Behind the Bar Stick People

What It's Like to Be a Brand Ambassador for Japanese Whisky When Your Cultish Brands Already Sell Themselves

Johnnie Mundell just swam 21 miles of Islay coast in three days. The water was frigid, the task sheer madness—a perfect metaphor for the towering presence known in the industry as Johnnie the Scot.

Since 2015, Mundell, with his unbridled enthusiasm and unmistakable burr, has taken on an unlikely endeavor: pushing Japanese whisky. The West Coast brand ambassador for the Suntory whisky portfolio advocates on behalf of some of the world’s most coveted spirits.

If that seems simple, consider this: The premium expressions of Yamazaki, Hibiki and Hakushu—three of the primary labels he oversees—are effectively unavailable to the public, at large. Allocations are so tight, in fact, that in Japan Suntory employees are forbidden from consuming their own product. Even those willing to pay steep markups—A-list celebrities among them—often don’t have the opportunity to find it. A dignified representation of a brand that can be frustratingly elusive is actually a herculean task.

It’s a good thing that Johnnie Mundell knows how to navigate these tricky waters. His foray into the Far East can be traced back to his time at Bowmore, a scotch malt in the Suntory collection. “When I joined the family in 2011, it was my first full-time whisky role,” he says. “At that time, the whisky category was enthusiast-focused.”

Living in Southern California and representing much of that region, Mundell recalls a time in the not-so-distant past when casual consumers expressed little interest in the intricacies of scotch malt. Desperate retailers were eager to bring in a Scotsman, as basic brand messaging can be surprisingly captivating when couched in a native accent.

But Mundell proved to be much more than a gimmick. “The rise of the craft cocktail community at that time was changing the way bartenders pursued education,” he says. “So I made the choice to educate bartenders on the category. I brought to life Scotland and whisky production through history, geography and production.”

He focused on these elements through the introduction of master classes and thrust a broader appeal upon Islay whisky by creating the Bowmore Oyster Luge, a now-legendary pairing of the brand’s 12-year-old expression sipped along with the brine of the bivalve. “From a consumer point of view, I focused on building relationships between the guests, friendship and community through whisky.”

Mundell, right, with Gardner Dunn, a senior Suntory brand ambassador.

Throughout his tenure at Bowmore, Mundell oversaw tremendous growth in sales. Back in Tokyo, his parent company was taking note. “The transition was natural,” he says of his shifting role. “There was an opening, my name was recommended to Japan, and they knew me well. Our global brand ambassador had previously had production experience with my brands when Suntory purchased them, so I learned a great deal about the scotch business from his impressions in the late ’90s.”

For all the excitement Scotch whisky was enjoying at the time, it was tame compared to what was happening in Japan. In late 2014, when a popular whiskey writer named the 2013 Sherry Cask Yamazaki the best whisky in the world, Suntory’s American inventory suddenly became scarce. But the hype machine had little impact on how Mundell approached his new gig.

“The issues of availability are not really my business,” he says. “I share the history and philosophy of Suntory as a Japanese whisky company. Suntory is built on education, and their deconstruction classes fit with my own vision for how to connect and create connections with the whisky.”

These industry-focused classes feature breakdowns of Suntory’s newer, more widely available bottlings: Hibiki Japanese Harmony and Suntory Whisky Toki. Both are non-age-statement blends, featuring a high component of single grain. To stymy the perception that that makes them inferior products, Mundell tastes with bartenders and retailers on the constituent elements that bring depth and complexity into the blend, including malts matured in sherry and Mizunara casks.

Even the grain whisky component is glamorous enough to sell on its own. Bottled as The Chita, it’s available in Japan and the U.K., where it flies off shelves. Rumors swirl that it will soon become available stateside, giving Mundell another important tool in his arsenal of education.

“I’m focused on the fundamentals of the role.” says Mundell. “The more time I spent in Japan and with the blending team, the more natural that felt. I see Japanese culture as defined by the word distillation. They keep the essentials—history, nature, craftsmanship—that define who they are, and at the same time, they balance the space of their land with the population.”

In whisky, ultimate balance is achieved through blending, which is why the Japanese hold this style as the most vaunted of liquids. Mundell is amplifying that philosophy here in the U.S. Buoyed by a steadfast reverence for technique alongside an expanding portfolio of products, he seems poised to swim against the current of swelling demand.