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Tim Philips-Johansson: Meet Australia’s Global Whisky Whisperer

Australian cocktail maker Tim Philips-Johansson has one of the best jobs in the world. He’s on a mission to take whisky from old fashioned to everyone’s favourite.

Tim Philips-Johansson

Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky, according to Scottish legend. For without rain, the over 140 or so malt and grain distilleries scattered across the world’s whisky capital, supplies would slow swiftly.

The distilled fermented grain mash was once reserved as a boys club beverage, associated with high society and elitist hangouts like cigar lounges. But the taste for whisky – be it on the rocks or in a cocktail – has risen in popularity following a concerted effort designed to introduce the centuries-old and sometimes-malted magic to new pallets.

Among the faces pushing whisky into new pockets is award-winning Australian cocktail maker Tim Philips-Johansson, who joined Johnnie Walker in 2021 as its global brand ambassador after 20 years working behind bars. The Melbourne native founded Bulletin Place, a four-time Australian cocktail bar of the year and five-time World’s Best 50 Bars entrant, as well as the restaurant Dead Ringer.

Despite having his pick of spirits after swapping bartending for brand building, Philips-Johansson says he chose whisky because of its “complexity” and believes the perception that whisky is an “old man’s drink” is “bullshit.” 

Rolling Stone sat down with the whisky whisperer in Edinburgh to find out how the hooch is breaking away from its past and evolving into an “androgynous” spirit.

How did an Aussie end up the global brand ambassador for Johnnie Walker?

“It doesn’t come from a sense of patriotism, I’m not Scottish. Johnnie Walker first exported to Australia, so there’s something. But early on in bartending or your palate journey, as you’re tasting, pulling things off the back shelf, you learn pretty quickly that some spirits are easier to mix with than others. Some are more challenging to your palate. I started to not only like the challenge of falling in love with whisky, but the challenge of mixing with whisky as well.”

Where does the masculine perception of whisky come from?

“It’s the most damaging thing to the industry. You’ve got all these so-called scotch lovers that work their asses off to make other people not fall in love with [whisky]. Instead of just having a softly softly approach, and starting with whiskies that would be a good gateway or a bridge for people to get into it, they do the opposite. Yeah, give them the densest smoky cask strength single malt whisky, almost like when an Australian would give the migrant kid Vegemite toast. That’s what so much of the whisky industry has done, bitten off their arm to spite their face. And it’s all crap. And it’s been to be masculinized. It shouldn’t be like that.”

What’s your role in moving whisky forward and rewriting its past?

“We’re trying to actively create spirits and brands that are androgynous, that are equal. The best way to showcase whisky is to showcase its breadth of flavour across different occasions. But to be perfectly honest with you, where we’re from in Australia, we can create these uplifting, delicious and vibrant punchy cocktails with low sugar and high in flavour. A little bit goes a long way. Even in a humble whisky and ginger ale, fifteen mils of Johnnie Black goes a long way. You only have to see the sorts of people who make scotch in Scotland to realize it’s not a boys club, there are so many women involved throughout the whole whisky-making process here. It’s everyone’s drink.”

Are whisky-based cocktails introducing the spirit to new audiences?

“I hope so. Cocktails can have a reputation for masking alcohol flavour. But when you work in the top end of cocktail bars, you’re really trying to enhance inherent flavours. And sure enough, through that enhancement, you dilute the alcohol level, because you take something that’s 40% and you bring it down to 12 or 13%. So that doesn’t necessarily mask the flavour, but you can certainly enhance it. You can create aperitifs with scotch, and then conversely to that, you can create an affogato with scotch and pistachio ice cream and espresso, which is very much that after-dinner occasion. So that sort of variety of flavour within it means that it makes perfect next cocktail.”

For those curious about whisky, but don’t know where to start, what’s your best advice?

“The first protocol would be to find the best whisky bar in your city. We always say that the best influencers are our bartenders around the world — a good bartender is worth their weight in gold – but can be hard to find. But generally speaking, every city will have a whisky bar. I think bartenders that know a bit about whisky are very receptive to people coming in, and just sitting at the bar, and asking some questions. And then invest two hours and twenty-five quid to explore a couple of different options. There’s a lot of great literature online and there are a million articles. Or you can just message me on Instagram.”