The national ambassador for a single-malt Scotch whisky ought to be one of two things: a dark-suited, conservative, obviously upper-class white man who looks as if he just stepped out of the Pacific Club, or a walking, talking Scottish stereotype, replete with tartan kilt, sporran, ungainly red beard and impenetrable accent.
Mitch Bechard, the U.S. ambassador for Glenfiddich whisky, is neither of those.
He is Scottish (born and raised in Edinburgh), and he does have the necessary accent, though it's not terribly thick. He does own a kilt, though he would be more likely to wear it with Doc Martens. But Bechard, who lives in Irvine, is more likely to be in board shorts and sunglasses, haunting Blackies Beach when not pouring out tastes across Southern California.
Bechard is the key behind William Grant & Sons' efforts to rejuvenate Scotch's image in the United States, a country that still considers the drink an expensive indulgence. Bechard travels everywhere with a rolling suitcase of whisky, in case the opportunity to demystify someone arises. And if that doesn't work? He once commissioned a paddleboard painted with the Glenfiddich logo and schlepped it down to Blackies Beach--whatever it takes.
His start in the spirits game happened in Edinburgh, selling whisky to the Scottish, which is a bit like selling coal in Newcastle. Irked by Scotland's famously awful weather, he asked to be transferred somewhere warm. Because the only positions available were part-time, he applied to William Grant & Sons instead; two days later, he interviewed, was hired as the West Coast ambassador for the Glenfiddich brand, got a visa, and moved away from the drizzle to start work based out of the company's West Coast offices in Irvine.
The secret to reeling in American whisky drinkers is Glenfiddich 15-year-old, which is subtly sweet, like bourbon. "A lot of people think all Scotch is smoky and peaty," he says, "but that's only a small segment of Scotch."
He is also doggedly fighting the image of Scotch as a man's drink. "Forty percent of my customer base is women," Bechard says. "Anyone who thinks they're just drinking vodka doesn't know the market."
Usually taking his whisky neat, he's also happy to have bartenders play with it. "I went into a bar in New Orleans and ordered Glenfiddich neat," Bechard says. "I was told all they were doing that night was margaritas--so I ordered a Glenfiddich margarita." Lime juice, triple sec, agave syrup and Scotch sounds more like a Mexican take on a whisky sour than an actual margarita, but it's better than it has any right to be.
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Just before publication, Bechard was back in Scotland with the winners of a cocktail competition, who won a trip to Glenfiddich's motherland to visit the distillery and, presumably, get absolutely wasted on Scotland's finest product. One of the winning entries created a custom cigar with three bands, each meant to go with a specific expression of Glenfiddich whisky, thus slaughtering two sacred board room cows at once.
It's music to Bechard's ears, of course. "It doesn't matter how you take your Scotch," he says, "as long as you take your Scotch."