Saturday January 5, 2013
Johnnie Walker retraces and celebrates maritime expansion in style
By LOUISA LIM
One brand has tossed aside its walking stick to take to the high seas. And with only Asia’s biggest game-changers invited, it looks like all will be smooth sailing.
A FEW miles from the bucolic bend of the river, the John Walker & Sons Voyager appears like a mirage, a schooner with three perpendicular masts piercing the evening sky, its handsomeness backlit by a cloud of blue halogen lights.
Schmoozing onboard is Thailand’s beau monde – a living tableau of celebrities, businessmen and socialites – who navigate the polished, wooden decks in their fineries.
This scene, while smacking of Hollywood, is happening not within the glittering confines of a movie megalopolis but by the banks of Chao Phraya, the lifeblood of bustling, booming Bangkok. Located on the old trading route where ships carrying crates of Johnnie Walker whiskey once passed, it’s a meandering tributary steeped in history and lore.
Business records, you see, suggest that the brand’s whiskies came to the shores of Chao Phraya by the 1920s, thanks to the great foresight of Alexander Walker I – son to Scotch whiskey king and enterprising grocer John Walker.
Having inherited the family business in Kilmarnock, Walker wanted to transform his father’s modest whisky business into a global phenomenon. As such, he spoke to six sea captains who had just arrived in Scotland with cargo, entrusting them with taking the family’s whiskies to faraway lands in exchange for a commission.
John Walker & Sons’ whiskies apparently reached Singapore as early as 1885, followed by India by 1893. The voyage continued to China and Hong Kong in 1910, and then onwards to Malaya in 1911 and Siam between 1924 and 1925. By the 1920s, Johnnie Walker had arrived in 120 countries and was being enjoyed on the great railways, luxury ocean liners and early transatlantic flights.
The Voyager is a literal reproduction of the epic maritime journey. This Turkish-crafted super yacht was chartered from a Hong Kong businessman and refurbished before setting sail from Shanghai in September this year. It will circumnavigate the Asia Pacific for six months, docking at eight key ports, namely Shanghai, Taipei, Macau, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Mumbai and here in Bangkok.
Now that three-quarters of its journey is completed, the company has decided to pull out all the stops by transforming a boggy no-man’s land somewhere in Bangkok into a dazzling decampment for its preening guests. Smack-bang in the middle is a massive climate-controlled tent, where revellers could enthusiastically drink in the night’s eclectic shows as they do the trays of oyster shots and unlimited Johnnie Walker.
Outside, the strings that form the massive earth harp – one of the more interesting performances of the night, courtesy of William Close, musician and finalist of America’s Got Talent – extend from the top of the tent to the edge of the wharf, where the Voyager is anchored.
Standing here, one finds it hard to imagine that this was, in the words of marketing manager of Diageo Thailand, Kabir Saluja, “mud and swamp” only a few days ago. Still, it is a tranquil spot to ponder on the past – like what ship captains saw when they pulled up into Chao Phraya 80 years ago; certainly not the phalanx of five-star hotels that now flank the river.
But like the rest of Asia, Bangkok is experiencing a renaissance. Luxury business is big business here; the people at Johnnie Walker understand that. They intend to use these series of high-profile parties aboard the travelling yacht as a springboard to teach others about the heritage behind the brand and to launch the John Walker & Sons Odyssey.
This rare triple malt whiskey – priced at RM3,250 – is one of the world’s top premium spirits. Underscored by big, bold flavours, the Odyssey is a potent potion that swirls like silk on the palate.
“The growth we see in super deluxe spirits is phenomenal, particularly in Asia Pacific,” says Saluja. “We plan to up our game with the Odyssey.”
Revisiting the past
As the night progresses, a suavely attired Tom Jones (no, not the famous singer), John Walker & Sons’ global brand ambassador, takes his place in the middle of the yacht’s Game Changers Lounge, a smoldering wood-panelled room designed under a partnership with menswear label Alfred Dunhill. With over 20 years of experience as a Scotch Whisky expert, Jones is known for his passion and knowledge for fine spirits.
He has traversed both water and land to all four corners of the globe in a quest to share his knowledge with sales staff, distributors, customers and whisky connoisseurs. Tonight, the assembled company before him includes some of Thailand’s biggest industry players and game-changers, many below the age of 45.
This crowd has been drinking expensive whisky for the past two hours and the adrenaline of big spending is in the air. It’s not easy to shut them up, but Jones does it rather unwittingly with his swaggering mogul manner and booming voice.
“Many people don’t realise that the John Walker & Sons business was one of the first modern day companies to trade internationally. Without the help of technology such as phone, fax, and obviously email, the Walkers completely transformed the industry when they engaged ship captains to act as ambassadors – this took vision, pioneering spirit and a lot of courage.”
He then continues: “In 2012, we celebrate this vision and entrepreneurial spirit, and pay tribute to three generations of game-changing gentlemen and the remarkable blends they inspired.”
Jones then gestures, with a flourish, to the portrait of the brand’s founding father, John Walker.
“Johnnie”, as he is famously known these days, ran the grocery shop his family had purchased in Kilmarnock in 1820, after the death of his father and subsequent sale of the family farm. Like most grocers at the time, the Walker’s store stocked a range of local whiskies; however, he noticed the taste and quality could be inconsistent.
Using skills acquired through tea blending, Johnnie began to blend whiskies for a smoother, more consistent quality – a back-room art that quickly turned into a commercial proposition.
Beside this enterprising businessman is the solemn countenance of his son, Alexander Walker I, who was responsible for introducing the iconic square bottle and diagonal label still used today and taking the John Walker & Sons name around the globe.
Nevertheless, it was the last of the Walkers, Sir Alexander Walker, who oversaw a time of great change in whisky-making and unerringly guided his family’s blends to new peaks of perfection. He also created the unique decanter bottle in 1932 after noticing that his whiskies would rattle and break in their cases each time the sea turned choppy.
This new bottle matched the motion of the waves, effectively locking in profits. It was also a work of art and synonymous with class and elegance.
Meanwhile, the evening’s rendezvous has come full circle, as guests file into the yacht’s inner sanctum – the Around the World suite – to marvel at one of the first luxury travel guides ever written.
Originally commissioned in the 1920s, Around The World was written with the help of local John Walker & Sons distributors, who each contributed a chapter on their country, including on local foods, accommodation and key sights.
In the travel guide, Bangkok was referred to as the “town of olives”. What’s more fascinating, however, was the way Bangkok was described: “It is a city of many beautiful sights, especially the temples and the glittering towers of the temples, and also affords an interesting study of primitive native life.”
Interestingly, John Walker & Sons is also creating a digital component of the yacht tour. As the boat journeys through the Asia Pacific, leading authors, photographers and illustrators from around the region will capture the progress of each port-of-call from the Golden Era till present day, recreating the original guide.
Back on the Voyager Sundeck, the rich and famous are drawn to the bar the way moths are drawn to the flame. The peckish among them totter back to the wharf for a meal of melt-in-your-mouth sashimi. Before the desserts are served, a famous Thai songstress performs before a besotted audience.
Perched on a sofa bobbing her head is 34-year-old Marion Affolten, a Swedish-Thai beauty. Dressed in a vintage scarlet dress and matching bowler hat, Affolten is clearly enjoying her date with her businessman husband, one of the night’s distinguished guests.
“We’re definitely planning on getting a few bottles of Odyssey,” she says, smiling. “What can I say ... I just love history!”
John Walker's new Odyssey