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We catch up with 'the whiskey chef'

Beam Suntory's Matt Jones takes Sam Coyne through what it's like to represent the Kentucky bourbon brands of the 'first family of bourbon' in his native Canada

Matt Jones Beam Suntory

How did you decide you wanted to work in the whiskey industry?

I wanted to tend bar from my early teens, and started in the service industry washing dishes and as line cook for many years before becoming a server and then bartender. I have now been bartending for 17 years. Whiskey has always been prominent in the mixed drinks, cocktails and shots I have poured over the years. Honestly I believe the industry chose me.

Can you tell me a little more about how you got to where you are today with Beam Suntory?

Bartending is an amazing way to travel and see the World. On a contract in Japan in 2006 I was inspired by the bartenders in Kyoto, that were very bourbon forward with their cocktails and this is where I fell in love with Maker’s Mark, and learned the brand's story. I had heard of brand ambassadors for liquor companies, but did not consider this until I had moved back to Canada in 2009 and was approached by a colleague in the industry in 2010 to apply for the Canadian Maker’s Mark ambassadorship. I worked on Maker’s Mark for two years and then shifted to what is now Beam Suntory to speak to the entire bourbon portfolio, and this is my current role.

What does the role entail?

The primary role of brand ambassador at Beam Suntory is very similar to other companies in that the prime directive is to educate the trade and consumers alike and help them make informed choices when it comes to the whisk(e)y in their glasses. We educate not only on the heritage and unique flavours and processes that make each brand stand out as a sipping spirit, but their diversity in cocktails as well. We do this by facilitating trainings and special events.

You are well known for representing Beam Suntory's Kentucky bourbons, but can you tell me about any, potentially, lesser-known brands within your portfolio?

The Jim Beam family of bourbons is my primary focus which includes the Small Batch premiums Basil Hayden’s, Knob Creek, Baker’s and Booker’s. Canadians may not be familiar with some other historic bourbon icons that we produce but are not as available across the country such as Old Grand Dad, Old Crow, and Old Overholt, the latter being an American Straight Rye. Collectively we refer to these as “The Olds”.

What about your ambassadorial style? How important do you think this approach is in getting your message across?

Coming from a bartender and hospitality background, it is up to the bartender/server to lead our guests through their experience in a fun and entertaining way. Essentially you are the consummate host. This is also applied to being a brand ambassador, we are extensions of the distilleries in which we represent, like a tour guide. Being entertaining and engaging is paramount to being a great tour guide.

You're known in the industry as the 'whiskey chef', what's that all about and how did you pick up that nickname?

I’ve always been the bartender at the party that you drop into your kitchen with whatever liquor is in your cabinet, whatever citrus and fruit in your fridge and sweeteners and spices in your cupboard, and turn out cocktails for everyone on the fly. Eventually I started incorporating more savory food flavours into cocktails like using fat washes such as butter, duck, and pork fat. And then I started cooking with whiskey and encouraging chef’s to incorporate the whiskey into their dishes at my events. Someone called me the 'whiskey chef' and it stuck! Even though I have not taken any formal chef training, I have been called a chef of the bar.

When you're not spreading the word about whiskey, what do you like to get up to in your spare time?

My kids are my full time focus when I am home. Finding that work/life/family balance can be difficult while traveling 75% of the year. We make up for it in quality time. I have two young boys and our time is spent playing Lego, colouring, playing guitar, geo-caching, and some video-games. I am currently teaching my oldest to juggle.

You were recently named American Whiskey Brand Ambassador of the year in Whisky Magazine's Icons of Whisky Rest of World Awards 2017 - what do you think makes you stand out from other brand ambassadors in the industry?

I am a huge fan of my industry colleagues and their work, and am just honoured to be acknowledged among them. I have been presenting cocktails and brands for many years as bartender, and I do feel a brand ambassador with a bartending background has an edge in the industry. However I feel that I am as much an ambassador for the bourbon industry as I am for the great State of Kentucky. You come for the bourbon and its history, and you stay and return for the amazing people and the stunning geography. Kentucky is known as being the gateway to the Wild West with a touch of southern hospitality. I try and tell as much of that story of the people behind the brands with anecdotal stories of my experiences there, and people really seem to enjoy that!

What plans do you have for the future of the brands you represent?

As bourbon gains even more awareness and momentum in Canada, I plan on taking its message as far as possible to the outer reaches of the country. I would also like to do more interactive consumer events that bring a touch of Kentucky wherever I travel in Canada.

As an ambassador, what importance do you place on educating both the trade and consumer on history, production, legislation etc.

I am an amateur history buff, and people really seem to enjoy and relate to the stories and historical references. The Beam family has been making legal whiskey since 1795. They are truly the first family of bourbon. This is significant to the brands heritage.

As well, we are in an unprecedented era of transparency, where consumers are much more discerning about what they are consuming grain to glass, and bartenders as well. There are many resources such as newsletters and podcasts that they can stay up to date with legislation on so it’s important for the ambassador to be up to date on this as well.

You've got a very strong personal social media presence, on Twitter etc. How much of this is to help with your role and what would you suggest to others in the industry about using social media?

Social media is an amazing platform to not only lead by example and share out recipes and ideas, but also for the company to track my activities and see the influencer’s at our events. In the last 6 years it has become integral to the role. I would just encourage others to remember what you put out there is there forever so be conscious about how and what you post!

What can we look forward to from Beam Suntory in 2017?

Particularly in Canada, we have many exciting innovations and surprises up our sleeves in 2017, you’ll have to tune in to find out!

6 December 2016