Studying drama in Sydney, acting in Vietnam, bartending at award-winning bars in London and competing at a global cocktail competition in Tokyo, it’s been some journey for Rhys Wilson and one that’s lead to his landing the role of Chivas Regal Global Ambassador. We’ve seen him behind the bar and watched him perform on the competition stage. Now it was time to catch up and get him to tell us the whole story.
We remember you once telling us you started out as an actor
That’s right, I began performing when I was fourteen and once I’d got on to a stage that was it for me all the way through to high school. I’d grown up in Sydney, Australia and went to university there to study theatre. This was back in 2004 and after I graduated we took a show called Zugzwang to Vietnam. It was this experience that started my love affair with travel and exotic places – I’ve lived and performed in many countries; England, Scotland, Indonesia, Spain, Colombia and Canada amongst others.
So, you loved acting and travelling, where did the bartending come in?
It was 2007 and I was back in Sydney. I wanted a job that would allow me to work nights and be free in the daytime for auditions. I was fortunate to get a job in the bar at the Four Seasons hotel and this started another love affair. What was incredible about the Four Seasons was that it was all about service, that’s what people come back for. I started as a waiter in the bar and really enjoyed taking care of people. Then the cocktail thing came in because I was fascinated by watching the bartenders work and listening to their incredible knowledge. They really inspired me. When it was quite on Sunday nights I helped behind the bar. The first drink I mixed was called a Sydney Cooler. I loved it and wanted to learn more.
Your bartending CV includes some pretty impressive places
I’d been travelling and acting again, including touring Spain for two years, then I found myself in London. I wanted another bar job because I was really enjoying the hospitality world too and I found a quirky bar in Shoreditch. They were interviewing for a waiter and I got the job. That bar happened to be Callooh Callay. It was 2011 and Andrea Montague was the bar manager. She knew a bit about my background and said “your classic knowledge better be up to speed!” and I was, like, “yes boss”. That started a great relationship and she became a fantastic mentor to me. After about eight months I moved behind the bar and got involved in developing drinks for the amazing menus that were being put together by Andrea, Richard Wynne and Rebekkah Dooley.
In 2013 Dré Masso invited me and my partner Megs Miller to work for him in Indonesia with Potato Head. That was the first time I’d taken a deeper step towards hospitality in bars. Then a year later I was in London opening a bar in the Library club when Alastair Burgess invited me join him at Happiness Forgets. We really connected over his ethos of a down to earth approach, great drinks and no bullshit, all in a neighbourhood bar. It was innovative, but classic and for me it was the perfect venue – small, intimate, with a big stage in the middle. We could really interact with guests and take care of them.
So bartending started to take over from acting?
I realised acting and bartending weren’t that far apart. You walk into a bar with a big stage, put on the costume, dim the lights, play some music and wait for the audience. I started to feel that I’d found my calling.
When did Chivas Regal first come into your life?
As a kid I remember there was a dusty bottle of Scotch at the back of my mum’s liquor cabinet. It only came out when my gran and grandad visited from Scotland. That bottle was Chivas Regal and it was grandad’s Scotch.
After that it would pop up now and again. I think I probably served it in mosts of my bars and it was very big during my time in Asia.
We remember seeing you at the Chivas Masters UK competition in 2016, why did you choose to enter?
I wasn’t a major competition person. I did one or two, such as World Class, but there weren’t many competitions out there that I felt gave bartenders an opportunity to showcase the multi aspects of great bartending. Creating a great drink is just one aspect of a bar. It’s about atmosphere and a personal connection with guests. Luke McFayden at Pernod Ricard alerted me to the competition and I liked the idea of creating three different cocktails to show three different styles of drink. I thought I’d do just one competition that year and Chivas Masters would be it.
You didn’t quite make it but decided to come back again in 2017, why was that?
I got some really useful feedback from the judges and felt there was something there. I wanted to bring Scotch and storytelling together and although we could use various Chivas Regal expressions I really wanted to demonstrate the versatility of the 12 Year Old. I created a party cocktail in a Cosmopolitan style called Silent Disco (below), gave the more experienced drinker a reflective moment with Vanity and The Adopted Son was a celebratory drink with Champagne.
You won and that gave you a place in Tokyo
I remember speaking to previous UK winners Chelsie Bailey and Josh Reynolds about competing in the Chivas Masters Global Final and they said it was an experience like no other. I went to Tokyo without any preconceptions because I wanted to live in the moment but it totally exceeded my expectations – the people, the bars, the media, everything!
A year later you were back at the Chivas Masters Global Final, this time as the master of ceremonies
I met up with Max Warner who was the Chivas Regal Global Ambassador at the time and I said I wanted to be involved in the competition in any way I could. I was one of the judges for the UK Final. I also liked the support system that was made up of the alumni of previous global winners including Masahiro Urushido , Josh Reynolds and Alex Millan. So when the team called me up and asked if I’d like to host the final it sounded like my dream job.
Which almost brings us up to date and your new position
I knew Max was moving on but it didn’t occur to me to apply for the job. He lived the brand and was a brilliant mentor to me and so many other bartenders. I never thought I could travel as much as him and do what he did so it was never on my radar. I’d got great feedback from people at the final on the job I’d done and then about a week later, the team approached me and offered me the job. At this time I was still committed to work in Columbia and was settled there with my partner Megs. They said its up to you when you travel, where you travel and how much you travel. This showed me that they really wanted to get behind me and believed in who I am and what I do. That’s when I thought this could be something good and something I could do well.
How did it feel to take over from Max?
I’ve always enjoyed taking care of people and Max really encompasses this idea of putting others first. He has an ability to always smile, be dapper, be a gentleman, but it was always about the importance of the brand. I also loved how he showed the great ways the liquid was being used around the world.
So here you are, Chivas Regal Global Ambassador, what’s in store?
It’s about being the face of the brand. And I’ve always been an ambassador, for instance I was an ambassador for Happiness Forgets.
I’ll be an advocate for the range of liquids, the whole category and for cocktails. It’s about bringing together everything the brand represents, connecting what we do as a brand with what the bartenders do in their bars.
What’s your vision for Chivas Regal?
I’m thinking about innovation verses tradition. I want to find the perfect balance to honour our traditions, the legacy and blenders and take it to a place that makes it relevant for modern bartenders. Blended Scotch is not one dimensional. Colin Scott, our Master blender, says he can find 85 tasting notes in Chivas Regal 18 Year Old. That says to me there’s something in it for everyone. My favourite thing is for someone to say “I don’t drink Scotch or I don’t like it”. That means I’m going to help that person find their way in.
Thanks for sharing so much with us, is there anything else we should know?
I play national league baseball in the UK, I had the lead role in a music video for Example’s track Perfect Replacement and I love Spanish cider!