, sharing glasses of the brand for which he is ambassador with anyone keen to hear his whisky tales
I’m not quite sure how I feel about meeting Stewart Buchanan. He is, after all, a man with a dream job: the globetrotting global brand ambassador for three Scotch whisky distilleries that I really do admire.
I feel like I should be envious, but I’m more curious and, in all honesty, probably interviewing myself, searching for a shared something, because maybe … who knows … one day … potentially … I, too, could be travelling the world, quaffing drams.
But I fail at the first question: what constitution is required for this peculiar calling?
“I tell you what, you need to like people,” he smiles, gently blowing cigarette smoke out across the Parkhurst pavement. It makes sense, but there I was thinking it was all about the nose and those knows, that ability to detect the subtlest of flavours then back this up with encyclopaedic insights. I make a mental note to start liking more people, then abruptly scratch this, unsettled by the enormity of the task.
We’re sitting outside Bottega Café where Buchanan has just finished an intimate tasting of The GlenDronach, a mini-version of the one he hosted the night before at the WhiskyBrother Only Whisky Show, where a 1978 31-year-old single cask — a whisky as bank-breaking as private school education — was one of my drams of the evening.
At both these events Buchanan was warm, generous and genuinely funny, his character perfectly paired with the distillery he champions. His adventurous tales, defined by the same pioneering spirit that drove The GlenDronach to kick-start sherry maturation back in 1826, are a mix of odd anecdotes and historic knowledge.
He comes off as believable and credible, and not just due to his thick Scottish accent and unusual tartan. This seems obvious … it’s his job. But I guess I’ve grown used to the pretty-faced ambassadors that crop up at these tastings, dutifully reciting their scripts, mispronouncing distillery names and making tenuous, but oh-so-obvious links between the brands they represent and the markets they target.
Buchanan is the antithesis of this. One minute he’ll playfully chastise “stupid” Oloroso casks and their erratic ways, the next he’ll explain how the whims and wishes of 19th-century landowners influenced today’s whisky landscape. I question him further, keen to know how much he is told to say.
“I don’t just talk brand, brand, brand,” he explains. “I want to give a personal picture of what I feel about whisky.”
Given that Brown-Forman — a global giant in the spirits and wine world — pays his salary, it’s refreshing to know that he is trusted to veer into the more individualised territory.
This is likely because Buchanan got his whisky education on the ground, and not from a fact sheet. In 1992, he replaced a suspended worker at Tobermorey distillery on the Isle of Mull, while taking a break from his job of installing power lines all over Scotland. He was only supposed to stay for six months, but was soon intrigued by the whisky-making process, hypnotised by the light refracting off bubbles during fermentation, and seduced by the sweet science of distillation. He had found his happy place and since then, aged just 22, has never had to apply for another job.
Buchanan has worked the stills, rejuvenated old distilleries, trained bartenders, analysed casks, created tasting notes and hosts so many events across the globe that his bed back home served its purpose for roughly 20 days in 2018. Named a “Keeper of the Quaich” in 2018, an honour bestowed on the select few who have made an outstanding contribution to scotch, he’s by no means just a brand-aligned face … he’s the real deal.
When Buchanan retells The GlenDronach’s story — and to a lesser degree those of BenRiach and Glenglassaugh, the two other distilleries in the stable — he often cites design and circumstance, two conflicting forces that somehow embolden each other in the world of whisky. In taking this approach, he may well be describing his own narrative. After inadvertently finding himself in the right place, in exactly the right circumstances, whisky became a vocation. And once he’d mastered its various arts, he put his own stamp on it, designing a personalised way to share what he had learnt, win more fans and spread the love. Completely unscripted.