Future 50 Q&A: Joel Harrison

Spirit news

Tue 30 Jun 2020

The Future 50 is a new initiative created by WSET and IWSC to select 50 future influencers of the global drinks industry. Find out more and view the final list here.

Future 50 spirits winner Joel Harrison is an award-winning drinks writer and commentator, specialising in whisky and fine spirits.

What do you do?

I’m a communicator across the world of spirits. That encompasses writing books and magazine articles on the subject, appearing regularly on television and radio to talk about spirits, hosting tastings and talks, and helping brands engage with consumers in a better and more creative way.

How has your work been affected by the coronavirus outbreak?

I was due to spend 14 nights in Scotland in May, hosting tastings and dinners across various whisky festivals, as well as a regular education piece that I host for a major drink company, and these were unsurprisingly, and quite rightly cancelled.

My work has pivoted towards more writing and consultancy, all based from home, and some Instagram and Zoom hosting of tastings and on-line events for brands. The late, great drinks writer Michael Jackson once said, “never write about anywhere you’ve not been” so I think trips to visit producers will always be a yes from me, but I’m more than happy to do tastings of products with master distillers or producers via Zoom. It actually works very well.

How have you spent your time in lockdown?

I work from home a lot anyway, but this has given me extra time to focus on how I work from home and build more efficiency into my ways of working. I travel a lot with my work - over 100 flights last year - and it has been a real change to stay put for a bit. I’ve been able to work out more, and have lost weight, which is nice. And I think my cocktail-making skills have improved!

Any updates since you won the Future 50 award last year?

My latest book, co-written with Neil Ridley, The World Atlas of Gin was released across English-speaking markets. It has already been translated into German. I’ve also joined the Worshipful Company of Distillers in London.

What is your proudest achievement so far?

Maintaining an independent and self-employed voice in the drinks industry for over a decade has to be the real achievement for me. I’m a huge believer in entrepreneurship and my aim over the next decade is to build a support network and mentoring scheme for younger people in the drinks business who are starting their own businesses, or simply looking to be self-employed. 

Have you got any particular ambitions or plans in motion at the moment?

Aside from the mentoring programme which I’m currently working on, I’m in the planning stages of my fourth book, and I’m also working on some exciting other media outlets which I’m hoping to talk about before the end of the year. I try to work on the principal of ‘doing it before talking about it’.

Do you have any advice for people starting out in the drinks industry?

Yes, ask for advice all the time. This does two things - firstly it broadens your knowledge-base (and we are all still learning) and secondly it’ll separate out those who want to support you - as they’ll give you good advice - from those looking to protect their own interests. Finally, the advice I give anyone and everyone: push the door and see if it opens.

Aside from COVID-19, are there any particular problems facing the drinks industry right now, and do you have any solutions?

The rise of protectionism across economic markets, as seen with the current 25% tax on single malt Scotch in America, is a worrying trend that puts up artificial barriers to entry for new consumers to explore that market. My focus is always on the consumer and making sure that, at whatever level they are in their drinking journey, they feel confident in their choice of drink, and as a result return to explore the category further.

What excites you in the drinks industry right now?

The cocktail renaissance over the last decade is really exciting as it has helped to change the perception of spirits from ‘hard liquor’ to flavoursome ingredient. I hope the innovation and creativity we have seen in bars and with bartenders continues. 

I’m also excited by the quality of spirits around at the moment; there is enormous diversity across the category and as such we are seeing some really exceptional products come to market.

What’s been your best drink of 2020?

The best drink I’ve had is any drink I’ve shared with friends. However, my cocktail of choice at the moment is a Bee’s Knees (two parts gin, one part lemon juice, one part honey, shaken and strained). Delicious and using all-natural ingredients.

How has working with IWSC helped you?

I’ve been judging for the IWSC for nearly a decade now, and each year it allows me to reconnect with some amazingly talented people with decades of experience making drinks. Listening to and learning from these experts while sampling spirits blind is always an education for me and I hope that my learnings and experience can add some colour and direction to their experience, as they do to mine. This is the wonder of a judging panel drawing on a tapestry of talent, that ultimately the awards and accolades we give out go to the very best products.

With restaurants, bars and pubs able to reopen in the UK this week, how do you see things progressing in this “new normal”? 

I think there will be a split in the consumer base: those who are comfortable going out and those who still are not. People will be dying for a meal out, having probably reached the limit of their cooking ability at home, and I think the same is true with cocktails and drinks. Those who go out will be happy to be out and about and I think they will have an increased sense of the importance of the hospitality industry. I had my first draft pint last week - takeaway of course - and it was like nectar! I really feel people will rediscover the value of bars and pubs. Those that can do a mix of great drinks and service with an excellent atmosphere will be the ones that do the best; people won’t stand for mediocre and, with the pinch-in-the-pocket that a lot of people will be feeling, they’ll want a top-notch experience for their money.  I’m excited for the future of hospitality, if for no other reason than I hope the consumer understands how important it is in their life, and will appreciate good hospitality more.