Most people love their tipple. But few are as dedicated as Tom Jones, Diageo’s global scotch whisky ambassador. In a 30-year career, he has examined the world of whisky in exquisite detail, diving deep into its craftmanship, flavour and heritage. With knowledge of the history, tradition, and production of whisky, he lives and breathes the intricacies of the spirit and is a long-time Keeper of the Quaich—an exclusive international group recognised for their commitment to scotch whisky. In an email interview with Fortune India, Jones talks about the taste of scotch whisky, how to grow a collection, and the story behind the recent Johnnie Walker Black Label Origin Series. Edited excerpts:
Does the taste of a whisky depend on the region where it is distilled?
This is a never-ending debate in Scotland and there is no answer. However, there are some who say that as long as you make your whisky in Scotland you can make it taste however you like. If you visit a distillery like Caol Ila on the island of Islay and talk to the families that work there, they will tell you that nowhere else across the world can you can make whisky taste like it does from the island of Islay. The art of distillation is believed to have begun on Islay before anywhere else in Scotland, over 500 years ago.
We all use the same three raw materials: cereal, water, and yeast; however, the cereal can differ as can the yeast. The water pretty much just needs to be bountiful and cold—we specialise in this in Scotland! Every whisky family, worker, and friend will tell you a way theirs is the best or different, so I guess this discussion is destined for eternity.
How have spirits kept up with the changes in the palate?
Change is the only constant in life. Thankfully spirits and especially scotch whisky keeps abreast of change, by offering a dynamic range of flavours. At Johnnie Walker, we have 30 operating distilleries in Scotland each making their own individual style and range of flavour. We often wait 12 years and sometimes longer to achieve the finest point for the flavours to present themselves.
When you think of scotch whisky, is it true that the older it is, the better it is? What advice do you have for those who are just embarking on the journey?
When it comes to scotch, the things to consider are generally: who, what, when, where, and why questions. There are no set of rules, but if you ask yourself these questions first, they help shape your thinking.
Johnnie Walker is the world’s best-selling whisky. Our inventory is the largest in the world—we have cask finishes, rare whiskies, regional ones like Johnnie Walker Origin Speyside, and Lowland. They all seem to revolve around the mainstay that is Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 Years old—the single most iconic bottle of Scotch in the world—so that’s a great place to start.
Is a collector different from a connoisseur of fine spirits?
I think you should buy whisky to enjoy it. Many of us have the urge to collect and it can be fun. We make whisky to be enjoyed with friends and family, at home or in the best bars around the world. When you think about a fine whisky like Johnnie Walker Blue Label, we have been ‘collecting’ the whiskies to make it for many, many years.
If you have an urge to collect fine spirits, here is a quick guide:
(i) Set out a plan of collection criteria. For example, by flavour (smoky, fruity, spicy, and sweet); by region (Highland, Islay, Lowland, and Speyside); by cask (sherry, wine, port, bourbon, rum, etc.); or by age
(ii) Set a time limit on the collection. Once it gets big and you’ve put a lot of work into it, what are you going do with it?
What are the distinct tastes that the four corners of Scotland offer? How should people from India pair these whiskies?
Our Origin series focusses on the fruity flavours of Speyside whisky, the rich characteristics of Highlands scotch, the sweet notes of the Lowland region whiskies, and the smoky finish of Islay malts. As for pairing these whiskies, well, pair them with good times, great friends, and tasty food of your choice.
What is the provenance story of the four regions behind the Johnnie Walker Black Label Origin Series?
The whisky producing regions of Scotland started as simply ‘The Highlands’ as Scotland was known and the border between Scotland and England became known as the Lowlands. As whisky from Islay became better known, it gained its name as did the whisky of Campbeltown. Nowadays Johnnie Walker refers to the four corners, Highland, Islay, Lowland, and Speyside as we own distilleries in all those regions, giving us the broadest range of flavours in the scotch whisky industry. These new editions [Johnnie Walker Black Label Speyside Origin and Johnnie Walker Black Label Lowlands Origins] are great because it is rare to get whiskies grouped by the regions. They are limited editions, but most of all they offer never-made-before combinations of whiskies to experience.
Is blended scotch whisky better than other whiskies?
I do not like to categorise whisky as to what is better or best, as it is up to everyone to hold an opinion. One great way of understanding the differences between the five different types of scotch we make (single malt whisky, blended malt whisky, single grain whisky, blended grain whisky, and blended scotch whisky) is to think that single malt scotch whisky is an ingredient, like fine herbs and spices or truffles; all of these are beautiful and flavoursome in their own right and when brought together by a great chef, transcend the realms of the ingredients alone.
So, it is with blended scotch whisky where all the whiskies get distilled, nurtured, selected, and combined by a team of craftsmen/experts with a lifetime of experience. Combine that with the historical notes of the original Johnnie Walker family and we can make a whisky of fine quality, unsurpassed by others.
Is the market for scotch whiskies growing in India? Is there more appreciation for scotch whisky now?
As knowledge for scotch whisky increases, we are seeing Indian drinkers increasingly seeking BIO (bottled in origin) scotch whisky, with the category more than doubling in size over the past three years. This refers to whisky that has been imported from Scotland and includes brands such as Johnnie Walker, Talisker, and Singleton, among many others.
We are certainly seeing appreciation for scotch growing year on year in India. This is visible in many forms, not simply the increase in consumption. There is a growing trend for Dram Clubs or similar groups which regularly meet to sample new drams and discuss stories from trips to distilleries in Scotland. While there is a pause on picking up any special releases directly from distilleries now, there is no shortage of discussions online as whisky lovers work through their home collections.
Can you tell us something about whisky tourism?
Over two million people visit distilleries in Scotland ever year. We love our overseas visitors, and it’s one of the reasons Johnnie Walker is investing in distillery visitor centres and creating an experience for Johnnie Walker in Edinburgh.
You can visit our four corner distilleries at Glenkinchie, Caol Ila, Cardhu, and Clynelish and a host of others once normal travel returns.