Johnnie Walker, striding on to the screen with Anthony Wonke

Anthony Wonke’s new documentary turns the lens on Johnnie Walker, following the whisky’s 200-year journey through archives, anecdotes and more

A whisky brand, and a blended one at that, might not seem like the top candidate for a documentary. But when it is Johnnie Walker, the world’s best selling Scotch brand, all bets are off. BAFTA-winning director Anthony Wonke’s new independent film, The Man Who Walked Around the World, looks at how the ‘striding man’ became omnipresent, far removed from its humble start as a grocer in 1820.

Wonke — who has previously made documentaries on Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo and Star Wars — is no stranger to culture and fandom. With his latest offering, the two collide for an often-hagiographic history of the Scottish distillery. “I am intrigued by the brand’s iconography and how it somehow resonates in our lives today,” he tells me over an email interview. “Whisky itself is imbued with historical and cultural connotations, a Zelig-like character that has been part of major social and political scenes in history.”

A vintage Johnnie Walker billboard in Chicago, in the 1950s | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

A dram of history

Encompassing almost 200 years and as many countries in a film is a tough task. Those seeking a deep dive will be disappointed — the film is an exploration of what ‘it takes to become an icon in popular culture’.

There is, however, deep respect for the whisky maker, both by those interviewed on camera — ranging from actors and musicians (like Sophia Bush and Cappadonna) to barmen, activists and artists — and those behind it. As a result, the final cut spans a period, that, as Wonke says, “has covered the two World Wars, the influenza pandemic [which was at the same time as their 100-year anniversary], the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, civil unrest, prohibition etc. The brand has seen all sorts of major historical events”.

Footprints in Bollywood

  • Following examples of how the brand became a social justice beacon in Brazil and a symbol of aspiration for many around the world, it came to India — the world’s largest consumer of whisky. “We looked into the world of Bollywood and realised the huge cultural impact Johnnie Walker has had within the industry. It appears in many films [from Mehbooba and Baazi to Hera Pheri] and has its own set of meanings and connotations,” says Wonke.
  • The director also came across Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi, a teetotaller who was better known as Johnnie Walker. “We thought it a brilliant story. After speaking to his son, and realising how charming he was, we had to have him,” he says. But for more of the conversation, he points me towards the documentary.

One of the most interesting anecdotes is from Iraq. “We managed to talk to an ex-intelligence analyst and advisor to [retired United States Army general] David Petraeus, who spent at least five years in Iraq. A lot of what he did was talking to ‘bad actors’, as he would put it. In the morning he would be having tea with a member of the Al-Qaeda, in the afternoon, he would be talking to an ex Iraqi Baath party member. In the evenings, he would sit down to negotiate and work out some form of intelligence gathering. Ultimately the truth only came out when a bottle of whisky was put on the table. And that whisky was always Johnnie Walker Blue,” shares Wonke. “So, I quite like the idea that if that bottle of whisky could talk, what would it say about the world, about global history, and about significant moments in life. I think that was one of the things that really struck me.”

Watch The Man Who Walked Around the World on SonyLIV.

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