December 20, 2012

I’ve always enjoyed Johnnie Walker Red. As a kid in Chinatown, it was the liquor of choice served during most of the 10-course Chinese restaurant banquets that we attended. But now I’m approaching my snifter in a much classier way, thanks to a recent whisky-tasting party.

The venue was a Manhattan pop-up, a Johnnie Walker House created by the brand’s marketing folks. They turned an empty Soho building on West Broadway into a gorgeous, temporary lounge-y space — complete with black velvet rope at the front door. Once inside, we were each given a black card key to swipe at various sampling stations. (No second helpings, haha!)

The whole scene was luscious. Loved the pool table, the chandeliers, the pretty girls in stiletto high heels. Between the bars and liquor carts set up on two floors, I was in Scotch heaven.

The night was a personal journey that took this this iconic liquor bottle from my past and recast it as a multi-dimensional premium brand with a history of its own. For decades, I’ve reached for Johnnie Walker whenever I really miss my dad. He was an impossible tyrant who died when I was 19. Yet, I always think fondly of being with him at those Chinese banquets because he taught me to enjoy food, booze and community. Thanks to some newly-acquired whisky insights, I go forward with a deeper connection to him and, myself.

Here’s what I’ve learned…

Scotch is whisky made in Scotland. This amber-colored alcoholic drink begins with malting, the fermenting process of sprouting grain in water. Scotch comes in single malts or nuanced blends of various malted grains, hence the many JW labels. The age of a whisky refers to the age of the youngest blend in the mix.

Johnnie Walker Red is designed for cocktail mixing (at banquets, we had it on ice, with a generous splash of Coca-Cola or Ginger Ale). My cocktail that night was Red label combined with ginger beer — do try that at home! JW also comes as Black, the extra-smoky Double Black and the pricey, floral-noted Blue (about $200-$250 per bottle). I’d never heard of the Gold or earthy Green labels but no matter; they are being retired. The Platinum label, currently available only in airport duty-free shops, will be launched in  U.S. liquor stores during 2013.

The party was a true education. For starters, there’s a right and wrong way to hold a snifter. You don’t want your hand’s body heat to warm up the whisky in these globe-shaped, short stem glasses. Here’s what to do:

As for downing this stuff, there are three options. If you sip it straight up at room temperature, that’s called drinking it “neat” and gives you the nice, smoky sensation. Then, add water to crack open a sweet, smoother flavor. My preference is Option #3: Scotch over ice. Cool and spicy.

During the tasting, we were provided with water droppers and buckets of ice. We also practiced smelling whisky. To do it properly required us to inhale with open mouths. Sounds a little freaky but it created a totally different aromatic experience. Really.

Did I mention this was an Asian event? I was invited by entrepreneur-about-town Fred Teng, whose wife Sandra was my good friend from the 5th grade. It’s been nearly that long since I’ve seen her. Thankfully, she is as forgiving as ever because when she walked up to me, I boozily embraced her and exclaimed the wrong name: “Agnes!”

I also ran into the event’s host, Joe Lam, president of L3 Advertising, which handles the Asian market for Johnnie Walker. The party was a reminder to me that Asians really like their premium liquor brands.

He said Remy Martin (cognac) and JW were both advertising in the Asian market by 1985. That was the year I met him, when I interviewed him for a story on that very topic for Crain’s New York Business. At the time, Joe business was young and Crain’s was a start-up weekly magazine with me as one of its first staff reporters. And here in 2012, we had come full circle.  ^_^

Oh, we are old now baby, so old. And yet, we still look mighty good! But as Fred said that night, we spend way too much time in the millenium working and “busting our asses.”

“We should have fun,” he said.

I’ll drink to that.   :)