A game-changing whisky collaboration: designer Philippe Starck joins Mortlach

    The French design icon talks to Jing Daily in Miami about taking the creative helm at the Scottish whisky house
    Philippe Starck outside the Mortlach x Starck event during Miami Art Basel. Image: Mortlach
      Published   in Fashion

    Shrouded in the intimate glow of candlelight, legendary French designer Philippe Starck holds court in an abandoned shopping mall space in Downtown Miami during Miami Beach Art Basel.

    It’s an event to announce his new role as Mortlach’s creative director, marking a new epoch for the storied Scotch whisky brand and what could be the biggest recent collaboration in the industry. Chinese celebrity Huang Bo, famed British-Nigerian designer Yinka Ilori, Vietnamese designer Thái Công Quách, and a handful of VIPs and whisky lovers are in attendance.

    “My idea was to be very ambitious to see if we can invent in a very disruptive way, just by the semiology, what can be a modern whisky for the future and the next generation and not for the past,” Starck tells Jing Daily. “We have worked with fantastic people, these gods of whisky, who were very welcoming during almost three years of nosing, blending, and creating.”

    Cocktails at the Mortlach x Starck event in Miami. Image: Mortlach
    Cocktails at the Mortlach x Starck event in Miami. Image: Mortlach

    “The approach to making Mortlach design-led and bold was so different from other whiskies,” says Pedro Mendonça, Global Reserve Managing Director at Diageo, which owns Mortlach. “And we were thinking about who could help us bring it back to life… We wanted to present it in a way that no other whisky has ever done before.”

    “Who can lead us into that future? Who is long known for revolutionizing design? Very few names hit that list,” Mendonça adds. “[Philippe] Starck was the one who, decade after decade, has been pushing what bold design looks like. That’s why we quickly focused on Philippe.”

    Once more with feeling

    Starck’s career, spanning over four decades, has been a relentless pursuit of innovation, joy, and challenging the conventions of design. His creations range in scale from small household objects to commercial space stations.

    Everything is driven by the idea of love at any level. And like all the emotion, we need to feel it to create it to receive from love,” Starck says of his work. “That is why I naturally inject emotion and a lot of tenderness in everything I do.”

    Perhaps it’s no surprise that his role brings a new dimension and intimacy to designer collaborations. When it came to Mortlach, Starck was all about the liquid: “The liquid is the center, the bones; the bottle is merely the flesh, less interesting,” he explains. The result is a hotly anticipated Mortlach x Starck collection, slated for release in spring 2024.

    Love, legacy, and liquid

    This way of working required bold belief on the part of Diageo and Mortlach, a prominent Scotch whisky brand established in 1823 in Dufftown, Scotland's Speyside region. The brand has earned acclaim for balancing tradition with innovation, offering a range that includes age-statement expressions appealing to purists and more experimental, limited editions enticing modern whisky enthusiasts.

    Starck and Mendonca at the Mortlach x Starck event in Miami, Dec 2023. Image: Mortlach
    Starck and Mendonca at the Mortlach x Starck event in Miami, Dec 2023. Image: Mortlach

    Starck will undoubtedly add an element of futurism and deconstruction to the Mortlach craft.

    Whisky is made by “empirical intelligence” and then science, Starck quips. “I love science. I love masterpieces made by human history — that is, on one hand, the whisky… But I also love human intelligence, and how it can continue to give a new future to an old masterpiece.”

    Mortlach’s distinctiveness comes down, in part, to its vibrant sort of umami flavor, Mendonça says. “Philippe understands this — it’s a liquid that could unite his story and our story, a heart that has our brand and his vision. This was the beginning of it all.”

    Renowned for its rich and complex flavors, Mortlach owes its distinctive profile to "The Way" — a unique distillation process that refines the spirit 2.81 times. This technique, coupled with aging primarily in sherry casks, results in a robust, full-bodied character, earning it the moniker “The Beast of Dufftown” and a reputation as one of Speyside's most revered single malts.

    Sights on Asia and China

    In 2022, Scotch whisky exports surpassed £6 billion ($7.6 billion), marking a record high. According to the Scotch Whisky Association, Asia Pacific has eclipsed the European Union to become the top market for these spirits. Today, Mortlach’s biggest markets include Greater China and Southeast Asia, where open-minded, young, and eager-to-learn consumers are providing a wealth of opportunities.

    China's thirst for Scotch has seen a meteoric rise, with export values soaring from a modest £3.4 million ($4.3 million) a decade ago to a staggering £233 million ($296 million) last year. Analysts at Euromonitor International forecast that by 2025, China's whisky market could well exceed revenues of £2.25 billion ($2.8 billion).

    Today, about 47 percent of whisky consumers in China belong to Gen Z, of which 40 percent are willing to spend upwards of 1,000 RMB ($140) on a bottle, according to a 2021 report. The nation’s whisky drinkers also tend to be well-educated, reside in big cities, and are attracted to design and lifestyles, indicating growth potential on several fronts. In China, whisky embodies European culture and history, capturing the interest of wealthy cultural consumers, collectors, and a younger demographic compared to the West.

    The whisky market developed in Asia “starting very much with blends and big brands, trying to do big plays,” Mendonca explains. “And over the last decade, single malt has taken off, and people are discovering and finding their own way in, and appreciating the different flavors and the different characteristics.”

    The alliance of Mortlach and Starck is not just a product launch but a cultural moment, where luxury, heritage, whisky and design converge. The partnership is poised to captivate Asia's design aficionados and discerning whisky enthusiasts alike, blending Mortlach's storied legacy with Starck's visionary ethos.

    As Mendonça concludes, “It was exactly what we were craving — a perspective on how we want to present whiskies into the next decade.”

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