Behind every great drinks brand there’s an ambassador, someone whose role it is to communicate the look, feel and messaging of said brand. Usually that mantle goes to a person who has shone brightly as a bartender and, much like footballers in major tournaments, gets eyed up for their composure and skills during eminent competitions.
Alistair Reynolds is a case in point. Having cut his bartending chops in Nottingham before moving to Haus Bar in Bristol, he ended up in London where he helped set up the bar operations at Jason Atherton’s Michelin-starred Pollen Street Social. Next, he flexed his muscles at award-winning restaurant bar Hawksmoor where he worked as Bar Manager for five years.
In between all of that, he was something of a face on the cocktail competition circuit, winning a good share of those he entered. The big one, the one that really changed everything for him was being crowned UK World Class Bartender of the Year in 2015, going on to the Diageo Reserve World Class global final in South Africa. He came an awesome fourth out of 57 finalists and made a big impression along the way.
So much so that he was quickly snapped up by the GB Diageo brand ambassador team where he now represents the Johnnie Walker portfolio. It’s a position he takes very seriously. As he should. Not only is it the world’s number one Scotch whisky brand, but Johnnie Walker celebrated its 200th anniversary this year, proudly embracing its gloriously rich past and looking resolutely towards the future at every step of the way.
Here Alistair talks all things whisky, including how the brand is embracing a modern audience, blends for 2020, exciting plans for 2021 and simple but stunning recipes to warm your cockles this winter.
Let’s start with what led you to make the switch from bartender to brand ambassador?
It was a culmination of a lot of things. I didn’t want to go down the managerial route and I didn’t think there was much more I could learn at Hawksmoor, but I really craved learning more about spirits. Then World Class came along… I’d had such a wonderful time during the global finals and working with Diageo on various consultancy and promotional jobs afterwards that when I got offered the opportunity to almost be the face of the brand and to help people to understand it, it felt serendipitous. Plus, I still get to stay in touch with these amazing bars through the trainings and events that we do with them, which is even more of a bonus.
What was it about the brand that drew you in?
Johnnie Walker is a whisky that’s always been on an upward climb. Ever since John Walker opened the door to that small grocery store in Scotland 200 years ago, for me, they’ve always been looking at the next step, they’ve always been about innovation.
When you line all the Johnnie Walker products up next to each other it blows your mind at how many expressions there are but they’re always trying to push the category forward. It’s never ‘we’ve done this and we’ve done it well,’ it’s always ‘what’s the next thing?’ and ‘what can we do to bring more people into the category?’ I love that.
Speaking of the category, what is it that excites you about it?
The change that it’s taking. We’re not focusing on whisky being a stuffy, old fashioned drink; we’re looking to be more inclusive, much more relevant. One of the ways that we’re doing this is by moving into casual drinking occasions. By that I mean, everything from pre-dinner drinks to making drinks at home. Which is why the Highball is such a big focus for us.
Why the Highball?
Even when I started out, whisky was one of the most daunting spirits – it’s so big, there are so many of them, the names can be tricky to pronounce, plus there’s the matter of terroir. As a newcomer to the category, you wonder if it really makes a difference to the end result. But it’s just about exploring and taking time to make things a bit easier. That’s what we aim to do, both with Johnnie Walker Princes Street, the centre that we’re opening in Edinburgh next year, as well as through accessible serves like the Highball.
Tell us about the Johnnie Walker Princes Street, what is it, where is it and when can we hope to experience it?
It’s a wonderful multi-sensory, immersive centre located in the old House of Fraser on Edinburgh’s Princes Street. I think that it’s going to bring a real attention to whisky and Edinburgh as a capital city in the same way that the Guinness Storehouse does for Dublin. When it opens in summer 2021, people will be able to come and experience the history of Johnnie Walker and explore all of the whisky they want under one roof and there’ll be some very cool bars in there as well. In fact, there’s something for everyone. I think the centre is going to be a really important moment for us and it’s going to make whisky seem that little bit easier for people to get into.
What’s so special about Johnnie Walker?
The essence of what makes Johnnie Walker special is captured perfectly in the recently released The Man Who Walked Around the World, a feature documentary, directed by Oscar-nominated, Emmy and BAFTA-winning film maker Anthony Wonke. As for the taste, I always say that it’s a good whisky to introduce people to Scotch because it’s a blend that mixes well. It has this amazing subtle, smoky finish that works in Highballs and Sours as well as straight-up drinks – that incredible versatility makes it ideal for newcomers.
But there’s plenty for die-hard fans too, like the private collections including the Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare Series. We did one with Port Ellen, a distillery that closed in 1983 where the whiskies usually fetch between £2,000 to £10,000 a bottle – this was a nice way for people to try Port Ellen for a snip of the price and appreciate the craft of blending. We’ve also recently added four exclusive releases to celebrate our 200th anniversary, taking in Johnnie Walker Blue Label 200th Anniversary Limited Edition Design, Johnnie Walker Blue Label Legendary Eight, John Walker & Sons Celebratory Blend and John Walker & Sons Bicentenary Blend.
What are your favourite ways to enjoy Johnnie Walker?
Highballs are great – the Johnnie Walker Black Label Highball is probably my favourite. I’m also rather partial to a whisky tiki-style drink. One of the things I like doing is swapping out the rum in classic cocktails for Scotch, it works really well as they share quite a few parallels in terms of the way they both celebrate the region where they’re from. They also share similar stories in that they’re products of the people: Scotch is very much a Scottish product, while rum makes you think of the Caribbean. As for the flavour profile – there’s so much going on with both of them, there really is something for everyone.
And what are your tips for creating a simple Johnnie Walker drinking ritual at home?
My cheat for everyone always is an Old Fashioned. Take two thirds of a bottle of Scotch, (Johnnie Walker Gold Label works perfectly for this), mix in sugar syrup and bitters and store in the freezer for easy-fix Christmas entertaining. And Highballs, of course but I also recommend trying the following:
50ml Johnnie Walker Black Label
25ml Lapsang tea syrup (1:1)*
20ml egg white
20ml lemon juice
Rosemary to garnish
Pour Johnnie Walker Black Label, Lapsang tea syrup, egg white and lemon juice into a shaker and shake vigorously. Next, add ice and shake again. Strain over ice in a rocks glass, adding a sprig of rosemary to garnish.
*To make Lapsang tea syrup dissolve 100g caster sugar into 100ml of brewed tea
50ml Johnnie Walker Black Label
10ml honey water*
Dash of vanilla bitters
Combine all of the ingredients and stir over ice.
Simply serve in a rocks glass over ice, garnishing with a slice of orange. Top tip: squeeze the orange peel and run over the rim of the glass to release all of its natural oils, adding an extra orange aroma.
*To make honey water, dilute 1 part local honey with 1 part warm water.
Winter Apple Highball
25ml Johnnie Walker Black Label
25ml Dry Vermouth
50ml apple juice
10ml honey Water
Add Johnnie Walker Black Label, Dry Vermouth and apple juice to a tall glass over ice. Combine equal parts honey and water and add to the glass, topping with soda.
Stir gently to bring all the ingredients up through the drink, and garnish with a thin slice of apple or star anise for an extra festive touch
35ml John Walker & Sons Celebratory Blend
15ml Crème de cassis
10ml lemon juice
1 sugar cube
100ml hot water
Add all of the ingredients to a pan and warm on stove. Stir gently over a medium to high heat (be careful not to boil the liquid). Serve in your favourite Christmas mug, or pop in a flask to enjoy on a winter walk.
If serving to guests at the end of a meal, garnish with an orange wedge and star anise for an extra festive flair.