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Interview with Ian Buxton

Ian Buxton has been working for the last 25 years in the whisky industry in marketing, consultancy and writing.  Over the last 12 months, his name has been associated with many books, such as Glenfarclas 175; Cutty Sark: The Making of a Whisky Brand and 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die, thus making him one of the most prolific whisky writers.

So who is really Ian Buxton and what are his aspirations?

Whisky-news (WN): Ian, could you please explain us what were your first steps in the whisky world and what represents whisky to you?

Ian Buxton (IB):  In 1987 I was working in London in the brewing industry but decided with my wife to return home to Scotland to bring up our young family.  There were no jobs that I could find in brewing, so I joined Robertson & Baxter (the blenders, part of Edrington) and that started me in the whisky business.
It has ended up taking over my life!

WN: Why have you decided to move in the publishing and writing side of the whisky?

IB:  I still do a lot of consultancy work in brand strategy and NPD (Edit:New Product Development).  For example, I was heavily involved in the creation of the new Cutty Sark Tam o’ Shanter edition but this work is mainly confidential.  I have written about whisky for some years now; it isn’t as well paid as consultancy but it’s fun.  As my children have grown up I have the opportunity to balance the need to feed a family with more creative aspects of my life, hence more writing.

WN: You created the World Whisky Conference. Can you please explain the history behind it and what it is?

IB: The idea of the World Whiskies Conference was to create a ‘global business summit’ for senior people in the whole whisky industry (not just Scotch) to review and discuss matters of common concern or interest and to learn from best practice.  Unusually, I noticed that the world of whisky, unlike most other industries, didn’t have its own conference and I thought there was probably a need for it.
This is the 7th year now and the next conference will be in London in March. However, I won’t be there!  After the last conference (my 6th) I felt it needed fresh thinking and decided to stand down as Conference Director.  I don’t want to cast a shadow on the new team and I have a client who wants me in Budapest on the day anyway so I won’t attend.  However, I wish the new team every success and I shall try to be there in 2013.

WN: It takes only a few hours to read a book, but writing a book is a very time consuming work. Could you please let the readers know how much time it takes to write a book (e.g., Glenfarclas 175)?

IB: It varies!  I try to allow around 12-18 months, working on and off, to complete the book.  That includes the initial research; many interviews; drafts and then working with the designer to get the look right.

WN: For some readers, being a book writer is a dream job: being paid for tasting and writing about whisky. What are your thoughts about this comment?

IB: It works for me.

WN: Any advice for any wannabe-writers?

IB: Just start!  All it takes is a pen and paper; you don’t even need a computer.

 WN: When reading your books, we can feel the extensive knowledge you have in the history of the whisky industry. Where does your interest come from?

IB: I was always struck with the remark of the Spanish American philosopher and writer George Santayana "the one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again".   I strongly hold that without understanding the history and structure of the whisky industry and its cultural and sociological impacts it is not possible to understand how and why the industry behaves today and how it is viewed in society.  It’s no different really to researching family genealogy to understand how we are as people; where we came from and how we were shaped.
For example, the virtual disappearance of the Irish whiskey industry may hold lessons for the decisions being taken today by Scotch whisky on technology and innovation – but few people seem interested in considering the implications of that.  Likewise, the idea that whisky can be an ‘investment’ has historical precedents that don’t bode well for this currently fashionable trend.

WN: What is the most precious whisky book you own? And which one would like to have? 

IB: Probably the most valuable is a first edition of Alfred Barnard’s The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom; the two most beautiful are probably little pamphlets produced for Jameson and illustrated by Harry Clarke A History of a Great House (1924) and Elixir of Life (1925).  They are also very collectable and quite valuable. By far the rarest, though little known, is The Maltster, Distiller and Spirit Dealer’s Companion by John McDonald (Elgin, 1828) which is probably the first book on the distilling of Scotch whisky, though there were several technical texts on distilling before that.  Its significance lies in being, almost certainly, the first book published in Scotland on Scotch whisky.  If it were better known it would be very valuable.
As to what I am looking for I will only say that book collecting is a competitive field (like most collecting) and my lips are sealed!

WN: Your book “101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die” is being an impressive success, selling as much as all other whisky book together (at least in UK). How can you explain this success?

IB:   I’m not sure that I can explain it fully.  The attractive and very different cover helped, as did the punchy title.  It was well packaged and priced as a gift item and it looks, feels and reads very differently from other ‘whisky books’.  It appeals to the general reader as well as the whisky enthusiast.
I’d like to think the writing has something to do with it as well.

That book has now also been published in Taiwan and China.  Another Chinese language version is coming out soon and it will be published in French later this year.

I have just finished a follow-up book 101 World Whiskies to Try Before You Die which will be published in July or August.  As the title says, it contains many more world whiskies.

WN: We can feel in your work a strong interest for the Pattisons. Could you please explain us why?

IB:  Look back to the answer on history.  The period of the Pattison crash was a golden age for Scotch whisky, yet brought to an end very suddenly and dramatically.  Pattisons were whisky’sEnron.   It’s a compelling story of greed, hubris and pathos.

WN: You seem to be always full of new ideas, sometimes ahead of its time (e.g., whiskypedia). What are your plans for the future?

IB: Right now, more books.  I have several projects in the pipeline.

WN: Since you are living in an old distillery house, any plan of starting with farm whisky distilling activity?

IB: We still have the old distillery building, which worked from 1816 to around 1878, but it is derelict.  I don’t have any plans or ambitions at all to restart distilling here.  Maybe I will eventually sell it to someone who has that dream.

WN: Some writers or journalists complains about the bloggers, since they write  articles and reports without being paid, thus making the life (from a financial perspective) more difficult to the journalists and writers. What is your view on this question?

IB: The great Dr Samuel Johnson once remarked "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."  But the world has changed.  The best bloggers add a fresh perspective and lots of enthusiasm to our industry.  How drab it would be if people didn’t want to talk about whisky; argue about it; write about it. 

Those bloggers who add little or nothing, or who can’t maintain the energy or commitment, or who can’t build an audience will drop by the wayside.  It can’t be easy to come home from a day’s work and try to write consistently and well, week after week, with no prospect of reward. The best of them will survive and they bring a lot to our community and our discussions: good luck to them.

I’m just grateful that people continue to pay me to do what I do.  Long may that continue!

WN: You started in the marketing side of the whisky. What are your thoughts about the Marketing in 2012?

IB: How long have you got?  I worry about whisky marketing becoming a fashionable place for people to spend a few years of their career before moving on; I worry that marketing is in danger of believing its own publicity; I worry that the ‘collectable’ craze is getting over-heated and distillers are getting greedy – and then I remember that we’ve been making whisky for hundreds of years and all things pass. 
I’m excited by the new wave of world whiskies and by the enthusiasm and creativity of the many craft and boutique distillers who are innovating and experimenting and surprising all of us.

WN: Thank you very much for your time Ian, and I wish you all the best for all your future endeavours.  Thank you

www.whisky-news.com ©23 Feb 2012