Make yourself a Monkey Shoulder Lazy Old Fashioned and settle down to imbibe this transcript of my interview with John Wayte, UK Brand Ambassador of Monkey Shoulder, the über-successful whisky brand that is on the top of everyone’s list!
Not everyone has the foresight at a young age to know who British Philosopher Alan Watts is, nor to heed his advice when planning their future. Our guest did and, maybe, that’s why he is the brand ambassador of one of the most profitable whiskies in the world.
John Wayte, UK Brand Ambassador of Monkey Shoulder, may have studied philosophy at university, but he wasn’t quite sure he would emerge as a philosopher. He spent more time organizing parties and ski trips for his fellow students, then pouring over Plato.
He did have the wherewithal to look at the future before him and deduce that alcohol linked everything he was doing. That led him straight into a career in the booze industry and he hasn’t looked back.
This episode originally aired on June 27, 2020.
You can listen to this episode here, or any of your favorite podcatchers.
Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with John Wayte. Just remember that I own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of Lush Life podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as my right of publicity. So if you want to use any of this, please email me!
Susan: Thank you John for taking the time to do be on the show Let’s start where we always start. Can you tell me a little bit about where you grew up, your upbringing and family?
John: Sure. So, I grew up near Luton, famous for our wonderful airport. Out in the countryside. I went to school near there. I did a lot of sports,
Susan: What did you play?
John: Pretty much everything. Quite a lot of rugby. I was really into running. It was a weird one because I was quite good at running, but I didn’t really enjoy it, but I used to think I wanted to be. an athlete or an Olympian, I think, I got carried away watching TV and things. I quickly discovered that I didn’t have anything the natural talent or discipline to actually pursue those dreams.
Susan: You pursued other dreams! What did you do? Were you planning on trying to go to university?
John: Yeah, as I went on through school, I was quite creative. I used to really art and maths and I thought I wanted to be an architect. That was the big vision. And I did work experience, architect offices and things and looked around universities with that in mind and then at the 11th hour, which is quite typical of me, I had a complete U-turn where I decided that I wasn’t totally convinced I wanted to spend seven years training to be an architect, and so I should go study something else.
In fact, I wasn’t even really convinced that I wanted to go to university. My parents told me I really should, and they said, whatever you do, just go to university. Then you can go do creative things if you want to, but you always have a degree to fall back on. And, so I went with my other A-level subject, which was philosophy, and decided to study at Leeds. Pretty much I picked Leeds mainly because it sounded the most fun university there was. I thought, if I’m going to have to go spend three years, studying something, it might as well be somewhere that was super fun.
Susan: What was fun about it or what did you hear was fun about it?
John: I’ve got brothers and sisters and my sister went to Sheffield and she’s 10 years older than me, but I remember when she was going, that it was known as this party place. I thought, what a better place to be then.
Susan: So, was it the party place that you thought it would be?
John: Oh, well, yeah, I did very little going to lectures and things.
John. Hah. Which is something I actually regret a little bit now. I feel I should have done, but at the time, there were so many societies and projects and events to get involved in there, and I much preferred all those elements of university life and the extra stuff that you could do.
Then the actual going and learning about philosophy. It was a funny process going through all that because then you come out of the end and you’ve got this degree in something which you hadn’t really thought ahead. Because I quickly come to learn that, you can’t go become a Greek philosopher and sit under a tree and catch apples and things that.
Susan: Especially if you’re not Greek!
John: Exactly. Unfortunately, there’s no money in that anymore. There used to be a lot of money in being a philosopher, but, not so much anymore. I had to take a different turn, which I guess it’s how it led me into the drinks industry.
Susan: I’m sure you were drinking, obviously it was a party school. Had you worked in a pub or was there anything that may have ticked off that that might be the way you’re going to go?
John: I used to run a lot of student nights and host a lot of parties in clubs and things that. So, I was always around clubs and bars. I used to be part of a ski club where we used to take 600 students skiing every year. We’d have to plan out those trips and all the social elements that will come with it. So, while I wasn’t actually working in a bar at the time, I guess I was always around certain bars and clubs, which exposed me to all those very similar to I do in my job.
Susan: So how did you progress to working in this industry?
John: Straight out of university. I kicked off working for a small PR company. I just landed in it by accident. I quickly discovered that, after about six months, PR wasn’t really for me. So, I thought, okay, I should actually put some thought into this rather than just go with whatever lands on all my plate.
I had a bit of self-reflection and time to think. There is this potentially cheesy video that I remember watching a lot. and it’s actually a little clip from a lecture by a philosopher called Alan Watts. The premise of the video is, what would you do if money was no object?
It’s basically him talking to his students and asking them to think about their dreams or passions and that they can actually then turn that into a career, rather than just following the cash, which can be a different, different route.
I remember reflecting on this and thinking, well, what I really love doing? I really love hosting parties and throwing events or organizing holidays and trips with my friends and things that. I thought, what is the common denominator here? I realized that, there was always alcohol. So, I thought it would be great to go and be able to facilitate all things through the alcohol industry.
So essentially, I guess I loved trying to make other people have a good time and to make people happy for the want of a better word. I thought, if I could work in the alcohol industry, then I could continue to do things on a permanent basis.
Susan: That’s fantastic. How did you find out what the first step would be to that?
John: Well, I had this rapid-fire approach to applying to things. I applied to pretty much everything under the sun, anything that was loosely linked to alcohol. At the same time, I had quite a lot of pressure from my family and my peers.
They’re all going off to do graduate schemes and things that. I was thinking that I want to work in alcohol, but what would my parents think is a good step. I was looking around and I came across this program that just being set up by Chivas Brothers, which is part of Pernod Ricard.
The really interesting thing about this was that they wanted you to have a degree, but they didn’t care what level the degree was at, which was quite important for me, because as I mentioned, I spent most of my time throwing parties rather than studying. What they did ask for was an application video. And I thought this was awesome, finally, I’ve been applying to all sorts of things and kept getting told no. No one can see who I am or what I do or how passionate I might be, but suddenly I’ve got this opportunity to display that. And fortunately, because I, in typical fashion, only discovered that the application process was even open a day before the deadline.
Fortunately, I had experience of making videos and films while I was part of these clubs at university, I thought if I keep it simple, I’ll be able to do it in time. So, I remember just spending that Sunday writing a script, filming a very basic video, sending it in. And then fortunately I was lucky enough to get an interview.
I’ve taken that video mechanic forward to applying to all sorts of jobs, ever since. It seems to really unlock or open doors, because suddenly, particularly when they don’t ask for it, they get an opportunity to see you, but it also shows a lot of effort.
People those sorts of elements when you apply for roles. But back when I applied to Chivas, it was just fortunate, quite lucky, I went through that application process. Initially I didn’t get the job itself. They were at the time looking to hire something about 25 ambassadors or, I think junior ambassadors to send to different countries around the world.
Everyone at the application interview process were linguists, they spoke Spanish, French, Chinese, Russia, and all sorts. I was just with English, which they all had so that obviously lowered my odds. Fortunately, they called me up out of the blue and said we’ve actually just had an opening come up in Poland. Would you be interested in interviewing for that?
I’d never even considered moving to Poland, but I instantly said definitely. Then two minutes after putting the phone down there, I’m on YouTube, trying to check out what Poland was all about.
As luck would have it, I managed to get the role. And, only a few months later, I was flying out to Poland, a place I’d never been in my entire life, to go do a job. I guess I didn’t really know too much about it at the time, in a place where I can’t speak the language. So yeah, it’s quite bizarre. But it sent me on this path.
Susan: Trial by fire. Now I have a question. Did you ever think of going behind the bar and trying your hand at bartending in those times?
John: I guess I’ve often looked back and thought, I really should have, or, it would probably really help my current role. But I feel, to some extent, I missed the opportunity. While I was studying. It’s quite fortunate that I didn’t need to, or it just didn’t come up as something that I was going to do. After that I was just quite lucky to get into this role with Pernod Ricard, and then I found myself out in Poland talking about Chivas Regal.
I didn’t actually need to know that much about cocktails at the time because in Poland, they drank whisky neat. It was more about knowing the history, knowing the process, knowing how it was made, all of which we’d had very comprehensive training on.
Susan: Wait, before you go into that, you get this job and you’re sent to Poland. Had you had some training before that in London concerning what you were going to do?
John: We had five weeks a training where we spent one week with a marketing team learning all about the different brands. They had one week up in Scotland, learning all about the whiskies. At the time. I didn’t even particularly whisky, very few of the people they’d hired did, but the majority of us were going to be whisky ambassadors.
There were a few gin ambassadors, but the majority were going to be whisky ambassadors. I remember, after this week in Scotland, because we’re basically doing a full flight of whisky every day and a tasting as they were talking to us about Chivas Regal or Ballantine’s or Glenlivet, and, by the end of the week, you loved whisky.
You’d acquired that taste for, how they say, if you have something 16 days in a row or something, you’d it. I think that they really took that mantra and applied it. Then we had various other training public speaking and a little bit on cocktails with one of the ambassadors. And then it was just thrown out there into the wind to see where you’d land.
Susan: In those five weeks, did you think, yeah, I’m in the right place. This, I think this is going to be right. Or were you , no, and I’m not sure yet…
John: I think, looking back, I remember thinking it was always super fun. We were with 20 people who were all of similar age, many of whom are still some of my best friends today.
You were living together for all this time and the alcohol industry seemed to just be super fun. There’s so much energy which obviously we see all the time when we go to bars, but people often don’t meet people who work behind the scenes on brands. But I remember with Pernod, there was this real feeling of family and togetherness and work hard, play hard attitude.
Just experiencing all that, I was buzzing, buzzing to go, but at the same time, I was totally unaware of what I was actually going to be doing. I don’t think they even really knew themselves.
Susan: So, you get to Poland and were you with another person or just you alone?
John: Just me. I was very relieved when I landed in the airport to discover they had those moving carpets, which might sound a really bad thing to say. I had no idea what to expect.
Susan: It wasn’t that long ago.
John: I know, but I had no idea what to expect. I’d never been. When I saw those, I thought okay, it’s basically exactly the UK.
Susan: It’s not as if you’re 80 years old. It was only a few years ago. Haha, so you found they had moving walkways, people, TV, electricity, etc. and bars. Where were you based exactly?
John: I was in Warsaw. I think Warsaw is one of the best uncovered gems there is. When people think about going to Poland on a holiday, they naturally gravitate to Cracow and it’s pretty beautiful. Warsaw itself no longer is, but it has a beauty and a completely different type of ways. The rate of change was staggering. I would walk to work, and, in the space of months, you’d see skyscrapers flying up all around you. They have a lot more freedom to create those structures.
But there is this real energy within the country too, or at least the people I met. They to work really hard and then they to really enjoy themselves. And, I think it all comes back to what its rooted in, they’ve had a very dark history. Poland has seen a lot of difficult times, but even in the living memory of my colleagues, they would remember living in communism up until 1989 and so for many of them, with all these new experiences and brands coming into the country, I just felt there was a real zest for life, which was amazing to be a part of.
I remember before I went, I remember reading something on a blog where someone had compared Poland to Brazil, it was the Brazil of Europe, and I previously lived in Brazil for three months and Brazil was my favorite country in the world at the time. I thought, well, if it’s anything that, then it’s got to be amazing. And it seems peculiar, because you think of Poland being very cold and snowy and things, and Brazil being very hot, but I think what they were talking about is more the life, the people and the warmth that you have in both of those countries.
Susan: How were people towards you and a new product then? I see it as a bunch of old men going, what do you mean we’re going to drink another whisky? We have our whisky. Was it tough to sell them on Chivas?
John: It was funny because there I was something 24 or 25, maybe younger. And I was often in front of men who are mid-30s right up into their fifties, I was in front of them talking to them about whisky and I think they were looking at me thinking, who is this fresh face.
Susan: That’s what I was thinking.
John: Why does he think he can tell me about whisky. I quickly went about rebranding myself. So, I grew a beard, which I think made me look a fair bit older. I started buying Tweed jackets, which I still have in my cupboard somewhere, and I don’t get to use very often anymore. Suddenly trying to make myself look older, more credible, and I think also bit British. I think it gave me that element of trustworthiness when talking about whisky, because obviously whisky is from Scotland. I think those things made people excited to hear and to hear those stories.
Poland is a really good market for whisky because about 90% of the spirits market is vodka, of course. And then the other 10% or nine is whisky. They read. All you’ve got to try and do is convince someone to move from drinking a vodka to whisky.
The exciting thing about it is, it’s actually very popular with young people, which you don’t see so often in other markets when it comes to whisky. I think it’s because the young people view whisky as being part of Western Culture. They love the tales and the stories. The people were very receptive to it.
Susan: Yeah. I guess it’s not what their parents are drinking. If their parents are drinking vodka, they’re drinking something new.
Susan: You stayed there for a while.
John: Yeah. So, I was there for, just over two years. While I was there, I actually thought I might never leave. I just loved the country so much. I loved the people. I had so many great friends. I remember the first two months were horrendous. I barely spoke to anyone. It was a very peculiar time, but suddenly there was this shift, and everything changed.
And then you would be meeting people all the time. And all it took was, one person to introduce you to, their five friends and suddenly the that would just grow and grow and yeah, it’s, it was, it was a fantastic two years.
Susan: Was it? Was it right after that that Monkey Shoulder came calling?
John: No. So actually I, okay. Very close to landing at different role with Chivas Regal where there was a moment when I was looking at becoming a brand ambassador for Chivas in South Africa. There was another brief moment where it was going to be Miami and then out of nowhere, I ended up moving to the UK, to their UK office to work, as more of a brand manager position.
It was very much an office role, but there was the suggestion of travel and a step up the ladder, so I did that for a year, and I think, during that time, I realized that what I really loved was being out there on the front line, seeing real change happening instantly and meeting a whole world of interesting, really passionate, creative people. It really irritates me when I see people either talk down to bartenders or suggest that bartenders are unskilled or it’s not a real job or anything like that because, for me, bartenders are some of the most creative, talented, intelligent people. They often have a really great grip of math and they manage spreadsheets and run a profit at the same time. They are coming up with delicious drinks, balancing flavors and all of this is in front of someone, creating a show and holding a conversation. Always being in front of those people was what I guess I really love.
Susan: It’s definitely an ignorant view because after interviewing people for four years, I mean, these are some of the brightest, most interesting creative people I’ve ever met. So yes, it would make me crazy too. Thank goodness I don’t see that very often. Where did you think that you were going to look for this role?
John: Well, so, again, I took a similar approach to how I did initially, because my contract was actually running out. I had a bit of a timeframe on this. but I was applying this video application mechanic. I applied to various different things all with these personalized videos. And again, typically, it’s the story of my life. The night before the Monkey Shoulder role finished accepting applications, I spotted it and was, “Oh my God, this is my dream brand, the dream role.”
And I remember thinking, there’s not a hope in hell of them wanting to hire me, but I was all like if I don’t apply, then I’ll never give them the opportunity to say no. I threw my hat in the ring and, and yeah, fortunately they came back to me and interviewed me. And the interview process itself was quite bizarre. I had to take them on a bar crawl through London and, at the time, I knew very little about the UK on-trade and could barely string a handful of credible bars together. I remember the week before that just going out every night trying to introduce myself to people being, “Hey, I’m a complete stranger. There’s no need for you to know me, but, what’s your name? I might bring some people in here next week. Just be nice to them and me, maybe look cool.”
Susan: Obviously it worked.
John: Fortunately, fortunately.
Susan: Tell me how it started. What were the first couple of things that you did?
John: Yeah, it was very much a baptism of fire. My first week was London Cocktail Week.
Susan: What a week to start!
John: It was amazing, because I would be meeting people and I would have no idea whether they were colleagues, bartenders, Monkey Shoulder fans, or even just consumers rolling round London Cocktail Week. There was a very bizarre moment. I was in Callooh Callay one evening, got introduced to about 15 people at once.
And the following day, one of them was sitting in the office. I remember looking at them thinking that it was very odd, what are they doing in the office? I then came to learn that they actually worked there as well, not a bartender as I assumed. “This is Briony, you’ll meet her a lot.” Suddenly I discovered why.
So, London Cocktail Week was very full on. I was just on a mission to say hello to as many people as possible again, quite daunting. It was a bit like being in Poland. The difference as that this time, everyone spoke English, but this time I was again in a position where I didn’t know anyone, and I just needed to make as many friends as possible.
Kicked off with London Cocktail Week and it’s now been two and a half years or so and I feel very settled in the role. There’s been a whole host of fun and amazing experiences, which I don’t think I could have ever imagined, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Susan: You said that when you saw the Monkey Shoulder application, it was your dream job. What was it about it and about Monkey Shoulder, obviously it’s one of the most famous whiskies now in the world, but what was it about that specific role or the company that you thought made it the dream job for you?
John: I always used to say that Monkey… I’d be in tastings or trainings in Poland and at the end bartenders or guests would say, “go on, tell us your favorite whisky and you can’t say Chivas.” They’d always caveat that, and then I would often say some other Pernod Ricard whiskies, and they’d say that I couldn’t say some other Pernod.
What’s your actual favorite? And I would always say Monkey Shoulder. I remember the first time I drank it, I don’t recall the name of the bar up in Glasgow during this training that we had, before moving out to Poland, I remember looking at the sea of scotch whiskies on the back bar and not really being confident to say any of the names and then spotting Monkey Shoulder and saying, “Oh, I’ll have Monkey Shoulder” and thinking it was delicious.
And then one of my friends told me a few of the stories about the name and about its conception and things like that. And I thought, this is super cool. Moving out to Poland, I would then just see Monkey Shoulder doing all these fun, exciting things that were just hilarious and a totally different approach to what I was used to.
Whenever I was saying about projects or running events in my Chivas world, I remember thinking. God, I really want to do it like them, but how can I make it the Chivas way. At that time in Poland, it was how can I throw a tie and a Tweed jacket on that?
I just admired everything they did. And so, when it came up, I thought, well, this is incredible. It’s going to be my favorite brand in one of the greatest spirits markets in the world and I’ve just got to go for it.
Susan: And are you using your passion for video photography in your role now?
John: Video less so. I’ve actually got more into photography and social media. There’s a lot of negative things about social media, but I personally, I really love it. I love how you can be creative with it and it’s a portfolio. I used to do a lot of art at school and there’s real satisfaction in creating a painting or something, and in this physical thing you’d made. I guess since then I’ve realized that I need quicker gratification than painting a picture. I’ve discovered that photography gives me that same buzz and often actually takes just as long.
But I get that buzz out of it. As with the job applications and getting those roles being such a visual thing and that being so important, I found it to be such a great tool in my role. That passion for photography really kicked off when a bartender called Callum Rixson who works in Bath at a place called the Hideout showed me the new iPhone and how it had this portrait mode and it just blew my mind. I was like this is credible. The pictures you can take with this are just next level. So next week I decided, time had come. I was going to treat myself to my first phone contract.
I got one the following week, I showed it to another brand ambassador in our team and she did the exact same thing. I quickly realized that everyone is going to very quickly be leveling up their camera phones. So, why don’t I try and learn how to use this camera that I’ve had had sitting in a cupboard since I was at university to actually start taking some more interesting or more unique pictures.
I just went around teaching myself through the university of YouTube and it just became something that was very pleasing. People seemed to really like it and it’s really helped my role. We now do a thing at William Grants called Unwrapped, where we give seminars around the country on what we call the other side of bartending.
Rather than talking about how to make clear ice or how to clarify things, or the techniques of bartending, it’s more a holistic view of other sides of life. So, there’s all sorts of different things. I think you’ve heard Fabiano (Latham) speaking previously about adventure and creativity.
My subject I chose to talk to people about was the Power of Photography, something that I call Barography and it’s now become a personal passion of mine to try and help as many people become better photographers and be able to take great pictures of the delicious drinks we make, the beautiful bottles we buy, and the people we live and work with.
Susan: Yeah. I mean I’ll have to follow some of your tips, because I know that you’ve given a couple of chats with the Booze Brain and also, I saw on-line, there’s a YouTube video of you doing it for the company as well.
John: Yeah, a few places!
Susan: Back to Monkey Shoulder. If someone is new to Monkey Shoulder whisky and they’re taking their first dram, I’ve had it before and I will having mine after, what is the experience that you want them to have?
John: Oh, that’s an interesting question. I just hope that they find it to be delicious. We actually very rarely drink it neat. I think it is a delicious whisky when it is drunk neat as a blend of three single malts. It really stands up on its own, but I think it really comes into its own when you mix it in cocktails. Normally when I do a tasting or a training, we skipped the drinking and eating, and we skip straight into various different cocktails.
We play around with how it works really well in a stirred, down boozy drink. And it works equally well in a long light, refreshing cocktail and how it can transcend categories. There’s lots of people who think this, a pocket of whisky drinks, there’s a pocket of rum drinks and so on. What we try to do is show that Monkey Shoulder can bridge those gaps. Why not make a Monkey Shoulder Colada or basically the possibilities are endless, really.
Susan: Oh, I love that idea of a Monkey Shoulder Colada.
John: It’s next level, literally, oh my God, I think there’s nothing better. In fact, there’s one thing better. We recently brought out a, I say recently, it’s actually probably two years ago now, but we brought out a second variant of Monkey Shoulder called Smoky Monkey, which you can find in the UK, and France , slowly it will spread its wings. If you make the Monkey Colada with Smokey Monkey, Oh my God. So good.
Susan: I may have to have that as a recipe. Now if we were at the bar, I’d say, let’s go get that at the bar. Unfortunately, we’re separated thanks to a certain virus that we have right now, so I will join you the next time we’re both in a bar together and have one of those. How’s that?
John: Definitely sound good?
Susan: Alright. Alright. Thanks so much for being on the show!