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Johnnie Walker documentary tells story of a truly global brand

A new documentary by award-winning director charts the Johnnie Walker Scotch whisky brand's illustrious past
By Greg Dillon
Johnnie Walker: The brand that walked around the world
Johnnie Walker: The brand that walked around the world
From humble beginnings started in a Kilmarnock grocery store to being the number one Scotch brand and a cultural icon around the world, everything in-between, The Man Who Walked Around the World is a story about resilience, progress and positivity - just when we all need it. 

The Man Who Walked Around the World is an independent feature documentary created by Something Originals and produced by multi-award-winning production company Partizan. The feature documentary explores what it takes for a brand to become an icon in popular culture, and uncovers how, after 200 years, Johnnie Walker remains as relevant as ever. Amazingly, Diageo had no creative control over the documentary, which is quite surprising, but the team seemed humbled and privileged to have the director with such credibility involved, 
“It suddenly dawned on me that history is now”, says Partizan’s Emmy, triple BAFTA-winning, and Oscar-nominated director Anthony Wonke when he realised that this year, on the brand’s 200th anniversary amidst the global pandemic, Black Lives Matter movement and various other societal evolution tracks with their 100th anniversary where the Spanish Flu was taking place globally as well as societal change noting that “the symmetry was surprising”.

It cannot be easy creating a feature documentary during a global pandemic, Wonke wanted to keep the scope and ambition of the piece and travel round the world capturing the powerful stories of hope, of inspiration and the relevance of Johnnie Walker in a vast array of communities. Owing to Covid, his team had to work with their network of people to mobilise people on the ground to do the filming for them, made even more complicated with social distancing, network quality and all nighters connecting with teams looking at the sets and whatnot on iPads instead of being on site. At one point they needed to turn around a two-camera shoot with multiple characters in Baghdad the day before the lockdown set in over there, whilst hotels were evicting guests and closing down, then there was negotiating insurance, monitoring the Covid world and whatnot. But it all came together. 

The Baghdad story, which opens the documentary, explains that they use the brand in deals and to help broker peace. A security officer explained how he would go out on helicopters to have tea and negotiate with the Taliban in the morning then go back to the international zone to rest and put on a suit to meet with an Iraqi official then off to speak to the other side but no conversations would happen without a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, and he even had a specific $250 budget for importing Johnnie Walker Blue Label from the States for such missions. 

Alice Lascelles, award-winning drinks writer, comments that, “Around 90 per cent of global Scotch sales are Blended Scotch Whisky, and that’s what keeps these small, quaint distilleries alive. Blended whisky sometimes gets a lowly reputation, but blending with so many different whiskies is incredibly different; it is like trying to paint the Mona Lisa every day but with different paints.”

Nicholas Morgan, whisky historian, talks about the big players in the brand’s evolution and notes, “We don’t know much about John Walker, he is quite a hidden character in the early and mid-19th century, ran the business for 37 years and became a successful grocery business that specialised in blending Scotch whisky. But his son Alexander was the driving force, taking the brand to London in the 1870s as that was the gateway to the world, he had the vision to take a grocer’s product from Kilmarnock to the world and to build this remarkable brand. He used designers in Kilmarnock put a slanted label at 26º on the bottle for distinctiveness on a square bottle that stands out versus everyone else on shelf to this day - though originally the bottle shape was used as they could fit more bottles in a case so therefore ship more bottles. That bottle is one of the most enduring get-ups in the whole world as it remains on the back bar today all the way from the 1860s." 

Two hundred years on and Lascelles said the success of Johnnie Walker is now a barometer of emerging markets. “Whisky is a currency and a signifier, a good shorthand for understanding how a market is doing is understanding which expressions of Johnnie Walker the consumers are drinking."

Its presence in pop culture is undeniable; from Suits to Blade Runner and Superman, Johnnie Walker is an enduring icon. Blade Runner is one of the great examples of how the brand is used as an anchor point. "There has been a dystopia that has happened where we cannot tell what’s real and what’s replica but the Johnnie Walker liquid and brand is the consistent that ties Harrison Ford’s character to the real world with a flash of amber that symbolises an everlasting light in a bleak world,” notes film critic, broadcaster and journalist Jason Solomons. 

The sense of spirit and determination bordering on stubbornness, which is typical of the west of Scotland, as well as the family desire to only sell the best they possibly could in order to succeed is what stood the brand out. John Walker was his name and the family hated that the bottle said Johnnie. 

Johnnie Walker brand director, John Williams, said, "There are not many brands that have had a story told in a way like this; the documentary brought it to life in a vibrant and exciting way, but it is also moving, timely and timeless given what the world is going through at the minute." Going forward, Williams says that whilst it has been a big year and a strange year, "the focus is on continuity, the obsession on quality and innovation to celebrate our 200th year anniversary".

"One of the cornerstones of what Johnnie Walker strands for is making whisky that is available and accessible for everyone, and next summer our huge visitor centre on Princes Street in Edinburgh will open to guests. We are working hard to ensure the planet has a future in the next 200 years and beyond, so sustainability and our role in that is going to be key, including the world’s first plastic-free spirits bottle we announced recently." 

Arguably the most powerful comment comes near the beginning of the piece where it is noted that in its 200-year history, the Johnnie Walker brand has had six Master Blenders, in that same time the United States has had 40 Presidents. That ensuring spirit and drive, the ability to both walk with Kings and remain aspirational and available for everyone to buy in at their own level is why Johnnie Walker keeps striding. 
Historic Johnnie Walker advertising
Historic Johnnie Walker advertising