Our interview with Tom Jones, Johnnie Walker's Global Ambassador
EL: Tell me about yourself: where you came from and how did you get into this industry of fine spirits?
I worked in hospitality management, so I used to run hotels, spas and restaurants. About 15 years ago I was looking for a bit of a change and an opportunity came about to work with Diageo, and after a number of years with them and another company, the opportunity arose to join Johnnie Walker specifically in this role and that was about five years ago. So that is kind of how it happened. I supposed the reason why they wanted me for the job was because you need to have a really good knowledge of spirits, specifically Scotch whisky of cause, but you also need to be able to talk about it comfortably, no matter how big or small the audience and you’ll really understand that after tonight (laughs).
EL: But what made you get into whisky itself?
TJ: Well I live in Scotland! (laughs).
EL: You mentioned that Johnnie Walker was looking for a specific skill set and that’s how you got into this. What kinds of skill set were they looking for and how did they know of you? Were you working with a different brand in the same industry?
TJ: Yes, I worked for the same company before and I have been doing an ambassadorial job as well with another company. But also I knew the distilleries really, really well; I understood how we made scotch whisky; I understood and knew a lot about Johnnie Walker because I worked with the company and it happened to be my favourite brand which helps because I knew that was the one I wanted to work with. The other big part I think was the communication – how comfortable you feel talking to people of whatever statue and also what size is the audience. You know some people can talk about whisky, but they might not want to be on television with maybe 10 million people watching them. I have no problem with that at all (laughs).
EL: Do you see yourself being with Johnnie Walker long?
TJ: I hope so! (laughs) I really like the brand and hope to be here till I retire.
EL: What goes on into making whisky? Is the process a long tedious one?
TJ: Well, it depends on how you look at it. To make the actual whisky itself it starts off as what we call new-make spirit. It doesn’t become whisky until it has been in oak barrels in Scotland for three years. So if you want to make scotch whisky it takes at least three years and say a week. That’s a long time... (Laughs) And then when you think sometimes we wait another 20 or more years after that before we produce the whisky to put it into a blend. It’s a long and slow process. So it’s a well thought out process. Because the decisions that we are making today will influence not only three or four or five years time, but also in 10, 20 and 30 years time as well. So we have to make sure that we have got about 8 million casks of whisky sitting in Scotland right now, some of them are getting emptied and filled as we are talking right now. We also need to make sure that they satisfy all the demands for all that period of time variants in the future. So that’s quite tricky.
EL: How would you say Johnnie Walker is different from other brands of whisky? What makes it stand out?
TJ: Well we are the best selling scotch whisky in the world. So we can say for a fact that we are the most popular, so that tells us people like the flavours of our whisky. It’s important to know because for example with our Johnnie Walker Red Label, which is the biggest selling of all of those, it is important for us to know what people like about it, because we have to make sure that that blend tastes right every time we make it. So that also plays an important part going back to each of the distilleries we have. It’s coming up to 10 in the morning, so if we’re at Speyside Cardhu distillery right now, Andy Cant, the Distillery Manager will be making whisky that will be going to be part of Johnnie Walker in the future, could be anything from three years to goodness knows how many years time. So it is really important that we understand that our consumers like our whisky. Where we also differ as well is that we have 30 distilleries that we own to choose from. So we have a much greater and boarder variety of flavour coming from those distilleries, each and every one of them produces award winning single malt whiskies and grain whiskies as well. We can make whiskies that our competitors or other whiskies houses can’t because they simple don’t have the range of whiskies we do.
EL: If you had to describe the Blue Label in just 3 words, what words would you use?
TJ: We often use the word rich – their big and bold powerful flavours, smooth – because it is undoubtedly really, really smooth; and I know I sounds strange, but powerful – because it has a great big flavour. So yes; rich, smooth and powerful.
EL: Let’s say I’m drinking whisky for the first time. What kind of advice would you have for me?
TJ: Drink Johnnie Walker, look for the angled label. (Laughs) It’s in every club and bar here. I think you know, it’s a really interesting point because the thing you need to look at is what drinks you enjoy, that means soft drinks. For example, some people like colas and lemonade, ginger ale, fruit juices. And then when you think about those, think about picking a whisky and mixing the two, creating a mixed drink. And let’s say you and I only drank cola for example, and someone handed us a whisky, for starters we would think there’s not much in that glass, right? Sip it and woah, that’s 40% alcohol. So I think it’s just about applying a little common sense, thinking about the drinks you already enjoy and seeing how the whisky would fit into that. And the great thing about Johnnie Walker is that there are a lot of different variants, different flavours that mix really well with a lot of different mixers.
EL: To you personally, what is the best mixer with Johnnie Walker (besides taking it on the rocks)?
TJ: The three mixers I enjoy most of all are ginger (ale), tonic and soda. But everyone’s flavours are different. Double black is really nice with coca-cola, or well with any other branded colas (laughs).
EL: Tell me about the Symphony in Blue experience. What is it about and how did that come about?
TJ: A lot of people just take a quick sip and swallow it straight away and say ‘yeah I like that’ or ‘I wasn’t sure’. When you think we’ve been blending and mixing this stuff for 200 years, you ought to take a little longer and appreciate more of the flavours. I mean, you’ve drank whisky? (Yes) And you’ve probably had people tell you all the flavours in it? (Yes) And have you ever actually really felt like you’ve actually experienced them? (No) No, and the truth is a lot of people like me in the world go like ‘Oh it tastes like caramel’ and you start nodding because I’m nodding but you walk away and go away disagreeing.
So what we decided is we wanted to actually make people experience things for real. So rather than try and just persuade people or tell people that’s what it was, we want people to really experience the flavours. So for Symphony in Blue, we worked with Bompas and Parr, we looked into (if you like the science of it) the simple things. For example, people drink whisky like they drink water. You drink water because you’re thirsty, so ideally you tip the glass and get as much of it in you as quickly as possible to rehydrate. But whisky, after sipping it (Blue Label), you move it all around your mouth first for 10 seconds or so before you swallow it, because we’re here to taste it, it’s not here to quench our thirst.
When you start to do that, and then when you change the environment using colours, images, music and aromas as well, it stimulates the mind and you’re more than likely to encounter the flavours for yourself. You might use different words, adjectives, different experiences from your life that will come to mind, help you experience those flavours. That way, when you next taste Johnnie Walker Blue Label, the flavours that you’ve taste are yours, your own experiences and you believe them rather than something you may have been told by someone which is still fine but it’s not your own experience.
So Symphony in Blue brings all that to life and it stimulates something called synaesthesia, which is sort of something where you can see flavours or smell colours. It’s all about stimulating the mind really and bringing back memories and making the experience more vivid, vibrant and real.