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Master of Malt Blog

Tag: International Women’s Day

Cocktail of the Week: The Hanky Panky

With International Women’s Day this week, we thought it as good a time as any to look at Ada Coleman, the pioneering bartender who ran the American Bar at the…

With International Women’s Day this week, we thought it as good a time as any to look at Ada Coleman, the pioneering bartender who ran the American Bar at the Savoy, and try one of her creations, the Hanky Panky!

Most bartenders don’t get profiles in the London papers when they retire, but then again most bartenders aren’t Ada Coleman. Coley, as she was known, was a bit special. Born in 1876, she began her career at Claridge’s Hotel at the age of 24. Then in 1903, she landed one of the biggest jobs in booze, head bartender at the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel where she remained until 1925 when she officially retired from bartending (though would live a lot longer, dying in 1966 at the age of 91). Her successor was none other than Harry Craddock, who would go on to write The Savoy Cocktail Book. In August last year, Shannon Tebay followed in Coley’s footsteps when she became the first ever actual American to run the American Bar, though we have just learned from the Washington Post that she has stepped down citing a “cultural mismatch.” Which shows how interested the world still is about what goes on at the American Bar.

Coley in her element

It is the place that put London on the cocktail map by introducing properly-made American-style drinks (hence the name) like the Manhattan (Coley said that this was the first drink she learned to make) and the Martini to England. It wasn’t just about the drinks, though – Coley’s hospitality was legendary and the bar attracted celebs from around the world like Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, and Marlene Dietrich. 

Made for Charles Hawtrey, not that one

One such notable was the actor Sir Charles Hawtrey, who was a star of the London stage at the time. He’s not to be confused with the cheeky chappy actor from the Carry On films who took ‘Charles Hawtrey’ as a stage name. His real name was George Hartree. Hope that’s cleared that one up. Anyway, apparently Sir Charles came in one day feeling a bit low and wanted something to perk him up. In an interview with The People newspaper Coley said:

“The late Charles Hawtrey… was one of the best judges of cocktails that I knew. Some years ago, when he was over working, he used to come into the bar and say, ‘Coley, I am tired. Give me something with a bit of punch in it.’ It was for him that I spent hours experimenting until I had invented a new cocktail. The next time he came in, I told him I had a new drink for him. He sipped it, and, draining the glass, he said, ‘By Jove! That is the real hanky-panky!’ And Hanky-Panky it has been called ever since.”

The Hanky Panky in all its glory

The result is something like a sweet Martini, supercharged with Fernet Branca. I’m using good old Bathtub Gin as you want something with a bit of power that isn’t going to get swamped by the Fernet. Vermouth is another old favourite, Martini Riserva Rubina. For the Fernet, I’m using something a bit different, one made in London by those clever chaps at Asterley Bros. It’s a little bit richer and more chocolatey than Fernet Branca but still with enough menthol oomph. One can imagine giving the performance of your life after a couple of these. Cheers Coley!

How to make a Hanky Panky

Right, here’s the recipe:

60ml Bathtub Gin
30ml Martini Speciale Riserva Rubino vermouth
1 tbsp Fernet Britannica

Add all the ingredients to a cocktail shaker or mixing glass, and fill with cubed ice. Stir for 30 seconds, and strain into a chilled Martini glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

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Allison Parc: the New York ballerina making whisky in Cognac

Continuing our International Women’s Day coverage, Lauren Eads talks to Allison Parc, the force behind Brenne, a whisky made in the Cognac region of France. When Allison Parc set about…

Continuing our International Women’s Day coverage, Lauren Eads talks to Allison Parc, the force behind Brenne, a whisky made in the Cognac region of France.

When Allison Parc set about creating her own whisky brand in the early 2010s, she didn’t take the easy road. A former professional ballerina living in New York, you might have thought that an American whisky, perhaps a bourbon, would have been the obvious (geographically convenient) spirit of choice. 

AllisonParc

Allison Parc enjoying a glass of whisky

Whisky rooted in Cognac

Instead, Parc honed in on a third generation distillery farm in Cognac with a vision to create a French single malt that would place the importance of terroir centre stage. At that time, she was a lone whisky warrior among a sea of Cognac producers. Which did at least help her to stand out, but what she set out to do was far from the norm. “[Cognac] really is an ideal place for making whisky but I was truly shocked to be the first one to do so, and only around the fifth person in all of France to start making whisky back in the early 2000s. Now there are some 120 distilleries producing whisky in France.”

Did her years as a ballerina inform her approach to building a whisky? The two disciplines do have some commonalities, says Parc. “Both whisky and ballet take a great time, and there’s a sort of reverence to the years of work done prior and the end enjoyment. Both are rooted in history and rich with classical elements, ceremonies and respect, and both can take you through a wide variety of moods and expressions,” says Parc. “I love the complexities both worlds can have depending on the artist’s vision.”

Unique production techniques

Parc’s vision resulted in the creation of Brenne, an organic single malt made from two types of heirloom barley, grown, malted and distilled on the same farm in Cognac. The whisky itself is twice distilled in an alembic Charente still and aged in both French Limousin oak and ex-XO Cognac barrels, cut with water from the Charente River. 

It’s this double barrel maturation that’s unique to Brenne, which is currently the world’s only single malt to be aged in this way. The result is a whisky with signature notes of banana flambé, crème brûlée and blueberry muffin tops, explains Parc. 

Brenne Ten was launched in October 2015 and is a limited edition 10-year-old expression with just 300 cases made available each year. It was only recently released outside of the USA. In many ways Brenne’s darker sister, Brenne Ten offers notes of dark chocolate, dried fruits and warm baking spices, while showcasing some stone fruit and butterscotch notes, says Parc.

Terroir is key to both Brenne and Brenne Ten, with Parc believing deeply that soil, climate and topography can impact the flavour of a whisky, depending on how the barley was affected that season. But while Brenne is a blend of whiskies aged between 6-8 years old, Brenne Ten is a vintage expression, produced from barley grown in a single year and date stamped accordingly. “When you can bring in nature in relation to what is in someone’s glass you can build a deeper appreciation for the craft of making a whisky, focusing on terroir, organics and vintage,” adds Parc.

Brenne French whisky

The classic Brenne single malt bottling

Not an easy sell

10 years after it was founded, Parc has carved a comfortable niche for Brenne. But she admits that French whisky wasn’t then and still isn’t an easy sell, especially in the US. In the early days Parc had to work twice as hard to get her bottles on retailer’s shelves, delivering them personally via Citi Bike in Manhattan. “It was a ton of work and it was a ton of fun,” says Parc. “The challenge was that I needed to educate every single person – from distributor to bartender, retailer to end consumer – on the category first before I could dive into the education on my brand. I had to help everyone mentally get over the hump that yes, whisky can come from France. In other words, to sell one bottle of Brenne it took four times the amount of communication a fellow bourbon or Scotch brand needed to produce.”

Women in whisky

Parc is just one of a legion of women working in whisky in senior positions, either as a distiller or brand founder. And despite the spirits industry having made progress in relation to gender equality and representation, it’s still important that we continue to highlight the achievements of women working in whisky, says Parc. “Our industry has come a long way in seeing more women working throughout various aspects of our dynamic, global, space, but we have quite a long way to go,” says Parc. “Whisky is a world-wide beverage and having representation from the top down that embodies the wide diversity of our audience is, in my opinion, key to our growth and continued excellence. We still need more positions in the C-suite, VP’s, and director roles occupied by a more balanced representation of the population.”

What words of wisdom does Parc have for aspiring whisky entrepreneurs? Her advice is not gender specific. First off, you’ll need money, patience and an “unshakable belief in oneself”. “You also need to realise you’re creating something that human beings will ingest – so bring a tremendous amount of integrity to your process and when your brand is alive, share it with all the goodness in your heart,” she says. “To me, that’s where the next journey begins and it can be quite magical to open bottles of your creation and share in community around a glass (or two!) of your art.”

Brenne single malt whisky is available from Master of Malt

 

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Five minutes with… Fawn Weaver, founder of Uncle Nearest whiskey

Fawn Weaver is the woman who brought the story of the great whiskey maker the world never knew to light. But ever since its inception, Uncle Nearest has done more…

Fawn Weaver is the woman who brought the story of the great whiskey maker the world never knew to light. But ever since its inception, Uncle Nearest has done more than make tasty whiskey. We spoke to her about how drinks brands can make meaningful change and ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion are more than just buzzwords.

The first master distiller of Jack Daniel’s whiskey was a man named Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green, or ‘Uncle Nearest’ as he was most fondly known. A slave emancipated after the Civil War, he was a pioneer of the Lincoln County Process, a tutor to arguably the most famous name in whiskey, and the first African-American master distiller on record in the United States. You’re probably aware of the tale thanks to the brand made in his honour by Fawn Weaver, which was founded in 2016. 

Since then she has spent her time building not just a distillery, but a space where women and people of colour can be represented and championed in the drinks industry. Weaver admits, however, that she didn’t realise the scale of the problem right away. “Where I began and where I am now are two very different things. Initially, I had the ambition to cement one person’s legacy, and change a family’s life. Then I came into the industry and realised I was the only one who looked like me. Every room was white dudes in collared shirts!” she recalls.

Despite the fact that 70% of America’s population is female and/ or non-white, a very small fraction of the brands in the spirit industry are minority founded and owned. Of those few, an even smaller percentage have the support needed to achieve success. “I began doing events and women and people of colour came up to me crying. At first, I didn’t understand it. I was just there to do a whiskey tasting,” Weaver says. “But this story seemed to provide hope for the 70% of America that hasn’t seen themselves in the industry”. 

Fawn Weaver

Say hello to Fawn Weaver

Breaking into the bro club

Not that success came without struggle. Weaver has been a serial entrepreneur for over 27 years. She isn’t just the CEO and founder of Uncle Nearest, but of Grant Sidney, Inc. too, and she has been a popular TED speaker and a New York Times bestselling author. The team is Uncle Nearest is 50% female with men and women who do the same job paid the same, and is the first and only major spirit brand to have an all-female executive team. And yet, they would struggle to get through to distributors, bottle makers etc. when reaching out in the early days. 

“They were all having the same problem. All of the gatekeepers were male, so on a hunch, I gathered all the information I needed and got my husband to pose as our CEO. He got through on the same day, first try. The reply would always have some reference about playing golf or drinking beer. It was a bro club”.

In fact, for the first couple of years of Uncle Nearest’s existence, Weaver was actually listed as chief historian. Her husband continued to get the calls and be the CEO for a short while, which Weaver says she was ok with because she “needed to get the work done”. Once the mould is broken others won’t have to do the same thing. Despite the early struggles to be recognised, it is encouraging is that the story of Nearest Green is now such an accepted part of America’s whiskey history since she first founded the brand.

After those early experiences, Weaver describes her objective as shifting from ensuring one legacy, to every legacy. First came the Nearest Green Foundation which provided education for every descendant of his who wanted to go college, a small but crucial correction to a family that didn’t see enough benefit from their ancestors’ remarkable contribution to whiskey. 

Fawn Weaver

The all-female leadership team at Uncle Nearest

Making a difference

Then came COVID and, in the midst of it, a renewed Black Lives Matter movement. “From the moment we lost George Floyd, we started receiving funding. A lot of brands wanted to help, but didn’t know how to. The chief branding officer of Brown-Forman was one of the first to call. Together, we set up the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative,” Weaver says. In June 2020, each distillery contributed $2.5 million to create the Nearest Green School of Distilling, develop the Leadership Acceleration Program (LAP), and establish the Business Incubation Program (BIP). 

The Nearest Green School of Distilling saw them partner with Motlow College to create the first accredited degree course in distilling in the US. The LAP, meanwhile, was Weaver’s response to finding people in the industry that were talented but didn’t have the opportunity to move into the area they wanted. The initiative has already taken on a slew of apprentices who have been shadowing at top distilleries across the country.

“When we started the LAP, we couldn’t find a single black female master distiller. In fact, no African American had been the head whiskey maker at a major distillery since Nearest Green. There were no African American master blenders, heads of operation, or head of sales for a distillery. We became an ally to people who dreamed of those roles, paying their salary and for all their qualifications,” Weaver says. “Tracie Franklin was the first person selected as an apprentice as a head distiller and now when she goes into distilleries she knows just as much, if not more, than the master distillers she’s learning under. When she graduates she will be one of the best in the business”.

Victoria Eady Butler is another example of providing an effective and brave platform. Despite being Nearest Green’s great-great-granddaughter, she worked for 31 years in the department of justice before becoming Uncle Nearest’s master blender. In doing so, she became the first female African American master blender in history. She’s now the first Black woman to win Whisky Magazine’s Icons of Whisky for ‘master blender of the year’, and in 2022 became the first person to ever win the award in consecutive years. “A lot more women and people of colour are master blenders now than before Victoria. It’s a great example of, if you give it a shot, we will excel,” says Weaver. 

To create radical change, you need to be radical

The Business Incubation programme, meanwhile, focuses on providing expertise and resources to African Americans entering the spirits industry as entrepreneurs. “Most of the businesses started by people of colour in our industry have failed, so how do we help build a framework that allows people to thrive. We offer support in marketing, branding, IT, distribution networks, and other assets and opportunities to grow their spirits businesses,” Weaver explains. 

Outside of the Jack Daniel’s-Uncle Nearest umbrella, there’s also the Black Business Booster Programme, which is helping about 20 black-owned brands with a similar network of resources and support, and the Uncle Nearest Venture Fund, a $50m programme dedicated to raising minority-owned brands up. Equiano Rum was the first chosen, and Sorel followed. “Uncle Nearest can’t be the only successful brand, so we’re willing to put our money where our mouth is to make sure we don’t stand on our own”. 

It’s this perspective that really demonstrates what’s so remarkable about Weaver. She has been steadfast in her commitment to change, and is constantly looking inward. In our chat, she demonstrates how her company is well represented when it comes to women, African Americans, and LGBTQ+, but needs to do more by the Latin community. She’s constantly prepared to put her neck on the line and take huge risks, and truly backs what she believes.

“Whenever I’m asked how people can make a difference, I say you need to be creative and radical, because nothing has worked in the past. I was sitting with leaders in the fifth largest bank in America recently and I told them about how I wasn’t getting resumes from qualified people of colour, so we looked for them and found mostly expert bartenders who just needed a platform. They had the confidence, the culture fit, the knowledge,” Weaver explains. “In your bank, look at your tellers and see who has the potential and put them in a programme that lets some shadow the position they want to fill. Don’t just fill a diversity quota, give them the real support and a timeframe to shine”.

Fawn Weaver

The Uncle Nearest Distillery

More than one legacy

With International Women’s Day this week, it’s a great reminder that too often these initiatives are taken as a token gesture, rather than a moment to reflect and engage. In someone like Weaver, others can see an inspirational figure who has ensured that diversity, equity, and inclusion are more than just buzzwords. It’s worth remembering that giving stories like this oxygen is the whole reason Uncle Nearest is a brand in the first place. Weaver was alerted to the story in 2016 thanks to a New York Times article by Clay Risen during Black History Month.

Now Uncle Nearest is the fastest-growing American whiskey brand in U.S. history, the best-selling African American-founded spirit brand of all time, and was the most award-winning American whiskey (including bourbon) of 2019, 2020, and 2021. When The Nearest Green Distillery opened in Shelbyville, TN in 2019, it became the only major distillery in the country to owned and operated by a black person, and now stands as a 323-acre, four-phase, $50 million ode to storytelling, history-making, and real progression. Weaver revived Green’s legacy, but as the brand excels, are his contributions still on her mind?

“Everyday. I think about him every day. Uncle Nearest is a reminder, and so is Jack Daniel’s allyship in the 19th century, about the level of excellence we need to aspire to. We’re a purpose-driven company and, I always say, we’re in the legacy-cementing business, not in the whiskey business. We’re doing that for Nearest’s legacy, but also for those who are at the beginning of their journey. That’s always been our ethos. That’s who we are”.

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Annabel Thomas from Nc’Nean on building a sustainable whisky brand

From strategy consultant to distillery owner, Annabel Thomas is the impressive force behind Nc’Nean whisky. As part of our International Women’s Day coverage, Millie Milliken spoke to her about entering…

From strategy consultant to distillery owner, Annabel Thomas is the impressive force behind Nc’Nean whisky. As part of our International Women’s Day coverage, Millie Milliken spoke to her about entering the industry, building her team, and relaunching its women-only internship programme.

The last few months have been exceptionally busy for Annabel Thomas, founder and CEO of organic whisky brand Nc’Nean from Drimnin on the west coast of Scotland. In November of 2021, she appeared on a panel at COP26 alongside Nicola Sturgeon to discuss whisky’s role in combating climate change. Last month, the brand received B Corp accreditation status, and today on International Women’s Day, it opens entries for a week-long internship exclusively for women looking to get into the whisky industry.

“We last did this in 2019,” Thomas tells me from her London base, fresh from a trip to see her distillery. “The idea was to offer two women work at the distillery and get their heads inside the industry, help break down those barriers and show them it’s an industry you can really work in.” Over the course of a week, two women will get the chance to experience all aspects of a working distillery, from fermentation to distillation, as well as foraging, bartending, and blending – and even access to post-internship marketing and sales mentorship if that side of the business sounds more appealing.

As the UK’s first net-zero operations whisky distillery, Nc’Nean is an exciting brand to get under the skin of. And with a woman at the CEO level, for any woman looking to build a career in the whisky industry, that barrier is already somewhat dismantled from the get go. So, how did Thomas herself come to the industry? And what have her experiences of being a woman been like while launching a new whisky brand?

Annabel Thomas

Look, it’s Annabel Thomas!

Scene change

“It’s hard to remember,” Thomas says of her first forays into the industry. “What I do remember is going to a trade show in London when we were really early on – I might not have left my job then [as a strategy consultant for Bain & Company]. The only way to get in was to say we were trade so it was just me and my dad and a load of distilleries. We were thinking ‘how are they going to react to us, we’re a potential competitor’, but everyone was so friendly and delighted to talk to us.”

When she finally did leave Bain & Company to start Nc’Nean in 2013, it was with a goal to do something different in the world of whisky – something nobody else was doing in terms of sustainability and having a different approach. She enlisted the help of the legendary Dr Jim Swan, and spent the next four years fundraising and building her distillery on the family farm from scratch. Three years later and the first organic single malt was ready for the public.

Working on launching a whisky couldn’t have been more different to her former life. “There is one thing that they have in common as they’re both quite fun… Bain was very, very long hours, high pressure, lots of travel, a typical corporate city job with no control over your own life,” she says while also keen to point out that she loved her time there. “It’s a client service industry which is fundamentally different to what I’m doing now – my output these days is a bottle of whisky, not a Powerpoint presentation.”

Of course, launching a whisky comes with its own sacrifices too. “It is all encompassing in a different way… there are no boundaries between life and work. I also have two kids, and I took six weeks of maternity leave because it was impossible for someone else to run the business.”

Annabel Thomas

Few distilleries are as forward thinking as Nc’nean

Female focus

Being a woman entering the industry wasn’t something Thomas initially thought about – “no I never thought about being a woman to begin with” – but as Nc’Nean became more visible she found that her gender did become a talking point. “It didn’t occur to me until about three or four years in when we were doing some work on the board,” she recalls. “We’d been undercover for three years and had no public presence… Inside the industry everyone is so friendly and nobody really bats an eye, but people outside find it weird. Once we launched, had a public face and started meeting non-industry people, a lot would be asking ‘do you like whisky?’ and commenting on the fact I’m a woman… I think that was when I started to think that this was unusual.

A few years later and Thomas has a whole team around her, one that does weigh more heavily on the male side but admits that her recruitment is something she has thought about more in the last couple of years. “As a result of me being a woman I’ve certainly recruited more women – not that I set out for that as a strategy, but I think that shows the value of diversity as a woman is more likely to put women in positions.” A lot of the Nc’Nean team are also new to whisky and bringing people into the category is something Thomas has been keen on from the start. 

That desire is reflected in the branding of Nc’Nean, a stark contrast to the majority of whiskies on the market right now. Thomas was keen to make it attractive to both men and women, as well as people who might be trying whisky for the first time so enlisted the help of a brand agency who had never designed a drinks bottle before. “I think it was that lack of hang ups of what it should be like has allowed us to get to where we are today.”

Annabel Thomas

Fancy following in Thomas’ footsteps? Nc’Nean’s 2022 internship is open now

Future forward

And that ‘today’ is a bright one. The brand’s shiny new B Corp status is testament not only to Nc’Nean’s incredible sustainability credentials, but also to the company’s ethos as a whole. “You can’t be B Corp just by being sustainable,” she explains. “It’s also about how you treat your people and how you run from a governance point of view: do you have a board, proper board meetings, is it a diverse board, how well do you work with your local community? We don’t talk about it as much but at the core of our mission is building jobs in a small and remote community. Whilst we are still small there are still nine jobs at the distillery and that is really significant.”

And then there is that appearance at COP26 alongside Nicola Sturgeon, Becky Paskin from Our Whisky and Scotch Whisky Association CEO Karen Betts who left a lasting impression on Thomas. “Seeing Nicola Sturgeon up close and in action… she was whisked in, had two media interviews, from there she sits down and opens this panel then is whisked off to the world leaders’ summit… I have so much respect for her. It was also amazing to have a panel on whisky with four women on it and Nicola Sturgeon remarked on that too which was great. I was very proud we were represented there and I hope the broader impact we can have as a brand is to accelerate progress.”

If you would like to apply for Nc’Nean’s 2022 internship, click here to find out more.

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Five minutes with… Stephanie Macleod, master blender at Dewar’s 

As part of our coverage for International Women’s Day 2022, we talk Irn Bru, weird casks and how to get more women into the industry with one of the most…

As part of our coverage for International Women’s Day 2022, we talk Irn Bru, weird casks and how to get more women into the industry with one of the most respected people in Scotch whisky, Stephanie Macleod, master blender at Dewar’s. 

Stephanie Macleod’s first job in drinks was working with a Scottish icon. No, not John Dewar & Sons, we’re talking Irn Bru (explainer here for non-British readers). From there she moved into Scotch but, as she admitted to us, she didn’t even like the stuff at the time. At some point, she must have developed a taste for whisky because from working in the lab at Dewar’s, she moved up until she became master blender in 2006.

Macleod is now responsible for the Dewar’s range of blended whiskies plus the single malts that sit under the Bacardi umbrella: Aberfeldy, Craigellachie, Royal Brackla and others. As well as maintaining the quality of classic whiskies like Craigellachie 13 year old and Dewar’s White Label, Macleod is not afraid to experiment. In recent years, her team has launched a Dewar’s 8 Year old finished in Ilegal mezcal casks and various limited edition red wine cask single malts from Aberfeldy.

It’s all go at Dewar’s! We were fortunate enough to spend some time with Macleod to learn what other exciting things she has up her sleeves. 

Dewers-Aberfeldy-sign

Just one of the distilleries watched over by Macleod

Master of Malt: It’s International Women’s Day this week, are you encouraged by the number of women setting up their own distilleries/ drinks brands?

Stephanie Macleod: It’s exciting what’s going on at the moment in the spirits and the wine industries. There are more and more women launching their own brands. I get a lot of emails and messages via social platforms from young women who are thinking of starting drinks brands – and it is heartening that they have the confidence and resources to make their ideas into a reality.

MoM: What is Dewar’s parent company Bacardi doing to encourage more women into distilling?

SM: For a few years now, we have been making a determined effort to not only be visible to university students and graduates, but also invite them to apply for our intern and graduate schemes. The recruitment process is intensive, but we’ve now got a tremendous wealth of great talent and most of them are women. When I was a student, the whisky industry as a career didn’t feel like an option – that has now changed and we are reaping the rewards.

MoM: How did you get started in the industry?

SM: I did food science at the University of Strathclyde. I was lucky that the department I was in had a close relationship with the whisky industry, some of their research work was sponsored by Chivas Brothers at the time. After I graduated and I went to work for Irn Bru and then my old supervisor phoned me up and said ‘how would you like to join us and study whisky and other foods?’ I said ‘yes, I’d love to!’ but I had absolutely no idea about whisky, I didn’t even like it! Over four years I was trying to find out why whisky tastes the way it does and unlocking the secrets of maturation. I loved it and that’s really when I thought ‘this is the industry that I want to be in’. A role then came up at Dewar’s and I thought ‘I’ll get in the door and see where it takes me’. I was put in charge of the lab and then I was asked did I want to train up to be the master blender because the current master blender at the time was about to retire. So I said ‘yes, I’d love to!’ 

Craigellachie 39 Year Old 1980 Super Wish

Craigellachie 39 Year Old 1980

Master of Malt:  How has the job changed since then? Because in the nineties being a blender was a sort of backroom kind of job wasn’t it? 

SM: I made that same comment to someone yesterday. I said ‘20 years ago blenders didn’t have to have media training or talk to camera , they just got on with it’. But now a big chunk of your work is communicating what you do to journalists and to consumers. Before a blender would just have worked on a few different blends but now we’ve not only got the blends that we’ve always had, but then there’s offshoots of those, like Dewar’s 8 Series with all the different cask finishes. We’re having to control all of these different casks and then watch what’s going to happen to them in their next cycle and with the flavour profile there. It’s exciting, but I think my predecessor would be shocked by what we’re doing now at Dewar’s. 

MoM: And how has the customer changed since you took over?

SM: The awareness of Scottish whisky and the knowledge of Scottish whisky has grown since even I have taken over the role in 2006. Especially in markets like China and Russia. Whereas before they would maybe be wedded to a particular brand of whisky – and probably that would be a blend in the past – but now their knowledge has come on leaps and bounds and now they’re exploring different malts. In the last 18 months with the pandemic, people also had more time on their hands, doing more research, reading more about whisky and asking more probing questions. 

MoM: Did you feel a huge responsibility working with a brand like Dewar’s White Label?

SM: I did feel the responsibility but I think when you’re younger you don’t really think about it. It’s just another part of your development. I think if I had thought about it too much I probably maybe wouldn’t have taken on the role. 

Stephanie Macleod, master blender at Dewar's

Stephanie Macleod, master blender at Dewar’s

MoM: Have you got some interesting cask finishes that you’re working on at the moment? 

SM: We’ve been looking at some experimental casks, different types and species of oak. Actually, different types of wood as well. Obviously, we can’t call it ‘a Scotch whisky’ when we do that, but we’re just seeing what it brings. What are the differences? It’s almost like ‘why should we use oak?’ 

MoM: If you had wonderful results with chestnut or acacia or something, would you ever consider lobbying the SWA to allow different types of wood?

SM: I don’t think we would actually. Because the whisky regulations are there to protect us from anyone that is trying to do something that is perhaps not to the benefit of Scottish whisky. But what we could do is release it as a spirit drink for people who are interested in whisky and the effects of maturation and the different types of wood. But there are some interesting colours as well that you get from these different types of wood that you don’t get from oak. Who knows what could happen in the future. Will oak always be in abundance or will we have to, as an industry, look to other species of wood? 

MoM: Talking of odd wood, could you tell us about the Dewar’s 8 Mizunara oak finish?

SM: It’s eye-wateringly expensive but they’re beautifully-made casks and I never worked with them before. And although you can look at what other people have done with Mizunara, it reacts differently depending on the whisky that it’s coming in contact with. They’re all made differently and they’re coming from different trees, different growing conditions, so you can’t really say ‘well, this brand tastes of this so ours will taste the same’. When we were trialling the casks, within a month we could see a change in the colour of the spirit and a change in the profile as well. So it was really interesting to observe those casks in action. We’d been told some horror stories about Mizunara – about how much they leak and they’re brittle. But the casks that we got were just exceptional and we didn’t have any of those problems. We’ll be rolling Mizunara out to other age expressions as well. 

The Nightcap

This 18 year old Aberfeldy was finished in barriques from Pauillac in Bordeaux

MoM; How do you go about getting casks for your limited edition Aberfeldy red wine editions and others? 

SM: We’ve got a very good cask supplier and she will send us a list of casks based on what we’re interested in, because we want them to be as fresh as possible; we don’t want them when they’ve been lying about and doing the rounds of different vineyards. They send the casks to us, we nose them, we’ll chuck out any that we don’t think are suitable because in this increasing temperatures that we’re seeing in France, sometimes the casks go off. When we nose the casks there’s just almost intuitively we think ‘this is going to go with our whisky’ and then it’s just a matter of sampling to ensure that that does happen. We’ve always got in mind when we want to release the casks for bottling but my caveat to our markets is always ‘well, if it’s not ready then I’m sorry but you can’t have it’ because there’s just no point in us releasing a Côte-Rôtie finish if it’s got no flavour or it’s completely the wrong flavour for Aberfeldy. So it really has to be a beautiful marriage – a real interaction of the two sets of flavour profiles. 

MoM: Do you think people are getting the message that Scotch whisky single malts can be used in cocktails or do you think there’s still a lot of resistance to that?

SM: People are accepting it with blends, but we’re certainly trying our hardest to show them what you can do with single malts. Aberfeldy distillery has been doing lots of take-home cocktails. Our Instagram accounts are always showcasing the honey-element in cocktails with Aberfeldy. Some people think they’re being disrespectful to the whisky by putting it in a cocktail but people are always saying to me ‘I just can’t get the hang of single malts, I’d really love to’. I say ‘well try it in a cocktail, experiment and have a bit of fun with it. I would hate for anyone to not want to try a whisky because they think they’re not drinking it in the right way. Probably the most common question that I get asked is ‘how should I drink Scotch whisky?’ and it’s just ‘drink it however you want to!’ 

MoM: And finally do you have a favourite cocktail?

SM: Well actually my favourite cocktail is probably a Negroni but that’s not a whisky cocktail. I love a Mamie Taylor, so that is whisky, ginger ale or ginger beer, with a squeeze of lime juice. All of my friends told me ‘I don’t like whisky’ and I said ‘well try this’ and they were converted. So if you like it a bit sweeter ginger beer but something more refreshing would be ginger ale. 

 

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IWD 2021 interview: Lisa Roper Wicker, head distiller at Widow Jane

Career discussions often focus on those just starting out. But what if you want to get into whisky (or whiskey!) a bit later on? Lisa Roper Wicker, Widow Jane president…

Career discussions often focus on those just starting out. But what if you want to get into whisky (or whiskey!) a bit later on? Lisa Roper Wicker, Widow Jane president and head distiller tells us her story.

On a recent video call a friend was lamenting not enjoying her job. “It’s too late for me!” she cried. “Why didn’t I realise what I wanted to do in my twenties?” Another chimed in: “We see all these 30 Under 30 lists. I want the stories of people who found their calling later in their career.” It was serendipity most glorious when the following week, I found myself chatting with Lisa Roper Wicker, president and head distiller at Widow Jane Distillery

Her screen is set up in the distillery itself, a site in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Stroll just a few moments from the door and you’ll be at the waterfront, looking across to the Statue of Liberty. The brand has small-batch blending at its heart (think five barrels at a time), and, now in its ninth year, combines sourced bourbon and rye with its own liquid. There’s a focus on heirloom grains, too, and its unusual proofing water which comes from a limestone mine in Rosendale, Upstate New York. As we talk, there are the sounds of production in the background and I can just about glimpse some barrels. It’s almost like being back in a distillery; all that’s needed is the aroma of production to permeate through the screen. 

The Widow Jane Distillery in Brooklyn

The Widow Jane Distillery in Brooklyn

A varied career

“When I was growing up, I never knew what I wanted to do,” she opens. Initial focuses included pursuing careers in journalism, then law. “If someone told me I would have been a whiskey distiller in the second part of my life, I never would have believed them.”

Wicker spent a number of years moving around the country with her husband and young family before setting up a costume design enterprise. Her first foray into drinks was working as a farm hand during the harvest at a vineyard. She quickly fell in love with the production side, and embarked on eight years of winemaking study.

“There weren’t any sacrifices but there were certainly trade-offs,” she says, when I ask about juggling work, study and family. “It’s not a sacrifice if you love it.”

Wicker then moved to Kentucky to build a winery, and it was there that distilling caught her eye. She learned to distil at Limestone Branch, before joining Starlight Distillery, and then launched a consulting business, Saints & Monsters. An early client was Samson & Surrey, which owns FEW Spirits and Brenne among others, plus Widow Jane. She held the position as director of distilling across the entire portfolio, before honing in on the Brooklyn distillery with its corn growing, distilling and blending programme two years ago.  “I’m so grateful that I didn’t have it overlap too much with raising my kids, because it really has been an obsession!” she laughs.

Lisa Roper Wicker from Widow Jane

Lisa Roper Wicker from Widow Jane blending at the distillery

Whiskey career pathways

“I’m not unusual coming to it a little bit later in life,” she says. “There’s not a lot of us, but it’s also not unusual.” She says when talking to women in their twenties and thirties, it’s about stressing the myriad pathways available to them. “Whatever you study, whether it’s marketing or HR or chemistry or food science, culinary skills, there’s a pathway to whiskey through all of it.” Plus, there’s the career change option: “I get that from young women a lot. Like, oh my gosh, I get to change my mind?” The answer is yes!

To highlight the space women can move into at very senior levels, she recalls a panel she sat on a couple of years back. “I was with Pam Heilmann, she was just retiring as the master distiller for Michter’s, and with Joyce Nethery of Jeptha Creed. It was so interesting how many jobs we’d all had before we got into whiskey.” All in the same age group, they’d previously held roles like school teachers, designers, engineers. With eight children between them, they’d also managed to “patch together” roles to ensure they had the flexibility needed to balance family. 

Wicker is also keen to shout out women who demonstrate the significant progression opportunities in the industry. “Like Jane Bowie at Maker’s Mark,” she says. “For years, she was in the UK as the brand advocate. She came back to Kentucky, and went back to work within the distillery. Now she’s the director of maturation for Maker’s Mark.” Responsibilities include the Maker’s Mark 46 programme. “It’s a pretty amazing progression, and we see this a lot in whiskey.”

Casks at Widow Jane Distillery

Barrels are funny things, you never know what you’re going to get

For the love of whiskey blending

Right now whisky is a dynamic sector with lots going on. “I love that it’s not stagnant. I love that there’s so much opportunity.” The increasingly positive standings of both blending and sourcing liquid are particular sources of excitement for her. “I think it’s because whiskey used to be vatted and not necessarily blended. They were just ‘let’s take all these barrels and dump them together’. Blended whiskey got a very bad reputation.” Thankfully times have changed. “Then it was just about elevating really good whiskey!” Sourcing too is starting to be better understood. “Now you can get the good barrels and it means you’re high up on the list and working with the best brokers and the best whiskey houses.” She explains. “I love seeing blending coming into its own.” 

Wicker’s responsibilities at Widow Jane are wide-ranging. She oversees the heirloom corn project (for two years, the largest of its kind in the whole of the US), distilling itself, barrel sourcing (including likes of maple casks), and blending. All while splitting her time between Brooklyn and her home in Bardstown, Kentucky. 

“The barrel game is a game!” She laughs as the blending conversation picks up again. Each one will behave differently. She sources both fully- and part-matured stock, and looking after them can be tricky. “The largest lot I purchased was several years ago and it wasn’t drinking as old as an age statement,” she recalls. “We moved those barrels and now they have taken off and are where they need to be. But it was crazy.”

There’s one delight that comes from whiskey making that will never change, and that’s seeing her creations on-shelf in a store. “I’ll never get over the thrill of that. You don’t tell people who you are or what you do. You just go in and you pat your bottles and buy one.” Even better if there’s product from previous ventures there, too.

Widow Jane 10 year old whiskey

Widow Jane 10 year old whiskey

An optimistic future for women in whiskey

As we say our goodbyes, I recall an earlier part of the conversation where I asked Wicker about what needs to change for more women and underrepresented groups to be aware of the opportunities whiskey can offer. “I think getting more and more women in front of tastings where they realise I am somebody’s grandmother and I love what I do and I’m passionate about it and I won’t ever retire. My mentor, he’s 75 and he still picks and chooses his projects, right? More than anything it’s about setting the example that the business is flexible, it’s definitely something that someone can pursue as a career and stay in it forever.”

There can be a sense that we’ve somehow ‘missed the boat’ if we’ve not kicked off our dream careers by 25. If you’re a woman, that pressure could be compounded by a desire to start a family. In male-dominated industries, this can feel like even more of a weight. Wicker is proof that it’s not only possible to switch it up, but you can excel too. This evening, I’m raising a glass of Widow Jane to Lisa Roper Wicker, the women like her, and all the women who could be about to join our wonderful whiskey industry.

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IWD 2021 interview: Tarita Mullings, associate director, The Story

PRs are perhaps the unsung heroes of the drinks industry. We delve into all things comms with The Story associate director Tarita Mullings, and talk career paths, meaningful diversity, the…

PRs are perhaps the unsung heroes of the drinks industry. We delve into all things comms with The Story associate director Tarita Mullings, and talk career paths, meaningful diversity, the impact of Covid, and quite simply, a love of whisky

If you want to write a story about a drinks brand, or fact check something, or source a bottle shot, or get the details of a new launch, you need to reach out to a PR. PRs are like magicians. They are brand ambassadors, connectors, relationship builders, strategists, content creators, events planners, trend forecasters, social scientists… it’s a multifaceted role that rarely makes the headlines itself. When it does, PR can be portrayed as somehow fluffy or inconsequential. “If I was down to the last dollar of my marketing budget I’d spend it on PR,” Bill Gates once uttered. Brands rely on PRs to be their counsel and their mouthpiece. Journalists rely on PRs to get the essence of a story. And a drinks PR at the very top of her game is Tarita Mullings. 

“PR can be a great career choice,” she opens as we catch up over a cup of tea and a video link (of course. It’s March 2021). She’s relaying her journey which kicked off in tech back in 2006, before she weaved her way through more general consumer-facing roles. She eventually landed in food and drink, where “something just clicked”. She’s worked at H&K Strategies and Publicasity, and has spent the last five years at The Story, where she’s now associate director and sits on the board. Clients include Diageo (which owns Johnnie Walker, Talisker and Lagavulin, among others) and Sipsmith, along with an exciting roster of food brands and hospitality players. 

Telling whisky stories

“Being a specialist is just amazing. You feel so much more confident, untouchable even,” Mullings says. It’s manifested itself in an obsession for flavour, for provenance for creativity. And that’s a compelling combination when it comes to telling whisky stories.

“[Whisky] really is never boring,” she says. “When you think about the fact that this product, from a Scotch point of view, is just three ingredients, how do we have so many different expressions? So many different brands? There’s the ability to create something completely new from these three things, literally blows my mind every day.” 

Tarita Mullings with the team at Glenkinchie Distillery

She loves tapping into the technical aspect and sharing that knowledge too – something that then becomes infectious when shared with the journalist’s audience. “When you talk to the blenders and know the detail and how intricate their role is in understanding flavour, it’s just fantastic. I just love the creativity that you see.”

The type of employer is critical in PR, too. “As a small agency, we do have the ability to consult across brands,” Mullings says. It’s been valuable, giving her exposure to different work areas and clients. Her board responsibilities include nurturing and developing the team. Alongside food, drink, and flavour, a laser focus for her is intentionally building an environment that allows everyone to thrive. Women might make up a significant proportion of PR professionals, but how many of them are in senior roles, and how many of them are Black?

Meaningful inclusion in PR

“When I was thinking about it, the face of PR hasn’t really changed,” Mullings says, looking back over her career. Yes, while working in PR in tech there were a few more men, but it’s predominantly a sector dominated by white, middle class women. It’s a representation piece Mullings wants to challenge, in whisky and beyond. “For me it’s about uncovering the roles that exist in this space, and shining a light on them. PR can be a great career choice.”

Mullings explains that when it comes to early career decisions, what A-Levels to take, or what to study at university, Afro-Caribbean parents prefer their children to prioritise more traditional routes. “Creatives don’t really exist. Your parents are a bit like ‘what’s that?’. And it doesn’t ever seem like something that’s accessible to you.” The wealth of roles within PR just aren’t highlighted, neither are the depth of expertise you can gain, the incredible experiences you can have, or the progression opportunities within. There’s a lot of joy in a PR career, but if you’re Black, it can simply be inaccessible. And that’s where the Black Comms Network comes in, where she is head of brand and partnerships.

“It’s really about supporting people to feel included,” she explains. “How can we bring more people into these spaces?” The network started life as a WhatsApp group following the murder of George Floyd in the US last year. “We said something has got to change, and we’ve got to take control of the narrative.”

Mullings at Talisker Distillery

The network’s mission includes increasing the seniority of Black PR and comms professionals while providing development opportunities, career coaching and networking. “What we found is that people work in the industry, get to account manager level, and then drop out.” It’s a combination of bias, a lack of support, and ultimately feeling alone. “How do we make sure the environment is inclusive so people want to stay?” She describes feeling like a “unicorn”, looking round a room and realising you’re the only person who looks like you. It’s an ongoing challenge, and an urgent one. Both in whisky and PR.  

A love of the PR craft

One of the reasons Mullings is so passionate about opening up the door to opportunities in PR is fundamentally because she loves her craft. Press trips are “definitely one of the highlights”, whether that’s visiting Scotch distilleries or hosting bartender competitions in the likes of Morocco. But it runs deeper than that.

“We want to uncover the next generation of whisky drinkers, and that’s what makes me passionate about doing my job,” she enthuses. It’s about making sure everyone knows whisky is for them. “We know we need to spend time reaching new communities and finding new voices.” She adores working with influencers, and not just established whisky geeks. People who are starting on their own whisky journey have a role to play, too. 

Adapting PR to the new normal

The pandemic has affected everyone’s way of working in the last 12 months. But for PR professionals, where relationship building, events, launches and press trips are such an integral part of life, it’s forced a seismic change. But Mullings is adamant it isn’t all bad. “It’s created for us new ways to talk to consumers. We really weren’t making the most of Zoom.” It’s accelerated the importance of influencers, too. With experiential on pause, she mentions the likes of Tik-Tok. “What other new channels can we identify?” She’s energised and enthused. At this stage of the pandemic, we can all do with that perspective. 

But there is the other side, too. “We desperately want to get people out there, we desperately want to get people back into bars and restaurants,” she says, highlighting the role drinks PRs especially can play in helping the hospitality sector get back on its feet. But it comes with a caveat. “There’s also the need for sensitivity for journalists and colleagues. Not everyone is going to want to get back out there at the same pace,” she acknowledges, stressing it’s ok for people not to want to rush back to bars. She predicts a “hybrid approach” for PR events for the rest of the year. 

Executing The Singleton Experience in China with Maureen Robinson

And what does she hope for personally? “I want to go back to Scotland! I want to get back to doing what we were doing, but with a twist. Because there are learnings we can take from Covid.” 

She taps into that deeper purpose, too: “I’m excited about being the change we all want to see in the world.” There’s a challenge to others around representation, too. “I want to see that brands and businesses are addressing the lack of diversity we see in the industry and taking it seriously. And we need to address the slow progress that’s been made and turn our attention into action.”

Associate director, Black Comms Network co-founder, whisky lover, changemaker. Mullings noted earlier in our interview that “there’s lots of power in PR!”. There’s a lot of power in her, too. 

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IWD 2021 interview: Jaega Wise, brewer and broadcaster

Today, our International Women’s Day coverage continues as we talk to Jaega Wise who has not one but two dream jobs: making beer at the Wild Card brewery in London,…

Today, our International Women’s Day coverage continues as we talk to Jaega Wise who has not one but two dream jobs: making beer at the Wild Card brewery in London, and TV and radio presenter. 

It’s hard to believe that back in the mid ‘00s, there were only two breweries in London, Fuller’s in Chiswick and Meantime in Greenwich. Now there are hundreds. Playing her part in this beer renaissance is Jaega Wise at the Wild Card brewery in Walthamstow, East London. She’s seen how the capital has regained its historic role as a beer powerhouse.We started in 2012, and in the late 2000s, I think there were ten breweries in London. To put it into context now there’s about 110 breweries,” she said.

As with many people in the drinks business, she fell into her role accidentally. “I grew up in Nottingham and I was just drinking beer, like a lot of people do in Nottingham”. She studied chemical engineering at Loughborough and in 2012 ended up helping out at a brewery founded by some drinking buddies, Wild Card. “And then I never really left,” she said, “My training is perfect for brewing but I wasn’t doing it consciously.”

Jaega Wise Wild Card Brewery Credit: Miles Willis by empty kegs

Taking a well-earned break

Making beer more inclusive

She’s now head brewer. I asked her how she found being a young woman in what is still a male-dominated profession. “I’m a brewer before I’m a female brewer,” she said. She’s clearly someone who takes no nonsense from anyone. “I’ve been doing this for a long time now and the kind of things that would probably have upset me when I first started in the industry, now I have very short patience for it,” she said, “I’ve had many a slinging match with a driver. If you say something to me, you don’t come back to our site.” But, things are changing: “I think things have improved and we’re seeing lots and lots more women who are coming up and getting into much more senior positions.”

It’s an important thing for Wise to make the industry as welcoming as possible to everyone. “There’s been an active effort in the beer industry in the last few years to try and include those marginalised groups. There is now the International Women’s Day Brew, where we try to encourage as many women as possible. There’s been amazing projects started, like the Queer Brewing Project, so it’s been a trend that hasn’t come about by accident,” she told me.

Beer snobs

As someone who comes from a wine background, I’ve always thought beer was more egalitarian but Wise disabuses me of this notion. “Beer has a kind of hipster snobbery,” she explained, “the only way I would describe it is it’s quite similar to music. It does have that hype factor.” In some ways, this isn’t a bad thing as it gets people enthused: “I would say that beer generates opinion in a way that I don’t think any other sector of the food industry can generate the same level of opinion”. But, it can be alienating for those not in the bubble. “It’s really off-putting for new drinkers. It’s one of the things I think all of us have to be mindful of just being as inclusive as possible to the customer and treating everyone that comes into the bar or the taproom, just treating them all the same and trying not to put those barriers up.” 

Jaega Wise Wild Card Brewery Credit: Miles Willis

Great beer this way

Pandemic problems

Sadly, at the moment the taproom is now closed. Wise admitted that Covid has been hard for the business: “You can’t just switch off production with 48 hours notice. That is what has been the most damaging. If we’d have had more notice then things might have been easier.” So for example, they switched everything to cans last year, luckily they’d just had a new canning line installed, but then things opened up again with  Eat Out to Help Out, and suddenly everyone wanted kegs.

There have been benefits though, she explained: “I can’t believe we didn’t have an online shop before. We’re doing lots of things like same-day deliveries and that sort of thing the customer appreciates.”

The British beer scene

Covid aside, she thinks Britain is one of the most exciting places in the world now for beer. There’s so many breweries, constantly raising the bar. “The standard in the UK brewing scene is just phenomenal. We make some of the best beer in the world. The UK has always been a powerhouse for beer, in terms of traditional cask, there is nowhere else in the world that produces cask beer like we do.”

She thinks, however, the trends for bold hoppy flavours is far from over, despite many beer writers tipping a return to more traditional British styles. “I don’t think the public are done with the hoppy styles,” she said, “we’ve had a period in the UK of an entire year of no cask beer, pretty much. When this is all over, is there going to be a mass swing to people wanting those kinds of beers because they’ve been missing them for a long time?”

Filming the Wine Show with Joe Fattorini in Japan

Filming the Wine Show with Joe Fattorini in Japan

Branching out

Wise juggles work at the brewery with a burgeoning career as a presenter with regular gigs on BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme and ITV’s The Wine Show. Again, she rather fell into this career. “I kept being asked to do stuff,” she said, “and it turned out I didn’t totally suck at it and so I got asked again. Learning from the BBC in that environment is just the most humbling of experiences. The whole team is like a juggernaut of experience. Learning how to interview people properly and how to deal with some really tough issues. It’s been really great learning from that crew.” 

She sees her two professions supporting each other. “When I go into pretty much any food manufacturing environment, it means that I know what is going on. I hope when I ask questions it comes from a knowledgeable place. The two are not mutually exclusive.” Having two jobs she loves, getting to travel, her work with The Wine Show has taken her to Japan and Germany, “it’s pretty much a dream come true,” she said. 

All photos credit Miles Willis.

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IWD 2021 interview: Kirstin Neil, coppersmith with Diageo

This International Women’s Day we’re celebrating the women behind the drinks you love. Today, we have Kirstin Neil young who plays a vital role as a coppersmith, building and repairing…

This International Women’s Day we’re celebrating the women behind the drinks you love. Today, we have Kirstin Neil young who plays a vital role as a coppersmith, building and repairing the stills that make Scotch whisky possible.

Kirstin Neil is only the second ever coppersmith to be employed by Diageo. Though she doesn’t come from a whisky background, her father’s profession as a welder-fabricator influenced her choice of job. “I always knew that I wasn’t really one to be working at a desk. I like to be on my feet and working with my hands,” she said, “it was a nice eye-opener to see the things that can be created working with your hands in welding and fabricating.”

Kirstin Neil Diageo Coppersmith (1)

Kirstin Neil in action

Handy work

Initially she was training to be a hairdresser when she met a friend who worked at Diageo’s Abercrombie works in Alloa, just outside her home town of Falkirk in Scotland’s central belt. She loved the sound of the job: “you’re making everything handmade from flat sheets of copper.” What particularly appealed was that “something you’ve created with your own hands” would make a product that was enjoyed all over the world. So hairdressing’s loss was whisky’s gain.

Neil had already done a year welding and fabricating in college which set her in good stead when she began her apprenticeship. “My manager Charlie King looked into that and when he phoned me to tell me I had the job, he also discussed with me starting as a second year,” she said. It normally takes four years to train, but Neil will do it in three, so she has 18 months left until she’s fully qualified. 

The work is very varied (see video below for an insight into what goes on at Abercrombie). An average day might consist of making new pieces such as a lyne arm, condenser or swan neck by hand in the workshop made with measurements obtained at the distillery. Or she might be visiting a distillery itself to patch stills that have worn. She explained: “Recently, I was working over on Islay and we were replacing the side sheets on a still. So we actually rolled them in the workshop, in Alloa, and we had to transport them across on a ferry to Islay. We had to then build them up on site, because we wouldn’t have been able to get it on the ferry.”

Perks of the job

While on Islay, she picked up a taste for Caol Ila 12 year old. Well, it is one of the perks of the job. She’s also a fan of Glenkinchie and Ben Nevis. “I do like a wee dram out of the bottles every now and again,” she said.

Neil is following in the footsteps of Rebecca Weir, the first ever coppermith at Diageo. “That was amazing for her to break that barrier and be the first female coppersmith and I feel just as privileged to be the second female coppersmith. I hope that other female coppersmiths join the career path”. She clearly loves the camaraderie of the job. “Everybody has been very supportive. I’ve not come across any sexism. It’s a great place to work and to be part of a team. I was accepted into the team from day one”. 

According to Neil, her father was initially a little sceptical at first, “because I’m quite short so I think he was kind of worried about the bigger jobs. But he’s really proud of me and so is my mother,” she said. Now, many of her friends are now interested in getting similar jobs: “Why should it be a man’s job? Women can do the same tasks as men can do”, she said. Why not, indeed. 

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IWD 2021 interview: Nicole Sykes from Maker’s Mark

Kicking off our coverage for International Women’s Day 2021, Millie Milliken talks to Nicole Sykes, who has worked in some of the UK’s most revered bars. Now, she takes on…

Kicking off our coverage for International Women’s Day 2021, Millie Milliken talks to Nicole Sykes, who has worked in some of the UK’s most revered bars. Now, she takes on the challenge of representing one of Kentucky’s most famous bourbons, Maker’s Mark.

Nicole Sykes was aware of whisky from a very young age. Having spent many of her childhood summers with her grandparents in her hometown of Lanark, Scotland, she was surrounded by people who were proud of their Scotch whisky heritage.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and Sykes, as of January 2021, is the UK Diplomat for Maker’s Mark. It’s her first role brand-side, having spent her career so far behind the bar of some of the UK’s best-known cocktail bars: from Edinburgh’s Voodoo Rooms, to London’s Lyaness and most recently east London’s Satan’s Whiskers as its general manager.

And while Sykes has enjoyed success in both Tequila and rum competitions (Patron Perfectionists and Bacardi Legacy), it seems whisky has ultimately stolen her heart. “When I got into bartending, bourbon, Scotch, any kind of whisky was my spirit of choice,” she tells me. “I started bartending during the gin boom, so consumers weren’t asking about it as much and I think that really drove my love for it.”

Nicole Sykes Patron Perfectionist winner

Nicole Sykes, Patron Perfectionist

Time to represent

So, what does being the Maker’s Mark UK Diplomat involve? “Sharing the unique, handcrafted story of Maker’s Mark with bartenders and bourbon enthusiasts, being the face of the brand, and supporting people and bartenders through education,” she said.

That story starts in Loretto, Kentucky, 1953, when Bill Samuels Sr recreated a 170-year-old family recipe, creating his own pioneering mash bill (via the method of baking several loaves of bread with different grains) and swapping the traditional rye for Maker’s trademark red winter wheat grain. The bottle shape and design are the work of Margie Samuels. The first woman to be inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame, she was responsible for the name, the recognisable rectangular-bottomed bottle and the signature red-wax seal.

It’s this story, the liquid and Maker’s Marks ethos of working (a lot by hand) that drew Sykes away from the bar. “The decision [to leave Satan’s Whiskers] was based solely on it being Maker’s Mark,” she explains. “It’s a brand I’ve followed and loved in my career and something kind of sparked inside of me… I wanted to continue the work that Amanda has done.”

Maker's Mark label

Each Maker’s Mark bottle is labelled by hand

Women in whisky

Amanda being Amanda Humphrey, who held the position prior to Sykes, before moving to Kentucky to take on the brand’s education and drinks program. It’s encouraging to see the position remain in the hands of a woman – the whisky category continues to grapple with its representation of women, something that has begun to be reported on more widely this side of the pond.

It’s a reflection of our times: The Guardian reported in 2020 that women in the UK now drink 40 million more glasses of whisky a year than in 2010. More female distillers are rising through the ranks too, but the industry still has a way to go to shake off the ‘boys club’ image.

Thankfully, Sykes hasn’t come up against any stigma in her whisky journey so far. “I haven’t had to think about it. We’ve had a really good response and there is a really good representation of women working for EBS [Edrington-Beam Suntory, the brand’s UK importer] and for Maker’s Mark as a company – having their support has been great.”

When it comes to other women championing the industry she cites Georgie Bell (now hat Bacardi and serial whisky ambassador) and Becky Paskin (IWSC Spirits Communicator of the Year) who co-founded the Our Whisky initiative to challenge whisky’s perception as a man’s drink back in 2018. She also vividly recalls meeting EBS’ Terri Botherston and Lucy Morton for the first time when she was bartending. “They were the first women who had ever hosted a whisky tasting for me” – they clearly left an impression.

Nicole Sykes, Maker's Mark bourbon

You need excellent balance to be a bartender

Liquid dreams

When I speak to Sykes, she’s only been in the job for five weeks but she admits that she’s already fallen for the people that surround the whisky industry. She describes a real sense of community, especially in bourbon, from distillery to distillery, something she finds refreshing to see.

She should have also spent her first two weeks of induction at the Star Hill Farm distillery in Kentucky – having never been to an American distillery, once Covid allows, she’ll be on the first plane over.

Until then however, she’s having fun playing with her new toy: “With my classic cocktail background I love putting Maker’s Mark into those kinds of drinks, especially bourbon Espresso Martinis.’ She also likes to bake with it – her bourbon butter pancakes recipe on Instagram brought a tear to my eye.

She’s looking forward to bringing the passion that emanates out of 3350 Burks Spring Road, Loretto, Kentucky, to the people of the UK: “I can’t wait to continue to proudly share the great liquid, the genuine story behind the brand and the passion of the people behind it. It’s in their veins – they grew up with it and are so passionate about it.” Perhaps Loretto and Lanark have more in common than meets the eye.

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