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Entrepreneur Steven Bartlett on Johnnie Walker and the key to a happy life

What seems like a familiar, if swanky, whisky launch turns into a soul-searching discussion on happiness and the meaning of life.
By Joe Bates
The venue
The venue
It’s a freezing December evening and a biting wind whistles down Knightsbridge’s Brompton Road, which is thronged with Christmas shoppers wrapped up against the cold. In stark contrast, in the glamorous Fifth Floor Bar of Harvey Nichols department store, a group of stylishly dressed twenty- and thirty-somethings are enjoying themselves; whisky sours are flowing, canapés are being passed around, and people are struggling to make themselves heard over the loud dance music.

This is no run-of-the-mill drinks launch – the eclectic guest list is packed with actresses, radio DJs, singers, social media influencers, vloggers and photographers. I even get chatting to a classical concert pianist. Where have all the usual drinks hacks gone, I wonder, starting to feel a little uneasy? Yet, after months of dreary Covid lockdowns, I have to admit there’s something joyous about seeing people out socialising once again.

Ostensibly, we are all gathered here for the launch of a limited-edition Johnnie Walker Blue Label gift set, which includes a 70cl bottle and a pair of the latest Bang & Olufsen Beoplay EQ adaptive noise-cancelling wireless earphones. Harvey Nichols is the only retailer stocking this rather envy-inducing stocking filler; just 100 gift sets are available. Online spirit retailer malts.com has been allocated a further 10 gift packs.

However, it rapidly becomes clear that many of the bright young things present this evening have primarily come to hear charismatic entrepreneur Steven Bartlett – host of Europe’s most popular business podcasts, The Diary of a CEO, and the newest dragon on the long-running BBC TV show Dragon’s Den – be interviewed by drinks writer Helena Nicklin, one of the stars of Amazon Prime’s The Three Drinkers series.

The venue.


More of Bartlett later – it’s time for a taste of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. It’s clear from the nervous look on a few faces that this deep, rich, powerfully smoky blend may well be the first whisky some in the room have tried neat. Johnnie Walker GB brand ambassador, Ali Reynolds, has the tricky job of winning over what I suspect is a more sceptical crowd than he’s used to. He starts by explaining the reason for the collaboration with B&O, the luxury Danish consumer electronics brand famous for its minimalist Scandinavian designs.

“What we wanted to express was a collaboration between innovators, trailblazers, people who have led their field,” he says, pointing out that Johnnie Walker and B&O have 296 years of innovation between them. Reynolds goes on to outline Johnnie Walker’s extraordinary rise from farm boy and Kilmarnock grocery store owner to quality-obsessed whisky blender, whose illustrious descendants would make Johnnie Walker the world’s best-selling Scotch whisky.

As for Johnnie Walker Blue Label, it was initially launched in the States back in 1992, Reynolds explains, at a time when single malts were the latest thing and people were “getting very pretentious” about their whisky. Diageo bucked the trend, launching this $200 blend and paving the way for a new tier of luxury blended whiskies.

“How can a blend command the same price as a fine single malt?” asks Reynolds. “The answer is through craftsmanship. It’s knowing that some of the whiskies in Johnnie Walker Blue Label will never be made again. We are looking at single malts and single grains from the four corners of Scotland, blended together expertly.”

Now it’s time to taste; people raise their glasses in expectation. “Have a smell of the whisky,” says Reynolds, who may have done this once or twice before. “The smell’s quite important. It contains grain whiskies that are 30 or 40-plus years old, but it’s quite a light whisky. There’s not too much wood. There’s fresh-cut apple, fresh-cut grass; there’s a little bit of fruit in the background, along with some Islay smoke too.”
Johnnie Walker Blue Label x B&O gift set

Asked for his opinion, Steve Bartlett describes Blue Label as “delicious” and “very unique-tasting”, and it’s clear from the smiles on the faces of some of the guests in the room that Johnnie Walker Blue Label has won over a few other converts this evening. But now it’s time to hear from Bartlett himself, who has quite the rags-to-riches, entrepreneurial tale of his own to tell.

Born in Botswana but raised in Plymouth, England from the age of two in an all-white area, Bartlett was clearly bright and driven, but had little time for school and its conventions. At 18, he dropped out of Manchester University, much to his mother’s disgust, and set out to try and become in his own words, a “Happy, Sexy Millionaire” (which became the title of his first book). Bartlett co-founded a social media and marketing firm at the age of 20, and five years later, he was a multimillionaire, having created a business worth over $300 million.

As a lonely, insecure teenager, Bartlett describes himself as a “Nokia among iPhones”, who dreamt of being a millionaire by 25, owning a Range Rover Sport, and having a beautiful girlfriend and a six-pack. Having acquired all these, however, Bartlett soon realised how shallow this materialistic mindset was. “The behaviour that helps you make it – the obsessive, neurotic, no-plan-B, ‘we are going to make it’, ‘money is everything’ – you have to unlearn that if you want to be happy; if you want to have meaningful relationships,” he says.
Steven Bartlett & Helena Nicklin

For Bartlett, true happiness is about following your dreams and enjoying your own path rather than the one set out by convention, but also taking time to see what privileged lives the successful lead. If a waiter brings him the wrong dish in a fine-dining restaurant, he wants to get to a position where he doesn’t complain, but is just grateful for being able to eat good food in the first place.

A host of other topics are covered in the interview, from social media’s impact on the mental health of teenagers to the growing importance of Blockchain, and the insights of some of the famous business people Bartlett has interviewed on his podcast. There’s plenty to ponder on the long train journey home, especially as much of what Bartlett was saying is relevant to the whisky world.

Luxury whisky marketing has always been aspirational and status-obsessed, but in recent years, high-end whisky has grown to be perceived as just another valuable commodity to be traded, like shares or bitcoin. It’s true value, as a life-affirming drink to be savoured with friends or family, is in danger of being lost.