Distilling the traditions of whisky: 15 minutes with James Buntin
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Distilling the traditions of whisky: 15 minutes with James Buntin

Scotsman James Buntin knows a thing or two about whisky. Known as ‘the whisky ambassador’, here he shares his love of Australia — and a wee dram

Tue, Dec 12, 2023 10:50amGrey Clock 4 min

In our occasional series with Australia’s movers and shakers, James Buntin describes his introduction whisky and how it has shaped his life.

For more stories like this, pick up the latest issue of Kanebridge Quarterly magazine  here.

Q  How did you find yourself living in Australia? 

I originally moved here in 1999 to further my career in the hospitality industry. However I have had a love affair with Australia since the early 90s when I came here as a backpacker and felt instantly at home in this beautiful country of ours.

Q. When did you first start drinking whisky? Describe
the experience. 

My first encounter with whisky was during my early years in Scotland. I vividly remember my father and uncle David taking me with them on their distillery visits around the whisky
regions of Scotland. 

I was hooked, not on the whisky yet but more on the romance, history and sense of tradition that surrounded it. It was like stepping back in time.  My first whisky was with my dad at new year (Hogmanay). I have no idea how old l was and the dram was probably 50/50 or more cut with water. The older I got the less the water added.

Q. When did you host your first tasting or masterclass? 

I remember this well. My father, uncle and I returned from a trip visiting distilleries in the highlands of Scotland where we collected amber samples from each one. Upon our return to Edinburgh my father encouraged me to present these delights along with information on the distilleries and locations we had visited to my family and friends. It was 1984 and I was 15 and still have the picture.

Q. What is the best way to drink whisky in your view?

The best way to enjoy whisky and fully appreciate its nuances is with a few drops of water. This helps to open up the more delicate aromas and flavours that are often masked by the  alcohol.  Although there are some who would say the only thing that you should add to whisky is more whisky!

Q. What is it about the traditions of whisky distillation and drinking that appeals to you? 

The traditions of whisky distillation and drinking appeal to me because they connect us with the past. It’s a craft that has been refined over centuries — one that you can experience though taste.

Q. Is there a nostalgic element about it?

Absolutely, there’s a strong nostalgic element. It reminds me of my Scottish heritage, my roots, and the stories passed down through generations. Whisky for me is a gateway to the past activated by aroma and taste. I have on many occasions been given a whisky not knowing what it is until the first sip and ‘bang’, I’m reminiscing a happy memory.

Q. Is that nostalgia also why you enjoy classic cars like the Morgan? Tell me about your experience with that car.

My love for classic cars like the Morgan stems from a similar sentiment. The craftsmanship and timeless design are reminiscent of the traditions I hold dear. I was the brand ambassador for The Balvenie in the UK a few years ago and the promotion of craft was a big priority for me. Bespoke things made by the hands of talented craftspeople are always the best and most desirable objects. 

I collaborated with Morgan Motors to create a four-seater sports car. The video of the car being built is up on YouTube and is well worth a watch to see them bringing it to life using wood from an Ash tree.

Q. How has your Scottish heritage influenced your interest? 

I am a proud Scot and whisky produced from my homeland is something that I am extremely passionate about. I have represented a large number of Scotch whiskies and that fills me with a great deal of national pride due to its quality and taste.

Buntin says the best whisky brands share a respect for tradition.

Q. You’ve worked for some of the best whisky brands in the world. What do they all have in common?

The best whisky brands all have strong values that uphold the commitment to quality, craftsmanship, and share a deep respect for tradition whilst looking to the future. These values are non-negotiable.

Q. Is there such a thing as bad whisky? 

“There is no such thing as bad whisky — only good whisky and better!” someone once said, and it’s true there are certainly variations in quality. Older whisky is a harmony of flavours and balance, whereas younger, lesser ones might lack depth or complexity. It really is all about time in the wood.

Q. Why is whisky drinking most commonly associated with men, more than women? 

The association of whisky with men is historical, but that’s changed. Women are increasingly drawn to whisky, and it’s a positive evolution. There are some amazing women in every aspect of the whisky industry from the field to the glass. I am lucky to have them as friends and colleagues. Australians have grown more appreciative of whisky over the years. The variety and accessibility of whisky options have expanded, making it a prominent part of the Australian drinking culture.


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Few of the U.S.’s philanthropic foundations invest their endowment assets—totalling an estimated US$1.1 trillion—to create positive social and environmental change in addition to high returns, potentially limiting or even counteracting the good such organisations do.

Exactly how few isn’t precisely known. But Bridgespan Social Impact, a subsidiary of the New York-based Bridgespan Group along with the Capricorn Investment Group, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based investment firm founded by Jeff Skoll , the first president of eBay, and the Skoll Foundation, also in Palo Alto, attempted to “get the conservation started,” with a study of 65 foundations with a total of about US$89 billion in assets, according to Mandira Reddy, director at Capricorn Investment Group.

The top-line conclusion: 5% of the primarily U.S.-based foundations surveyed invest their assets for impact. Most surprising is that 92% of these organisations, which have assets ranging from US$11 million to US$16 billion, are active members of impact investing groups, such as the Global Impact Investing Network and Mission Investors Exchange.

“If there’s any pool of capital that is best suited for impact investing, it would be this pool of capital along with family office money,” Reddy says.

The study was also conducted “to draw attention to the opportunity,” she said.

“We want to redefine what philanthropy can achieve. There is massive potential here just given the scale of capital.”

Foundations are required by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service to grant 5% of their assets each year to charity; in practice they have granted slightly more in the last 10 years—an average of 7% of their assets, according to Delaware-based FoundationMark, which tracks the investment performance of about 97% of all foundation assets.

The remaining assets of these foundations are invested with the intention of earning the “highest-possible risk-adjusted financial returns,” the report said. Those investments allow these organizations to grant funds often in perpetuity.

Capricorn and Bridgespan argue that more foundations, however, need to “align their capital with their missions,” and that they can do so while still achieving high returns.

“Why wait to distribute resources far into the future when there are numerous urgent issues facing the planet and communities today,” argue the authors of a report on the research, which is titled, “Can Foundation Endowments Achieve Greater Impact.”

The fact most of the foundations surveyed are very familiar with impact investing and yet haven’t taken the leap “highlights the persistently untapped opportunity,” the report said. It details some of the barriers foundations can face in shifting to impact, and how and why to overcome them.

Hurdles to making a shift can include “beginner’s dilemma”—simply not knowing where to start—and a misperception on the part of large foundations that impact investing is “too niche,” offering opportunities that are too small for the amount of capital they need to allocate. Other foundations are too stretched and don’t have the resources to add capabilities for making impact investments, the report said.

One of the biggest concerns is financial performance. Some foundation leaders, for instance, worry impact investments lead to so-called concessionary returns, where a market rate of return is sacrificed to achieve a social or environmental benefit. Those investments exist, but there are also plenty of options that offer financial returns.

The authors make a case for foundations to “go big,” into impact to realize the best outcomes, and to take a portfolio approach, meaning integrating impact principles into how they approach all investments. To make this happen, foundations need to incorporate impact into their investment policy statements, which determine how they allocate assets.

It will be difficult for foundations that want to shift their assets to impact to pull out of investments such as private-equity or venture-capital funds that can have holdings periods of a decade. But with a policy statement in place, a foundation’s investment team can reinvest this long-term capital once it is returned into impact investing options, she says.

“The transition doesn’t happen overnight,” Reddy says. “Even if there is a commitment for an established foundation that is already fully invested, it takes several years to get there.”

The Skoll Foundation, established in 1999, revised its investment policy statement in 2006 to incorporate impact. According to the report, the foundation initially divested of investments that were not in sync with its values, and then gradually, working with Capricorn Investment, began exploring impact opportunities mostly in early-stage companies developing solutions to climate change.

“As the team gained more knowledge and experience in this work, and as more investment opportunities arose, the impact-aligned portfolio expanded across different asset classes, issue areas, and fund managers,” the report said.

As of 2022, 70% of the Skoll Foundation’s assets are in impact investments addressing climate change, inclusive capitalism, health and wellness, and sustainable markets.

Capricorn, which manages US$9 billion for foundations and institutional investors through impact investments, constructs portfolios across asset classes. In private markets, this can include venture, private equity, private credit, real estate, and infrastructure. There are also impact options in the public markets, in both stocks and bonds.

“Across the spectrum there are opportunities available now to do this in an authentic manner while preserving financial goals,” Reddy says.

Of the foundations surveyed, about 15, including Skoll, have 50% or more of their assets invested for impact. Others include the Lora & Martin Kelley Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Russell Family Foundation, and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.

Though not part of the study, the California Endowment just announced it was going “all in” on impact. The organisation has US$4 billion in assets under management, which likely makes it the largest foundation to undergo the shift, according to Mission Investors Exchange.

Although the researchers looked at a fairly small sample set of foundations, Reddy says it provides data “that is indicative of what the foundation universe” might look like.

“We cannot tell foundations how to invest and that’s not the intent, but we do want to spread the message that it is quite possible to align their assets to impact,” she says. “The idea is that this becomes a boardroom conversation.”


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