Words by: Lukas Raschilla
James Buntin has compiled over three decades in the industry, from behind the stick in his hometown of Edinburgh, working for whisky brands in both Australia and the U.K., to consulting and talking about the spirit he loves and grew up with. Buntin is now based in Sydney running his own whisk(e)y tasting business, The Whisky Ambassador. We caught up with him to see how he began and what he sees for the future of whisky in Australia.
Tell me about yourself, The Whisky Ambassador, and what you do?
To give you some background, I've working in hospitality all my life and the industry has taken me further afield to America, Canada, and eventually Australia to work for the Shangri-LA hotel and manage Hart's Pub in Sydney. In the early 2000s, I was lucky enough to land a role as a Whisky Ambassador for The International Whisky Experience, which showcased the differences between Scottish, American, and Irish Whiskies. I did that for quite a few years to audiences of around 200-250 people, two to three times a week around Australia. I then moved on to become the ambassador for Chivas Regal, The Glenlivet and Royal Salute.
I wanted to host whisky tastings with a lot of different whiskies from around the world. So I started The Whisky Ambassador around eight years ago, hosting whisky tastings. We had a lot of corporate tastings, but also tastings taking whisky into peoples' homes and sitting down with them drinking whisky and talking about it with their family and friends. So I ended up doing that, and still contracted to a lot of companies to host tastings on their products, and one of them at the time was William Grant & Sons who I was working with as a Whisky Specialist. An opportunity then came up, around four years ago to be the ambassador for The Balvenie in the U.K. I moved to London for a few years and worked on the marketing for The Balvenie, I returned to Australia in 2017 and continued The Whisky Ambassador and I’m finding a lot of whisky lovers that I had met many years ago are coming back looking to have more tastings with me, I’m enjoying it and it’s working really well.
Have you seen the audience or the demographic change since you started doing The Whisky Ambassador and the types of people who are wanting to do tastings?
As whisky naturally evolves, it draws new people in to the category. There are a lot of newer whiskies that have come along, with things like further maturation, different woods and finishes etc., and whisky has become a lot more approachable. If you go back 70 years, it was all smoky as hell and it was kind of like if you didn't like peat, then you didn't like whisky. Now there’s so many different whiskies with different cask finishes like madeira casks, chardonnay casks and many more.
One of the things I hate the most is when I hear someone say, 'I don't like whisky', I wholeheartedly believe there's a whisky out there for everyone.
James Buntin hosting a tasting at Titus Jones, Sydney
How do you come up with the range of whiskies when you host tastings?
I’ll take along a large selection of whiskies and set out during the evening to taste around ten to twelve different whiskies. There’s some whiskies I include because I have memories attached to those whiskies, and for me whisky is all about memories, basically I am trying to create a memory of the evening for everyone and the whisky that they have connected with. Having such a great selection allows our conversation to lead us to the next whisky. Someone might say,”I had a whisky from Islay once", then I can pull out a few Islay bottles and they'll be, "I had that one in the green bottle once, it was the one with the white label, oh it was Leap Frog (Laphroaig)!”, then we can go on and try that, and that brings back the memory of where they where when they first tried it. And that is really what a great tasting and a great evening is all about, when you start to tap into peoples' memories of whisky.
James Buntin hosting a tasting at Cannon & Cannon, Borough Market, London
What are the benefits of The Whisky Ambassador for the consumer?
Put it this way, some whiskies can be quite expensive, and if you walk into a bar and there’s shelves full of whiskies and you’re really not sure where to start, say you don’t like smoky whisky and pick one, you're not going to enjoy it. If you like smoky whisky and don’t pick a smoky one, you’re not going to enjoy that either. I educate people about the regions of whisky and why they are all so different and give them the confidence that when they’re going to buy a bottle of whisky as a gift for a friend or for themselves, or simply going to have a drink at a bar, they know where they’re going to go and know a little bit more about the styles and regions they prefer.
Really what I’m trying to do is give people the tools so that they can make better choices when they go out to have a drink.
James Buntin hosting a tasting at Titus Jones, Sydney
You've been around whisky for a long time, seen the demographic of whisky lovers change. Where do you see the category heading?
I see whisky going from strength to strength. Every industry now kind of has that 'boutique' side, whether it's beer, cider, wine, or spirits. All around the world there are small craft brewers or distillers popping up. Australia is pretty much the leader in craft distilling at the moment with good quality whiskies around every corner. I tried a dram from Ironbark distillery the other day that was just awesome! A great deal of thanks goes to the Godfather of Australian whisky, Bill Lark who has done wonders for the category and inspired so many people that it has helped to put Australian whisky on the global stage. Just look at Sullivans Cove a couple of years ago winning the best single malt whisky in the world, Australia has a great name in the world of whisky. I believe in the next 10 years, we are going to see a lot of interesting things happen with the smaller distilleries with different finishes and a lot of innovation coming through. Whisky will be seen as a lot more acceptable to have with food, particularly in the cheese department.
I’ve travelled around the world and have noticed something that we have in Australia that I think is of huge benefit to us, is that we have a lot of career bartenders, and people in the hospitality industry that have a real passion for whisky and a passion for learning about it. And when they learn about whisky they pass it down to their understudies if you will, but also to the consumer and new arrivals to the industry. People here look at being in the industry for a long time its a valued career, more so than any other country I have been to. I think that makes a great deal of difference in Australia and we should be very proud.
To find out more about what James is doing, head to thewhiskyambassador.com.au
The Whisky Ambassador