The last time I had a jolly good night with my friends was Burns’ Night in 2020. Just weeks later lockdown struck.
Oh, what fun we had that night! Jigging and quizzing and eating and sipping all things Scottish.
Burns’ Night can be such a celebration... and here it is in our lives again, the annual January 25 tribute to the poet Burns.
Which gave me the perfect excuse to find a whisky expert to talk about a wee dram or two.
I found one in TJ Littlejohn, who is brand ambassador for Johnnie Walker, and he wasn’t like the brand ambassador I imagined.
Whisky can be a daunting thought if you’re new to it.
Maybe you feel it’s a sip your palate wouldn’t understand.
Maybe the choices of single malts, blends, with water or without, feels daunting.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, as TJ explained enthusiastically.
And he’s bound to know his stuff, working for one of the biggest whisky brands.
Johnnie Walker was founded 202 years ago.
Now it is the number one selling scotch whisky globally, available in more than 180 different markets.
I can say that TJ was one of the most interesting people I’ve interviewed in a long time; he took me on an inspirational journey of whisky and how we could enjoy it.
The popularity of single malts, TJ told me, has gone through an absolute boom in recent years.
I asked him who were the people turning to the spirit? Were they trendy young things?
Because, I observed, TJ looked so cool.
He chuckled and said: “I’m not the kind of whisky ambassador that sits in front of a fire with a cigar and a dog.
"I’m out there telling people ‘throw it in ginger ale, throw it in Coca-Cola’.”
The message from TJ is clear; that whisky is for all people, for all times ... and go with what you fancy.
His thoughts are, if you drink gin would you drink it neat? And probably not.
“So why would you drink whisky neat? Because we put it on a pedestal,” says TJ.
“It doesn’t have to be perceived like that. Take whisky off the pedestal.”
I asked TJ how to encourage someone who is nervous of having whisky, to give it a go for the first time.
He says: “I don’t think that the journey is about getting people to drink whisky. The journey is enjoying whisky as a whole.
"You can celebrate whisky every day, every week, every month. However you choose to celebrate is entirely up to you.
“I’ve been giving people whisky and cloudy lemonade. They say, ‘oh my word, I forgot how good this was!’”
He says: “My favourite thing is walking down a supermarket aisle, finding flavoured water, and experimenting.
"For those coming new to whisky, it’s a time to experiment. Stay with the same whisky, but try different waters.”
TJ is also an advocate of adding coconut water ... who knew it could be so delicious! But it is, he says.
Adding mixers is a good introduction to whisky; and then people can open their eyes further to its complex, vibrant world. TJ’s favourite whisky is Johnnie Walker Black Label. There are around 30 single malts – and a grain whisky – in the blend.
TJ explained: “They all stand shoulder-to-shoulder but have their own unique identity.
“I’d say rugby is my sport. Every single one of those players is an individual single malt.
“Bring them together as a team and the driving force they have is absolutely huge.
“The important part of the blender, is playing that captain or coach, bringing all those flavours together so they work together.”
It was so refreshing to listen to TJ’s enthusiasm.
He told me: “I grew up in a whisky household. My father is a whisky drinker. My grandfather on the Japanese side was a scotch whisky drinker.
"So there’s something personal to me, that really resonates every single time that I open a bottle of whisky.”
A Cranachan whisky cocktail
When TJ sent over his photos, I asked him what was in the glass he was holding.
He told me it was born in lockdown when he had time to experiment... and he’s happy to tell you... It’s a Cranachan Milk Punch Highball.
Cranachan is a Scottish dessert with raspberries, oats, cream, whisky and honey.
TJ curdles cream using a bit of lemon and adds in the whisky.
He then places it in the fridge. The cream curdles, rises to the top and can be separated.
TJ explains you then have a creamy texture, but inside clear whisky.
He adds in a raspberry syrup with a honey base for the sugar; and then tops it all up with soda water.
That’s what I call experimenting!
Find out more about Johnnie Walker Whisky here -
and you can follow TJ on Instagram here