I first met Ali Reynolds shortly after BarLifeUK launched, over ten years ago. Since then, Ali has proved to be a master of making transitions – from bartender to ambassador, and now from established Old World whisky, in the form of Johnnie Walker, to upstart New World Whisky with Denmark’s Stauning Distillery.
In this interview I talk to Ali about moving from bartender to brand, Scandinavian hospitality, influential folk he has worked with along the way, and his new gig with Stauning.
BLUK: Ali, I think it’s at least ten years since we first met. I believe you were working at Hawksmoor back then, but I’m getting old and my memory is going, so could you give us a quick rundown of your bartending history, and how you became an ambassador? AR: My bartending career began in Nottingham where I worked at a place called Brass Monkey. I moved to Bristol and worked at some amazing bars most notably House Bar and it was there that I got a love for classic cocktails. I eventually moved to London and started working at an incredible restaurant called Pollen Street Social with a fantastic bar team including Gareth Evans, my brother Joshua Reynolds, and other people that really inspired me. I then moved to Hawksmoor and it was there that I really kind of had freedom to manage a team and to put my own spin on things.
But throughout all that time in Nottingham, Bristol, and London I was always very interested in cocktail competitions and I think through there you learn to express yourself and challenge yourself, but most importantly you get to meet new people and you get to see some amazing things and experience some amazing places if you’re lucky enough and I’ve been very lucky in my bartending career. It was in 2015 where I competed for the GB world class title with Diageo and I won the GB heat and represented the GB in South Africa in 2015. I finished fourth in the world in after that I joined Diageo as a brand ambassador for Johnnie Walker and that’s how I got into the ambassador role.
BLUK: Most BarLifeUK readers will know you from your time as Johnnie Walker ambassador. Before we talk about your current gig, what was it like working for such a massive brand, and when you look back at the time, is there a specific memory or moment that will always stay with you? AR: I look back at that all the time and I think my most notable experience was certainly opening the brand homes up here in Scotland, which is where I live now. We opened visitor centers at six different distilleries and obviously Johnnie Walker Princess Street, which is in the heart of Edinburgh, flying the flag for Scotch whisky and it’s been so well received the investment the company made into whisky tourism is something quite spectacular. I feel that they are doing such a great job at putting Scotch whisky on the map, it’s obviously a world-renowned spirit but getting the newcomers into a spirit like that is always challenging.
I am so, so grateful to have met some amazing people and I think apart from that time a personal working experience working with people like Jack Sotti and Jason Clarke who came up from the World Class programme, and working with people like Pippa Guy and Jo Last. Incredible bartenders and incredible ambassadors now, who have worked at the Savoy in London. It’s amazing to count yourself among these people, they’re such heroes of mine and such inspiration. Also looking back at some of the amazing events that we hosted with Dan Dove, Dave Beatty & Andrea Montague, these are all fantastic names if you know them within the industry, and they’re all such wonderful people and I can never underestimate that quality time that I had with those guys and learning from them has brought me to where I am now.
BLUK: I would imagine the experience you gained with Johnnie Walker opened a lot of doors. What attracted you to Stauning Whisky, and how has the transition to a non-Scotch whisky been? AR: I think I was attracted to Stauning because I liked the ambition and philosophies they have. Alex, one of the founders, flew me out to Denmark before I started and I had a tour of the distillery it’s an absolutely mind-blowing place. I have never seen a distillery like it, and once I got to know some of the wider team and really got into what Stauning wants to achieve in the long run, I was really happy to be part of this project and be part of this amazing team. Everyone is so welcoming everything seems to be a collaboration, it’s a really open place for discussion and I’m really excited to get started and put in place some of the new plans that we have for 2024.
However I think the hardest part has been moving from such a huge Scotch whisky brand, seeing some of the challenges that that brings, but the new world whisky category is such an exciting place to be right now there’s so much wonderful whisky coming from countries outside the whisky producing giants of Scotland, Ireland, Japan and America. What we’re doing being one of the first if not the first Danish whisky is trying to break down boundaries and get people enjoying the fantastic liquid we’re making.
BLUK: Whisky as a category tends to place value in age and tradition, whereas the Stauning distillery in Denmark, which was built in 2018, looks like quintessential piece of modern Scandinavian design. From the outside, this gives the impression of a different mindset or approach to enjoying and working with whisky. Is this an accurate assumption? AR: Coming from a Scotch whisky background I have always experienced people’s mindset to be involved with age numbers on bottles and distillery names. There’s a long line of tradition within Scotch I think that’s what Stauning does so well, it is looking back at what the amazing Scotch whisky category has done. So we do our own floor maltings, we have 24 copper pot stills that are direct-fire heated, and I feel that the mindset is not that much different.
We still want people to enjoy our whisky in the right setting and take their time and experience it for what it is. It’s wonderfully full bodied and full of incredible flavours, and everything that goes into that whisky comes from Denmark. It really gives you a sense of place, which is fantastic and I think Scotch does that for Scotland, obviously, and that’s why people fall in love with Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, Japanese whiskey, and American whiskey – they all provide an incredible sense of place. We are newcomers to this whole world but I feel that the new world whiskey category is one of the most expansive and interesting at the moment. It’s got everyone really looking at different areas of the world and seeing what they can do, and we’re pitching ourselves up against the best of the best. It is hard work but at the same time we have this huge amount of appreciation for everything that’s come before us but with your assumption I would say design is at the forefront of most Danish concepts alongside sustainability.
Danish contemporary design, design schools, and the design museum all make Denmark world-renowned, and we have some of the best restaurants in the world. It’s clear to see that design and accuracy and passion within our work starts from the get go. The distillery is the most breath-taking distillery I’ve ever seen, it is an absolutely incredible place and I would encourage everyone to get out there and visit because we are doing things in such a wonderful way and creating some delicious whisky at the same time.
BLUK: I would imagine you have spent quite a lot of time experiencing the Scandinavian hospitality scene since joining Stauning. What is it like, and how does the UK compare? AR: It’s been a whirlwind start to my Stauning career. I have been to so many amazing places experiencing Danish culture in general, but Copenhagen is where I’ve spent the most time in Denmark, alongside Stauning which is the village that the distillery is named after. How does it compare to the UK? It’s a much newer cocktail scene, but the techniques and the ambition are all there. There are some fabulous fabulous cocktail bars in Copenhagen alongside, as most people would know, some of the best restaurants in the world, and it’s great to see that cocktail culture is keeping up with that.
It’s only a matter of time before people start to recognise Scandinavia in general as a dominant force within the cocktail industry, there’s some incredible stuff going on and we flew the team from a bar called Bird in Copenhagen out to do an event with us in New York, which was really special for me as it’s nice to showcase what a great bar team from Copenhagen can do in a city like new York.
BLUK: Back to ambassadoring, I think quite a lot of bartenders see moving in to brand work as a natural or desirable career progression. I also think the ambassador role has changed quite a bit over the years, from speaking to various veterans. Is there any advice you would give to someone who A: wants to get an ambassador job; and B: has an ambassador job and wants to be good at it? AR: if you want to get into an ambassador role I think you need to pick up a lot of information from around the industry and learn from people who have done your job before, and try to create your own style and see where it fits for the brand. Certainly have a love for the spirit category that you’re going into and make sure you have a decent network and a real passion for the industry, but also outside influences, whether that’s sport, food, design, photography, film, art – anything along these lines can always help bring something new to the drinks industry and I feel that it is very important.
To have worked in a few different places is useful to gain different outlooks and really understand how brands operate on every scale, what they want to achieve in the future, who the competition but at the same time where you fit into that competition. Have a love of travelling and embrace the cultures of different countries as best you can.
The second part of this question I wouldn’t want to tell anyone how to do their job. I feel that it’s changing more and more, it’s no longer just about tasting sessions and creating a drinks programme. You need to be involved with the marketing team, you need to be involved with the distillery operators, the brand as a whole, whether that’s the owners if you’re lucky enough to talk to those people. Get to know the distillery workers, get to know the ins-and-outs and everything the brand represents and holds dear.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions. As I said earlier there have been some incredible people that I’ve worked and who have been ambassadors and really inspired me, from my time working in bars I got to meet some of the greats: Max Warner at Chivas, Ewan Gunn at Diageo, Dean Callan at Monkey Shoulder, Mark Thomson at Glenfiddich, Meimi Sanchez at Havana Club, and Shervene Blackburn at Bacardi to name a few people I have always looked up to.
It’s always nice to reflect on the great things that they did, the great projects they ran, but I guess my one takeaway and my one piece of advice would be to always analyse what you’ve done before, whether that’s the very successful things or the odd mistakes you may have made, always analyse it as it can be so easy just to move onto the next project. Always go back and reflect on it and it will make your life much easier.
BLUK: And finally, you can drink anything, anywhere, with anyone one. What does that look like? AR: This is always a lovely question and a challenging one. Wow this is hard… I would say my grandpa, he died when I was relatively young I didn’t get to know him as much as I wish I had. He is my Dad’s Dad, and watching my Dad appreciate more and more what myself and my brother do within the drinks industry has been great, and I feel that he has a real appreciation now for all things whisky and all things cocktails alongside his love of food and wine and that’s really nice but it would have been great to get to know my father’s father.
Anywhere – if I could rewind time, my grandparents used to have this wonderful orchard at the bottom of their garden which my Grandpa used to look after, so probably sit there in the summer sun, and I would make him a Sazerac. From the odd stories I have heard he liked cognac, so I’d probably make him a Sazerac with equal parts of Stauning Rye and a decent cognac of his choosing. Yeah! that is the drink, and we would enjoy that in the orchard sit there in deck chairs, surrounded by apple trees, with the sun setting.
I can’t think of anything that would be much better than that.