Many years ago, I remember being on the Wild Turkey Mixology Competition judging panel at the Hawksmoor in London, where Ali competed and did incredibly well. Since then, he’s had a meteoric rise within the industry, and took a role at Diageo as a brand ambassador before becoming one of the leading faces of the Johnnie Walker brand.
How do you go from bartender to ‘startender’, to brand ambassador for one of the world’s most well-known and loved Scotch producers? And what exactly does it mean to hold such a prestigious role within the world’s largest drinks company? Well, I spoke to Ali Reynolds, Johnnie Walker GB Brand Ambassador, about just that.
“I’ve been lucky enough to work in a number of great bars throughout my career. Back in the early days I was living in Nottingham where I worked in Brass Monkey during my time at university. I then made the move south to Bristol where I worked for several years at Haus Bar between 2006 and 2008. After this I decided to head to London, and in 2011 I came into contact with Jason Atherton’s team who were setting up Pollen Street Social in Mayfair. I became responsible for bar operations at the restaurant and designed cocktail menus and trained staff on spirits for Michelin star service.
“Following my time at Pollen Street Social, I took on a new role as Bar Manager at Hawksmoor, where we won Best International Cocktail Bar in the world at Tales of the Cocktail. I was there for five wonderful years until I took part, and came fourth in, Diageo Reserve’s World Class Bartender of the Year competition in 2015; the rest is history!
“I had such a blast during World Class and I really enjoyed all the new opportunities I was being given by Diageo across various consultancy and promotional projects. When I was then offered the role of Johnnie Walker GB Brand Ambassador it was something I just couldn’t refuse. It came at a good time as by then I had come to the realisation that I didn’t really want to be continuing down the bar managerial route and I wanted to be focusing on spirits and mixology.”
Superb. And what about the role itself made you wanted to dive in? I’m guessing the brand itself played a huge part – but what can you bring to a 200-year-old brand?
“It’s incredible to be in this position and working for Johnnie Walker. I love being able to regularly work with so many fantastic bars up and down the UK through events and training sessions. No two days are ever the same and it’s been such a fantastic learning curve.
“For me, Johnnie Walker represents excellence and I’ve always admired how it strives to be two steps ahead and at the very top of its game. When the opportunity to work as GB Brand Ambassador came about, I instantly knew that I wanted to get involved.
“It’s a fantastic liquid and I love the versatility Johnnie Walker offers. I’ve always been a huge fan of Scotch whisky and to explore it through Johnnie Walker is truly an incredible experience.
“I like to think that, as a brand ambassador for such a prestigious whisky, I can really get involved with what the future for Scotch looks like and help the brand progress even further in terms of innovation, luxury and advocacy.”
And what are your views on the Johnnie Walker brand, its cultural relevance and the history that makes it so special?
“The story of Johnnie Walker and our whisky history begins, naturally enough, with the man who gave the whisky its name. In 1820, the young farmer’s son started his own grocer’s shop in the thriving town of Kilmarnock. In those days, most grocers stocked a line of single malts, but they were never consistent. This wasn’t good enough for John - so he started blending them together to create a whisky that tasted just as good every time.
“From the moment I started my career, Johnnie Walker has been a whisky brand close to my heart and one which has never failed to impress me. Innovation is what lies at its heart and ever since John Walker opened the doors of that small grocery store in Scotland 200 years ago, the brand has well and truly proven itself to be a category leader and at the forefront of blended whisky production. Six generations of skilled Master Blenders have pioneered and crafted bold new flavours that have transformed the grocery store business into an international whisky business selling stylish, authentic, and iconic blends. Our story is something we’re immensely proud of.
"Our slogan, 'Keep Walking’ has become a unifying theme across the world, inviting a new generation of whisky drinkers to explore. When it comes to culture, Johnnie Walker is always stretching boundaries and looking to move forward. I think the spirit of Johnnie Walker and the global cultural impact it has made over the years has been perfectly captured in the film The Man Who Walked Around the World. It feels like a very fitting tribute.
“Ultimately, I am amazed at the everyday aspect Johnnie Walker holds in so many different cultures. It is a brand that is adored both as a fantastic liquid and as a global icon.”
And what does the future hold for such a megabrand that is present in over 180 countries around the world? What do the next two hundred years look like?
“Johnnie Walker isn’t content with sitting still. When you take a look at all of the Johnnie Walker expressions out there it really does blow your mind as to how much has been done already but also how much more the brand still wants to achieve.
“Over the last 12 months it was a lot of fun watching the production process unfold for our four new 200th anniversary exclusive releases: 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. Each product has offered something unique and for every taste. Alongside this we launched the limited-edition bottles for the iconic Red Label, Black Label and Gold Label bottles. It’s been a great way to mark Johnnie Walker’s 200th year, and raise a glass to the next 200.
“As we move into 2021, we’re not resting on our laurels and the year is already shaping up to be exciting with the brand-new opening of Johnnie Walker Princes Street in Edinburgh, which will open its doors to the public in the summer. It’s been fantastic to work on this from start to finish and when it opens, we hope it will create a buzz around whisky and help to elevate Edinburgh’s status as a capital city further still. Inside, there will be something for everyone, with rooms dedicated to the history of Johnnie Walker and whisky styles as well as several bars which will give visitors the chance to sample the brand in its entirety. We’re proud of the multi-sensory, immersive experience we’ve created so far and we can’t wait to introduce it to the public!”
So, I have to ask, given there are so many to choose from: What is your favourite Johnnie Walker expression?
“For me I love the luxurious side Johnnie Walker offers. As a blended whisky it gets perhaps fewer plaudits than the single malts – however, the skill and craft the blending team have means we offer such a unique and complex flavour. My favourite has to be King George V, or our incredible Ghost and Rare series.
“As for the taste, it’s a great whisky to introduce people to Scotch because it’s a blend that mixes well. The subtle, smoky finish works in Highballs and Sours as well as straight-up drinks.
“When it comes to serves, my favourite is without doubt the Johnnie Walker Black Label Highball. I’m a big fan of Highballs and I love how perfectly they tap into all casual drinking occasions. "They’re inclusive, accessible and help to challenge perceptions of whisky so it’s not just seen as an old-fashioned, fireside, ‘armchair’ drink. It’s inviting and easygoing, an explosion of flavour you only get from the bold taste of Johnnie Walker paired with the sweet, floral, fruity or fiery.”
What does it mean to be one of the key figures in a brand that's 200 years old?
“As you’ve probably guessed up to now, it’s honestly just such a joy. It never fails to amaze me just how lucky I am to have this opportunity to work each day for one of the world’s most pioneering brands.”