Simon Wittenberg catches up with Mathieu Deslandes in Rome to find out more about his career and the latest developments at Royal Salute.
LM: What are your career highlights to date, and what is your interest in luxury? I see that you are wearing a Panerai watch.
MD: I have been employed by Pernod Ricard for more than 20 years. Spirits are my field of expertise, and I have worked in travel retail, as well as on the French and global cognac markets. In terms of the luxury aspect, I love beautiful objects such as art and I like visiting galleries. When I arrived in London two years ago, one of the first things I went to see was the Serpentine Gallery. My experience of travelling and art have been my main sources of inspiration.
LM: Please tell our readers about Royal Salute’s relationship with the world of polo.
MD: Anything that is related to polo is very natural to us, and is very much within our DNA. At the same time, it is a very prestigious and competitive sport, and something which requires a team spirit. Similarly, with our whisky being a blend, it is, therefore, less about the individual, but much more about being a team to create it.
There is always a discussion as to whether blending is better than a single malt. As an apprentice in my team once said: “There are great solo players, and great orchestras, but it’s not the same experience.” As a blend, we play the role of an orchestra, and to be the best one, all at the same time as others are looking to be the best single malt.
Furthermore, the people that attend polo matches are looking for high-end experiences, so in a very natural way, we offer the very best of whisky. When we chose a brand partnership, we ultimately look to find something that is relevant to our audience.
LM: How is having a 21 Year Old whisky important to the brand, and how has it evolved with the Polo Editions?
MD: When I joined the brand, one thing that was essential to me was to say first and foremost that we are a whisky. It’s all very well creating partnerships, a lifestyle and an image, but at the same time, we must not forget that what matters to whisky lovers is the whisky experience itself. This is where we took the opportunity to say that 21 is our franchise, because our whisky takes its name from the 21-gun salute (a traditional sign of respect at special royal occasions). It is an age statement, but it is also part of our history and DNA. However, we wanted to do more with the “21 experience”, and to show consumers how whisky of the same age, and that is coming from the same master distiller, can be different.
We used our sponsorship of polo as the inspiration to create a new range of 21 Year Old whiskies. The result is two Polo Editions, with a third one launching towards the end of 2019. The latest Beach Polo Edition uses the reference of the sea and sand, and is a more peaty version of what we do. Despite it being a Royal Salute and a 21, it’s amazing how you can have such a different experience.
LM: What is the significance of producing a 21 Year Old?
MD: You have to appreciate the meaning of producing whisky that is 21 years old. Just think about who you were 21 years ago, and what was happening in your life. Waiting for whisky to mature for 21 years, and then discovering the beauty of it, and blending it – it’s a treasure. That’s why we are in this luxury space, and is much more emotional than being a practical “go-to” whisky.
LM: Did the Polo Editions take Royal Salute out of its comfort zone?
MD: What was interesting with the Polo Editions is that we have probably been more audacious in terms of the look and feel of the bottle. The flagons sport very striking blue colours, and when you look at the past, the Royal Salute brand was very conservative, and we always thought that to do luxury, you had to take this approach. The shades were dark and serious. However, the response to the limited editions has been really positive from consumers, both young and old. In the Royal Salute range, we now have a more formal proposition with our core offering, whereas the Polo Editions are more of a lifestyle product.
LM: How do you allocate the Polo Editions to the different markets across the globe?
MD: We go to the markets to try to identify their requirement in terms of volume. When we did the first Polo Edition, something that we had never done in the past, the markets were more sceptical about whether it would work, but as you know, it turned out to be a great success. Therefore, between the first and second Polo Editions, we increased the volume by 50% (from 5,000 to 10,000 cases – the equivalent of 60,000 bottles worldwide).
LM: How have the Polo Editions changed the profile of Royal Salute consumers?
MD: New people are coming to the franchise of the brand because they probably thought that it was too serious in the past, so we maybe now have a younger audience. However, there are also those individuals who have been loyal to the brand who are happy to have a more diverse experience.
If you look back at the last 20 years, the whisky market has been much more fragmented, and there is a greater number of brands available to consumers, especially in terms of single malts. The potential for drinkers to have more and more whisky experiences is there. It’s no longer possible for a brand like us to have a single 21 product.