The Educator

04 March, 2016

He says: “I returned to the UK in 1995 as marketing director, then commercial director for Seagram UK, assuming management responsibility for the Nordic markets.”

Harris became a well-known figure in the industry. Latterly the company was based at what was then the famous and controversial The Ark building alongside the Hammersmith flyover in west London. He used to unveil Seagram’s brand plans for Christmas in September in time for trade press preview features, which was much appreciated by hard-pressed hacks.

Upon the takeover of Seagram by Diageo and Pernod Ricard in 2002, Harris was looking for a job and the WSET needed a new chief executive. It was a hand-in-glove no-brainer.

“I taught on the WSET Diploma on the subject of spirits for 11 years while I was working at Seagram, and I hold the Diploma,” he says. “I also occasionally go back to my first love – teaching – particularly on the WSET’s business course.”

Asked what he is most proud of from his time at Seagram, he replies: “I take pride in what we achieved with Martell, plus the agency brands of Wolf Blass and Montana (now Brancott Estate).”

So what are his favourite drinks? “Gewürztraminer – especially vendange tardive (late harvest), because it was the first wine I had to describe at the first customer tasting at Christopher’s; St Emilion, from mid-range to top-end, because it was what I drank during my year abroad in 1975/6 and kindled my interest in wine: Sauternes – as above; Malmsey Madeira, because it opened my eyes to the possibilities of fortified wine.

“Spirits: Cognac – old Martell, because it was my ‘baby’ for 12 years, and 15-year-old Speyside malt  Longmorn, because it was my best ever alcoholic drink, while taking a hot bath after a nightmare car journey from Aberdeen.

“Beer: Fullers London Pride,” he finally adds.

Lucky Man

Does Harris think he is lucky? “Yes – either that, or I have acquired a skill to be in the right place at the right time. Also, I am an optimist, so I make the best of whatever is thrown at me.” What’s left? “Lots. I feed off success and hope I will be able to do so until I draw my last breath.”

As to things he hates or would like to see done, Harris replies: “Consumers who won’t spend as much on a glass of wine as they do on a Starbucks coffee and introduce a mandatory qualification for anyone who serves alcohol, as in Australia.”

His first alcoholic drink? “After playing my first club cricket match at the age of 13. It was beer from the jug which was passed round, probably Watneys Red Barrel.”

As an ‘old hand’, his messages to the trade are: “Buyers: don’t screw the salesman/producer so much that the quality suffers – and give your customers the opportunity to try different wines, spirits, beers. Specifiers: give consumers a reason to want to experiment (education helps) and consumers: If you spend 10% more, you will get 50% more enjoyment.”

Education, education, education...

So what would be on the Harris epitaph? “He never worried about things over which he had no control.”

Harris met the Queen when he accepted a Queens Award for Export achievements. Personally, I think it should read: “I met the Queen and she smiled.”          

Keywords: spirits, wine, ian harris

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