The Responsibility of Luxury: Why Drinking Better, Not More, is a Premium at Diageo
At the heart of Diageo’s 17,000 square foot Singapore office sits a large oval bar – a confident, charming, and well-stocked centrepiece.
It is no surprise that the global spirits giant, which owns storied brands from Johnnie Walker to Guinness to Mortlach, serves alcohol at its workplace. Open bar at the end of every week means employees and their guests regularly gather there to enjoy a drink, unwinding to the weekend.
But when Wong Mei Ling, General Manager (Diageo Rare & Exceptional), visits the bar, her usual order is not alcohol, but a glass of lemon lime bitters or Seedlip, the world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirit.
“I do drink socially, but I also often choose a non-alcoholic drink at the bar. And the beautiful thing here is that it’s not frowned upon,” she says. In many industries, let alone alcohol, drinking has become a non-negotiable part of work or doing business.
The philosophy driving this culture within the company and how it conducts business is simple: conscious consumption.
“The role that spirits play in our lives – they are meant to be celebratory, enjoyed with a group of friends,” muses Mei Ling.
“We at Diageo are committed to promoting positive drinking experiences, which means drinking better, not more. It means being proud of how our products are made, marketed, and most of all, the pleasure they bring."
When Diageo first started its private client business six years ago, offering luxury, exclusive and rare spirits through bespoke service, ensuring that clients have a positive experience with drinking was high on the priority list.
Encouraging clients to drink responsibly is a key means to this outcome, Mei Ling says.
Whenever the team organises private tasting sessions or events at the Diageo Private Client Suite at One George Street – an in-office suite that is home to some of the world’s rarest blended and single malt Scotch whiskies from Diageo’s 50 distilleries – certain measures will always be in place.
Alcohol is served in limited quantities to ensure that guests do not binge drink. Water and snacks are always served during the tasting experience to ensure that clients are well hydrated and not tasting on an empty stomach. In line with Diageo’s zero-tolerance approach to drink driving, clients are advised against driving to the premises as well.
All this boils down to a responsibility that Diageo holds, Mei Ling says.
“What makes this business work is the trust our clients have in us and our team. Given our personal relationship with them, the last thing we want to see is that trust being misplaced or worse, lost. Our job is more than curating their spirits collection. It’s a moral obligation to help them to drink responsibly, and make sure they get home safe.”
But there are challenges. While Diageo’s stance on responsible drinking has garnered a lot of respect among its clients, some myths remain hard to dispel, she acknowledges.
One common misconception is that it is not as easy to get drunk on certain types of alcohol with a lower ABV than others, which leads consumers to drink those alcohol in large amounts.
Yet alcohol is alcohol, she explains. “It’s not the type that matters, but the amount you drink. A standard drink can be a glass of wine, half a pint of beer or a standard shot of spirit, and they all have the same amount of alcohol content. But we are trying our best to educate consumers.”
“To that end, responsible drinking plays an even bigger role in the way we conduct our business. It’s important that everyone on our team bears that in mind. It’s paramount and at the heart of what we do – to make sure clients consume our products responsibly and that they’re safe.”
Drink better, not more
One key pillar of Diageo’s newly-unveiled 10-year sustainability action plan, named ‘Society 2030: Spirit of Progress’, is to promote positive drinking by celebrating moderation and doing more to address alcohol-related harm, such as drink-driving and binge drinking.
It aims to reach one billion people with a dedicated message of moderation from its brands by 2030, among other commitments. But Diageo’s message of responsible drinking is not simply urging restraint. “We’re preaching appreciation,” Mei Ling says.
After all, many of its whiskies are born of a legacy handed down from generation to generation – a craft that transforms raw grain to liquid gold over decades.
“There is a story behind every bottle. So much craftsmanship goes into making a cask of whisky, it’s no different from watchmaking or leathercraft. As custodians of some of the rarest and most exceptional Scotch whiskies in the world, it is our responsibility to share the legacy we have inherited in a manner that honours the people who have crafted and protected the casks for decades.
“So what we’re selling to clients is not just liquid but a masterpiece of art and science preserved in time. It’s meant to be savoured and treasured.”
Last June, Diageo released a 40-year-old expression of whisky from the once-defunct Port Ellen distillery on the isle of Islay, Scotland. This came from a small treasure trove of barrels that were discovered in 1979 and set aside to mature further.
The Port Ellen and Brora distilleries, closed around four decades ago, are slated to reopen– both are home grounds to Diageo’s rarest and finest whiskies – as part of the company’s £35 million project to restore the two distilleries.
Diageo’s efforts to promote positive drinking experiences, shaped by both responsible drinking and an appreciation for one of the world’s most iconic drink, remains a focal area in its approach to sustainability and long-term success.
“As a company, our ambition is to be one of the world’s best-performing and most trusted and respected consumer goods companies,” Mei Ling says.
“And we believe that we can be successful by pursuing growth responsibly – by drinking better, not more.”
[The private bar at the Diageo Singapore office is currently closed due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic guidance]
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