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A life in whisky: Craig Johnstone

On his 18th birthday, Craig Johnstone embarked on a career in the whisky industry. Starting out as a distillery tour guide at Glenkinchie while still at university, he went on to positions with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, The Macallan and Highland Park, and Bruichladdich.

Following  a stint managing 28 malt brands in Dubai, Johnstone also got his hands dirty as distillery manager at Lark in Tasmania from 2014-2017, where he gained experience on the production side of the single malt equation.

The globetrotting Scotsman is now based in Edinburgh where he manages the exclusive single cask program for Brown Forman’s single malts – travelling the world telling the stories of BenRiach, GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh. Quite the career right? BARS&clubs decided to pick his brain.

Q: YOU HAD A VERY EARLY START IN THE WHISKY INDUSTRY – WHAT DREW YOU TO WHISKY IN THE BEGINNING?

My first foray into the industry was on my 18th birthday when my Auntie Mary invited me to try out as a distillery tour guide. At the time my awareness of whisky was negligible, I had no idea how important it was for our nation and had never tried the stuff. I took the job simply to boost my public speaking skills before starting a degree in astrophysics. Needless to say, I got extremely passionate about whisky very quickly and kept up two jobs in the industry whilst at university… and here we are over 15 years later, still learning every day!

Q: WHAT MAKES SCOTCH SPECIAL WHEN COMPARED TO OTHER WHISKIES? AND THE BROWN-FORMAN SINGLE MALTS?

Scotch doesn’t necessarily hold a special place in the whisky category but does benefit from a couple of centuries of tradition, relationships and outstanding liquid. I believe you can make great whisky anywhere, but Scotch comes with stories and legends that allow it to connect people better than any other spirit category.  All single malts are special, each carrying a unique spirit like a fingerprint.

GlenDronach is superb as its entire life cycle is designed to work in the best Spanish sherry casks. You really can’t beat it for full bodied spirit that still holds a fruitiness. BenRiach is our versatile malt. We design it to work with every cask type possible. If you want an adventure in Speyside whisky, then BenRiach can keep you occupied for hours! Then there’s Glenglassaugh. A whisky so cool, most people have not heard of it yet. It’s oily and tropical and boasts some of the oldest whisky we have with casks from 1963 on the market.

Q: YOU’RE HERE IN AUSTRALIA FOR A SERIES OF MASTERCLASSES. WHAT CAN GUESTS EXPECT?

I’d say expect the unexpected. I very rarely come with a script to these things and am more than happy to take the conversation in the direction the audience want it to go. There’s nothing more thrilling than sharing new drams with new faces and hearing the feedback about what we’ve been doing at the distilleries. In my opinion masterclasses should be about entertainment, so hopefully we can raise a few smiles with a few glasses.

Q: CAN YOU TELL ME MORE ABOUT WHISKY AND CHEESE PAIRING, A VITAL ELEMENT OF THE CLASS?

Cheese is possibly my favourite food group. When matching whisky, I’d say cheese and chocolate are my favourite pairings. I’m always looking to either compliment or contrast. A complimentary pairing would be a nutty cheese like Gouda with GlenDronach 18. A contrast would be GlenDronach 12 and blue which will bring out the honey notes on the dram. By far my favourite cheese pairing has to be BenRiach 10 and goats’ cheese. The sharp tang of the cheese releases the most incredible tropical fruits from the whisky.

Q: DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR BARTENDERS OR OPERATORS LOOKING TO MAKE THE MOST OF SCOTCH AT THEIR BAR?

I would say start small and expand. Ask the brands for training and sampling opportunities. If the guys behind the bar love something, then you’ll sell more. In terms of serving, I used to challenge myself when I worked behind the bar. I’d pick a dram that was selling slowly and learn a story about it, often a non-technical story that took 30 seconds to tell. For example, we would tell the customers that GlenDronach is haunted by a Spanish lady who escaped Spain in a sherry cask and therefore it’s said to have a second spirit. Our volumes went through the roof! Keep the category fun and never be scared to ask a question.

Q: DO YOU ENCOURAGE BARTENDERS TO EXPERIMENT WITH SINGLE MALTS IN COCKTAILS?

When I was managing Lark distillery there was nothing better than hearing that something I had made was being experimented with. Sometimes the complexity of malts are a challenge to balance and improve in a cocktail, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. If we trust our chefs to give us the best recipes from the best ingredients, why would we hinder a bartender from creating something mind blowing by removing the most diverse spirit on the back bar?

Q: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MAJOR LESSONS YOU’VE LEARNT IN YOUR CAREER? AND WOULD YOU ENCOURAGE A YOUNG BARTENDER TO TAKE THE BRAND AMBASSADOR PATH?

I think the biggest lesson I have learned so far is to share knowledge and unashamedly ask questions. My first day in whisky was a time I had zero knowledge of the category. Now I have 15 years’ experience that hopefully others can benefit from. My knowledge and stories have all come from connecting and interacting with people. You can’t look over your shoulder, you must keep searching for answers and help others up to your level, because without that reciprocity from my colleagues, I’d not be where I am today.  The other piece of advice is taking criticism humbly and never make something up. You’ll always get caught on the lie. As for the Brand ambassador job, yes! We need more cocktail and storytelling skills in our industry. It’s a great way to move into the commercial side of our world.

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