A Trip Down Memory Lane
Australian Ambassador Sean Baxter took a trip to the Scottish Highlands to follow in the footsteps of the legend that is John Walker. Here he shares the myths and fables he picked up along the way.
I have always been addicted to history.
I am an Antiques Road Show fan and love the antiquities of times gone by.
Truth be told…I’m a history geek.
Ask me anything about olden times or something’s heritage and be prepared for a long, unrelenting conversation. It’s one of the main reasons why I love my job as a Diageo Brand Ambassador. Delving into the histories of the brands throughout a training session is one of the most rewarding elements of what I do.
And as part of this dream job, I was given the opportunity to travel to Scotland earlier this year with Australia’s World Class winner Charlie Ainsbury. Our journey started out at Diageo Archives in Menstrie.
Archival photography, documentation, antique bottles and old brand regalia—an endless treasure trove housing the memories of our spirits.
I glanced toward a document, scrawled in immaculate old English, “seed, corn and beans”, followed by “labor potatoes” and then “two barrows”. At first I thought it was a shopping list from a century ago, but then it slowly began to make sense. It’s the last inventory of the Walker farm, the receipt of sale.
I stared at it for a while…I couldn’t help but feel in awe of the document and what it represented. This piece of paper at some stage sat in the hands of a young John Walker, most likely as he contemplated the massive change that was about to occur in his life. The entire brand, a global dominance that would span continents and generations, all started with this humble little list.
It was at that moment that I knew this was a very special place.
The inventory isn’t the only treasure in the room. On the opposite side of the table were the very first sketches of the striding man designed for the earliest advertising for Johnnie Walker. The first time Johnnie Walker actually walked was across a napkin during a business lunch in 1909. The artist Tom Browne, a very famous cartoonist of his day, seemed to depict him perfectly.
He truly did walk across each page of the many scrapbooks dedicated to this early advertising. As I turned each one over, he seemingly skipped through the 30s, 40s and 50s, his clothes and style being tweaked by each artist’s impression. But at the heart of it all, he still embodied everything that is quintessentially "Johnnie".
The Crown Jewel
We disappeared into another room. Books upon books lined the shelves. Tucked away are the collective histories of every brand within the Diageo family. Every bottle design, advertising campaign, every pound spent are locked up in the annals of these rows.
I found a diary of a brand ambassador in Sydney in 1933. He recommended that his attendance at cocktail parties gave him “reason to believe that these occasions had considerable benefit and will pay dividends in time, not only for the Scotch Whisky Industry but the Distillery Company’s Ltd. in particular.” Well, if my job is anything to go by, he was very much correct.
Life-sized statues of Johnnie Walker, sporting memorabilia and antiquated point of sale lead us down another hallway toward two large wooden doors: The newest part of the archive.
The doors opened to reveal the sparkling crown jewel of The Archive…the self-titled "Liquid Room".
It was like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, row upon row of special releases, rare bottles, and key dates in the histories of every brand, all housed within this one room.
The shelves stretched up to the ceiling, which were easily 33 feet high. Previously these bottles only existed in the textbooks and articles that I studied as an ambassador and here I found myself in a place where they all came to life.
The Gordon's bottles, shaped liked cocktail shakers that ushered in the contemporary design of Tanqueray, were there as a complete set, each one housing a different premixed cocktail.
The earliest examples of Smirnoff were right next to the copper mugs and cock ‘n’ bull ginger beer that would make Smirnoff famous across the globe.
The entire Pimm's range, one through to six, are all housed there, and most likely nowhere else.
However, it was the Whisky that got me most excited. Rare bottles of Port Ellen and Brora, unidentifiable representations of long-gone distilleries, all proudly represented. I found the earliest bottle of Johnnie Walker which pre-dated the 1870s. To top things off, it had a preserved snake in it. Apparently it was found in China. No one seemed to know how the snake got there but we do know—it had good taste.
I spent about an hour just absorbing the space and as we made our way back through the archive I noticed a little red address book sitting on the corner of the table. It was Alexander Walker’s blending notepad. The book contained about 50 pages, each one scrawled with a recipe.
It’s hard to describe how precious this tiny little book was, to what is an enormous brand like Johnnie Walker. It is the very representation of the journey, the evolution, that small brands take to become world renowned.
I wish everyone got the chance to see this place…to smell it…to feel it…to stare in awe at every bottle in the room. Only then could you see what that young farm boy achieved back in 1820, when he was staring at that receipt of sale, wondering where life would take him.
Follow Sean Baxter on Instagram @seanbaxterambassador to keep a track of his travels around the world and get up to speed with all the latest news from KETEL ONE® vodka.