THE name is well-known in local whiskey circles. Johnssen Li. He’s the go-to guy for whiskey, I had been told often enough.
He also has this incredible cache of whiskey information that he shares with just about anyone who asks. This, I discovered during an impromptu whiskey tasting session that had morphed into a master class because Johnssen, himself, led the tasting.
I’ve called Johnssen “whiskey man” after that, and had valued his suggestions and opinions on gin, rum, brandy and whiskey, most of all. A week after the fourth staging of Whisky Live on October 18, I caught up with Johnssen for some more whiskey talk over dinner. I knew he would bring some whiskey, but I had a bottle of wine ready. But does he drink wine at all?
Johnssen downed his first glass of the subtly oaked Heredad de Emina Chardonnay 2014. I like this, he said. He liked too what was paired with the wine—sinigang na bangus sa miso, tinapa spring rolls, kare-kare, tortang talong and lechon kawali. The lesson on the Kavalan Gin and the Kavalan Single Malt Select would have to wait. The whiskey man was enjoying the wine.
Why did you acquire the Whisky Live franchise?
Because of the track record of Whisky Live, and the global community of the Whisky Live franchise. I always look forward to the annual gathering of all franchise holders globally, where I get to meet the rock stars of the whiskey industry.
What changes or developments have there been since your first staging of Whisky Live three years ago?
Lots of changes, locally and abroad. Bar standards are rising. Consumers appreciate and care more about quality, and are more well-informed. The cocktail scene is also changing fast. Also, more women are attending the event.
How and when did you get started into whiskey?
My parents opened a small retail store in Binondo in 1973. It was really a humble beginning for my parents and, as a young boy, I used to be tutored for my homework by my mom while she was manning our store. I got interested in the business, especially about production, when I was in high school, because my dad had a home brewing/fermentation kit. I started learning deeply around 1994 and 1995 when I was in college—more about history, production process and brands.
How did you come by your vast knowledge of whiskey and spirits?
The basics came from the brands, themselves, that were present in the Philippines. Because we did business with them, it was just natural for the brands to do product training. Then, I began buying books abroad, so I was mostly reading in the beginning and I just kept on asking questions directly to producers, brand ambassadors, winemakers, distillers, blenders. I also started making friends with a lot of industry people who were smarter and more knowledgeable than me. If you have the passion, you just remember all the knowledge you accumulated over the years.
Which type of whiskey do you like to drink?
I really like a lot of different whiskey brands. What I’m sure of is that I really like people who are mavericks—those who take the path less taken, going beyond the comfort zone; people who are bold and secure about what they believe is the best for them. You don’t have to agree with all of them, you just appreciate them and, for some reason, they stand out in your brain.
I smoke cigarettes, so I think I need bolder, fuller-bodied whiskey. I really like cask-strength whiskey (undiluted, unfiltered, straight-from-the-barrel whiskey). Sometimes, I like sherry cask-matured whiskey, sometimes peated whiskeys. But lately, I like Scotch whiskies with the cereal (malty) character that is not drowned by flavors from the wood (cask).
Whiskey with an age statement versus NAS Whisky. Is one better than the other?
Really depends. What style of new make (spirits before aging)? What type of wood? What type of climate? And other factors. NAS is still a minimum (of three years old). It is like for a human being—there is an optimum peak for a human being to mature. Once you hit that peak, you start deteriorating.
How do you drink your whiskey?
I drink mostly neat. Sometimes I add a few drops of water. I recommend that people drink whiskey the way they enjoy it. That is the main objective—to have fun.
What’s in your personal collection? The rarest? The most expensive?
It’s better not to divulge what’s in my collection. I’m a sentimental guy. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Sometimes, we are just attached to certain brand, especially if you like the people working in the distillery and you know they value their work.
What is your whiskey of the moment?
The Kavalan Vinho Barrique always surprises me. Each batch is slightly different (because this is a single cask bottling).
What is the whiskey you cannot be without?
I’m really a simple fellow. I can drink whatever my friends are drinking. I just love Scotch whiskey very much—there are unlimited things to talk about (Scotch whiskey).
What has been your most memorable whiskey experience to date?
My first visit to Whisky Live Taipei. I was blown away. Yamazaki and Hakushu were still participating in those days and many people, including me, were not so into Japanese whiskey at that time. I missed my opportunity to buy the Yamazaki sherry single cask, which today is selling for more than P1 million per bottle.