As bourbon brand ambassador, Ray Daniel is living the dram
When Ray Daniel applied for an after-school job at an unremarkable “country pub” in his native Ireland, he didn’t realize he was walking the first steps of his career path—after all, he was only 14 and his dream was to be a musician. But Daniel has since learned to expect the unexpected. He didn’t intend to settle permanently in Canada either, nor did he anticipate that a long tenure at an Irish-themed Toronto bar would eventually lead to his becoming brand ambassador for Beam Suntory’s American whiskey portfolio. Yet every development has been borne of the same impulse: a love of learning.
“Even at 14, I looked older than I was, so after some time picking up glasses and emptying ashtrays, the owners of the pub took a chance by throwing me behind the bar. I loved it—it was a level of socializing that doesn’t exist for 14- and 15-year-olds. I also felt like I was learning something that none of my friends were learning. It was something that was mine. I did that through to the end of college.
“At the pub, a fancy cocktail was a gin and tonic. But the man who hired me, he had the better part of 20 years’ experience behind the bar. He took me under his wing and, on quiet nights, he’d teach me the basics of cocktailing, of flavour profiling. He later got me a job at a five-star hotel a couple of towns over from where I grew up. It was one of the only places in Ireland that had a legitimate cocktail program; I think we had 300 bottles behind the bar and were expected to know everything about them.
“I’d wanted to move to the States, but a buddy of mine was on his way back from spending a year in Toronto, and he called me and said, ‘You need to at least come here for a visit.’ And I just fell in love with the city, and I haven’t wanted to leave for 15 years.
“I started working at [the Irish Embassy Pub & Grill in downtown Toronto] a couple of weeks after I landed in Canada. I can’t speak highly enough about the ownership there—outside of my family and my girlfriend, I don’t know if I’ve ever had people support me the way they did. I stayed for over six years.
“But joining Char No.5 Whisky Bar [in Toronto’s Delta Hotel] was probably the most pivotal moment in my career. They basically handed me the reins and told me to make it whatever I wanted while still keeping it within the whisky theme. We expanded over the course of a couple of years to nearly 500 whiskies.
“Through that job, I got pretty close with [Beam Suntory’s] Matt Jones. One of the brand managers from Beam was in for dinner one night and I said, ‘Hey, what Matt does is something I’d be interested in pursuing.’ Obviously, it’s a really hard job to land, but when Matt decided to move over to the World Whisky portfolio, he gave me a heads up.
“How I like to approach my job is… it’s my responsibility to educate people about the brands, but also to protect the brands; to make sure that when we’re doing events, they’re in line with the values the brands hold. The fact that I’m trusted by those families, who have been making whisky for hundreds of years, is not something I take lightly. Every day, I do take a moment to remind myself I’m incredibly lucky to be able to do what I do.”
—as told to Michael White