Let us introduce to you Jonathan. Just as all wines imported into Alberta are represented by an agency, so too are spirits. Enter Jonathan and his wife, Cindy. Together they run Secret Spirits. A company dedicated to sourcing the finest spirits: rum, gin and whiskey from around the globe and bringing them to the market. Read on for his advice for anyone wanting to dive into the wonderful world of whiskey, how he selects whiskey for the Scotch Whiskey Advent Calendar and why he loves working with his wife.
VS: You’re a native Australian, do you miss anything about living there?
JB: Absolutely, Summer for a start and all my family but one of the things I miss most is the birdlife listening to Magpie’s (Aussie variety) warbling and Kookaburra’s.
VS: How did you get your start in the liquor business?
JB: I worked for a company in Australia that specialised in wine as an investment and so learnt a lot about wines from around the world which is unusual in Australia as there tends to be a big focus on local wines. When my wife Cindy and I moved to Canada an opportunity to work with a fledgling wine importer developed into becoming a partner in a successful Import company where I first began my passion for whisky and which eventually spawned our own company Secret Spirits.
VS: Whisky is quite clearly your passion, how did it all begin?
JB: Sullivans Cove from Tasmania Distillery was the first whisky I ever sold and I am happy to say that I still do however it was really taking on A.D. Rattray single cask bottlings that exposed me to how diverse the landscape of Scotch Whisky is. Once I started down that road I was focused on trying absolutely every expression of whisky or whiskey I could from anywhere as I really love all styles as long as they are made well.
VS: You’re now the proud purveyor of the fantastic, Scotch Whisky Advent Calendar. What inspired you to create it?
JB: I was actually at Urban Fare in downtown Vancouver after a whisky event buying my wife a lovely dark chocolate gourmet Advent Calendar which had stunning packaging and was well and truly a cut above every other Advent Calendar I had ever seen. I guess because I had just been at a whisky event the thought occurred to me that with all the incredible independently bottled single cask whisky I loved and sold that a Scotch Whisky Advent Calendar would be an amazing way to expand peoples experience and knowledge in a really fun way. Like a lot of these ideas I ended up not really doing anything about it until I saw the first edition of the Beer Advent Calendar in Alberta. I berated myself a little for not acting on it sooner and got straight into working on creating the 1st edition along with my wife Cindy.
VS: Did you ever envision the calendar to be as sought after as it is?
JB: Of course we hoped that people would appreciate 25 unique whiskies and certainly had enough initial enthusiasm to give us the belief to go through all the challenges to create it but it has really been amazing how much positive feedback we have had over the past few years. It is now becoming a collectable which is something very special for a product only in it’s third year.
VS: There are hundreds of whiskies to choose from, how do you narrow it down to just 25?
JB: That is a great question and part of it is a bit of a formula we have developed to include a diverse range of Scotch Whisky regions, styles i.e. Single Malt, Single Grain etc. along with different casks and age statements all coming from a varied range of excellent independent bottlers that all have their unique take on what makes a single cask of whisky amazing. We have really been able to nail it so far and actually more whisky is becoming available to us rather than less so I don’t see us not being able to continue to find an exceptional array of whiskies for each new edition.
VS: From the Scotch Calendar, spawned Rum’s Revenge (a chest filled with twelve, 50 ml bottles of unique rums). Can you tell us more about it?
JB: The Rum’s Revenge was something that my wife and I talked about shortly after the successful launch of the 1st edition Scotch Whisky Advent Calendar. It took over a year to develop the packaging and concept. Rum is a fast growing category and Pirates are back in favor big time so for us we thought it would be a good change to have a bit more fun with a product and have something in a more accessible price range that was not as dependent on any particular time of year. The Rum’s Revenge is the name of a fictitious pirate ship that Cindy and I created. Everything from the wax sealed treasure map to the mini Rum’s Revenge ship in a bottle has made this a really fun product to develop. We are excited about the launch later this year and hope that people love it as much as we do. Believe it or not but rum is a big part of Scottish independent bottling so we are actually accessing a vast array of rums from all over the world from our suppliers there and are able to give consumers the same expansive experience that we do with the SWAC.
VS: How many trips have you made to Scotland? What do you enjoy most about the country?
JB: 5 so far and now that I am making it across the pond twice a year it is going to become a second home for me. I love the people and the history and when the sun is shining (yeah it does happen) it is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Everything from cozy little pubs with hand pulled real ales to the grandeur of Edinburgh which is a truly amazing place to visit.
VS: What do you find most rewarding about being an entrepreneur?
JB: Cindy and I absolutely love our life. The challenges that get thrown our way are at times overwhelming, frustrating and scary but we wouldn’t miss it for the world because we love what we do and the appreciation we have received from so many people is a huge reward. The entrepreneur package certainly comes with struggles (a lot of them) but it also brings so much fulfillment and purpose I’m surprised more people don’t take the risk and follow their dreams.
VS: Your wife, Cindy, is also your business partner. What do you enjoy most about working with your spouse?
JB: Cindy and I work so well together and really complement each other in a fantastic relationship. Our marriage is now in its 28th year and I couldn’t have a better wife and business partner. Cindy is the creative one who does the design work and brings together the myriad of components and logistics to make it all happen. I just get to pick the whisky and rum and work to sell everything. It is truly special to be able to work with my best friend.
VS: So far this year, can you pick a favourite whisky you’ve had?
JB: I was lucky enough on my recent trip to Scotland to visit the Glenfarclas Distillery in Elgin. I was ushered into the Family Cask warehouse where I was presented with a dram of the 1953. At 63 years of age it is easily the oldest whisky I have tried and I was really impressed with the amount of soft fruit and balance and almost could not believe how gentle the cask had been after all those years. An absolute treat thanks to Callum who jokingly took the glass back after the first sniff, dumped it back in the barrel and told us that was as close as we were allowed to get. Thankfully he re-filled it and gave me easily my ‘whisky of the year’ experience.
VS: When you’re temporarily clocked out of the world of whisky, what do you enjoy doing?
JB: I still play cricket which I have been doing my entire life the highlight of which is a tour to Vancouver and Victoria each summer with guys from my club. A delicious cigar or pipe on the deck during the Summer with a good mate is a must. I love travelling with Cindy and we are so grateful that we get the chance to visit some amazing places. For me that is especially so if snorkeling and beaches are involved. The other budding activity is golf and I’m slowly but surely getting better, definitely the hardest sport I have ever played.
VS: Where is your favourite place to dine in the city?
JB: I have always been a big fan of Hapa Izakaya in Vancouver with all my trips to BC over the years and I was overjoyed to learn that they were opening a location in Calgary. The most amazing Sushi, Sashimi and Asian fusion to be found here. I have already dragged many friends downtown and always make a point to get my fix at least every 3 months or so. If you get a chance to go make sure you have the Sock Eye Salmon Sashimi and the Temari if it is on the daily fresh sheet. A delicious Korean inspired Ishi Yaki hot stone bowl should also be must washed down with a triple bamboo jug of chilled Sake.
VS: If you could give people starting their journey into whisky appreciation any advice, what would it be?
JB: To try as many different expressions of whisky as you can and don’t stop. It can take quite a while for a palate to change and the more you expose it to different flavors the more you tend to appreciate. Get out to whisky events at your local whisky store and try to attend some of the whisky festivals in and around Calgary every year. If attending a festival pick out 5 or 6 whiskies that you have never tried and do those first. After that it becomes hard for your palate to keep up to a point that you can really pick out the nuances.
Apart from field research (my favorite) I would also suggest following along on a few whisky blogs as long as you keep in mind that your tastes and opinions could be very different. Some fantastic bloggers that I follow are Curt Robinson from Allthingswhisky.com, Johanne McInnis from Whiskylassie.blogspot.ca and Joshua Hatton from jewmalt.com.
For more information on the Scotch Whiskey Advent Calendar and the other products in the Secret Spirits portfolio, please click here.