The Balvenie Malt Master David C. Stewart MBE is blessed with more than a great nose and palate, he operates with what appears to be a sixth sense. The longest serving malt master in the industry, Stewart’s ability to plan 40 or even 50 years in advance is nothing short of extraordinary. From choice of oak to the careful selection of the special casks that will one day become decades-old bottles of The Balvenie, Stewart has mastered the art of playing the long game.
Stewart’s expertise may not be rooted in the business world, but it’s surprising how many commonalities his craft shares with entrepreneurship — chief among them patient forecasting, confidence to forge ahead while learning from mistakes, and keeping an eye on both long term planning and short term solutions.
An adept entrepreneur must understand the fundamentals of business — things like cash flow, value proposition, and marketing tactics — in order to build a foundation for a thriving company. But, more than one astute observer has made the comparison between a startup’s success and a chemistry equation. The Harvard Business Review published an entire series about the chemistry of business as it relates to team dynamics. Similarly, a Malt Master at a beloved whisky label must be skilled at crafting something smooth and beautiful from the combination of raw, elemental components of nature.
Then there’s the artistry side of the equation. Business acumen goes beyond what’s taught in business school. There’s something innate to entrepreneurship — qualities that most successful entrepreneurs share — such as good judgment, “big-picture” foresight, and a willingness to take calculated risks.
Again, these same principles apply to whisky making. The Balvenie’s unique range of whiskies are hand-crafted to perfection — and the journey from barley to bottle is an inextricable element of the final product. Bringing these parallels to light is The Balvenie DCS Compendium Chapter 3 — a unique collection of whiskies selected by Stewart. The title and theme for Chapter 3 is “Secrets of the Stock Model,” a reference to the dizzying projections Stewart needs to make to ensure The Balvenie can produce and sustain a full range of matured, “age-statement” whiskies, some as old as 55 years.
With the launch of The Balvenie DCS Compendium Chapter 3, Mashable had the chance to sit down with Stewart and The Balvenie’s Global Brand Ambassador Dr. Sam Simmons (“Dr. Whisky”) to gain some sage insights into the art of distillation. Here are five surprising parallels between this centuries-old craft and the process of starting and maintaining a new business in today’s fast-paced startup world:
Cherish early adopters and reward brand loyalists
Beta testers have the potential to become valuable brand advocates — for life. When a startup begins to gain steam, it can be tempting to neglect early adopters in favour of focusing exclusively on growth. But savvy businesspeople know the merit of rewarding loyalty. There are persuasive numbers behind the practice of customer retention strategy: In fact, it can be 20 times as expensive for a company to court new customers as it is to cater to existing ones.
One of the best ways to ensure customers stick around? Maintain a sincere commitment to quality.
The Balvenie understands the importance of its fervent loyalists. The Balvenie’s range of exquisite whiskies, starting with the DoubleWood 12, is engineered specifically to reward adventurous aficionados. These whisky and Scotch enthusiasts aim to continuously surprise their palates; they relish new and interesting tastes and finishes, but appreciate the foundational, hallmark flavor of The Balvenie in each bottle.
The Balvenie DCS Compendium Chapter 3 whiskies — which include the oldest whisky ever to be released by the distillery (a 55-year-old from 1961) — are crafted with dedication, patience, and the sincerest commitment to craftsmanship.
Get comfortable with failure and learn from loss
Startups fail more often than they succeed, and entrepreneurs who accept that reality will be better prepared for the long term. It’s been widely documented that some of today’s most successful startups began with countless rejections from VCs, or even complete about-face pivots away from an original business model. The Lean Startup methodology, widely cited and adopted by many successful entrepreneurs today, emphasises the importance of “failing fast.”
In the whisky world, failure isn’t as cut and dry as being snubbed by venture capitalists. Loss, for example, is a part of every cask at The Balvenie: The “Angel’s Share” is the term applied to the whisky that’s lost via evaporation over the course of the ageing process.
And just as seasoned entrepreneurs know to expect the unexpected, and the same holds true for malt masters. Two identical casks might mature in completely different ways, which presents challenges. But hand in hand with this challenge is the promise of possibility for new, delightful flavour profiles: Bold single malts that take the drinker on an unexpected journey.
Embrace evolving consumer tastes — but stay true to core values
“Always be iterating” is a favoured mantra of Silicon Valley startups and established corporations alike. That said, there is no quicker way to disillusion a core customer base than by straying from established values.
Whisky making, too, is an evolving art that relies heavily upon tradition and history. “While I’m not sure if it is Scottish modesty or the truth, every whisky maker will tell you they are always learning,” says Simmons.
Remaining true to The Balvenie’s core values means staying resolute about producing the highest caliber product. “At The Balvenie, as with many distilleries, we are observing that demand is outstripping supply,” explains Simmons. “We laid down a limited numbers of casks 10, 15, and 30 years ago, and therefore have finite stocks to draw from today.” Despite this growth in Scotch drinkers, says Simmons, The Balvenie maintains a commitment to the quality whisky that the brand’s loyal customer base has come to expect and cherish.
Stewart — who this year celebrates his 55th year with William Grant & Sons, The Balvenie’s parent company — confirms that a blend of experimentation and loyalty to crafting an elevated product is at the heart of what makes The Balvenie’s whiskies so special. “We experiment a lot with different cask types to fill with mature Balvenie liquid and these have not always been successful,” he says. “If we are not happy with the final quality, we won’t bottle it.”
A human touch goes a long way
In a world inundated with technology, today’s consumers are particularly appreciative of a business that champions the human element. Of course, staying on top of the latest technology trends is also paramount — so it’s crucial to find the right formula of tech-infused tools and old-fashioned manpower. In business, this may mean relying on a real, live human to respond to customer service inquiries (instead of being tempted by the trendiest AI-infused chatbot).
At The Balvenie, it means that each and every step of the distillation process is touched by human hands.
“When you visit our distillery and see more people than computers, see Maltmen turning barley by hand, Stillmen manually selecting the ‘heart of the run’ as the spirit flows into the safe, Coopers dismantling and raising casks without glue or nails … you cannot help but feel inspired,” says Simmons.
Play the long game
In today’s startup-laden society, it’s likely you’ve personally experienced the shrapnel of a burgeoning business’s epic failure. Perhaps you backed a promising product on Kickstarter that fell far short of its marketing promises. Maybe you excitedly signed on to beta test an app, only to find the user experience full of glitches.
The core problem underpinning many startup misfires relates back to one thing: Timing. Perhaps the company moved out of beta mode before it was prepared to handle increased user demand, or launched its website before its servers could handle the influx of traffic.
On the flip side of the coin, when the pieces of a budding business fall into place in a way that seamlessly works, it’s a beautiful thing.
Those intimately acquainted with the whisky business know all too well the importance of perfect timing — and by extension, patience.
“Nothing happens quickly, whether it is filling an experimental new spirit, or trialing mature Balvenie experiments — this can take many months and years for the final outcome to become apparent,” says Stewart. “So I’ve learnt to be patient.”
“The patience a distiller exercises in waiting for the perfect balance of cask, spirit, and time almost always pays off,” Simmons goes on to say. “Whether that is three years or 30 years varies case by case. Certain flavour compounds can only fully develop in a spirit over lengthy periods in oak, through extractive and reactive interactions — as well as those complex ones that cannot be expedited through exposure to oxygen.”
Who would have thought that the ancient art of whisky distillation would hold such relevant and time honoured advice for entrepreneurs? Whether you’re distilling a fine cask of whisky or launching a new startup venture, it pays to remember that success comes from staying true to your roots while viewing the journey as an opportunity for experimentation, leading to an ever more refined product. And like a cask of complex whisky left to mature for decades, playing the long game in business promises to deliver an outcome well worth the wait.