Opening the door: how is the whisky world tackling diversity and inclusion?

Opening the door: how is the whisky world tackling diversity and inclusion?

As big players throw down the gauntlet to address issues surrounding diversity and inclusion, we ask what the whisky world is doing to make drinkers, and those working in the industry, feel welcome

People | 12 May 2021 | Issue 175 | By Millie Milliken

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When Glenmorangie’s Wes Anderson-style advert It’s Kind of Delicious and Wonderful landed at the tail end of 2020, it elicited an overwhelmingly positive response. A dreamscape version of the Scotch whisky distiller’s world (their words, not mine), it features an ensemble of young revellers enjoying a glass of whisky at the piano, on a train, in a tent and on a rooftop.

It’s colourful, vivid, fun and – most importantly – inclusive, featuring a cast of ethnic- and gender-diverse ‘drinkers’. It’s a world in which people from different parts of society can find themselves being represented and, ultimately, see Glenmorangie as a drink that might be for them. Scrolling back through the distillery’s Instagram page, it is also a marked difference from the brand’s previous visual communications, those being largely a sea of white, male faces – the age-old whisky drinker stereotype.

It’s not only Glenmorangie making a recent statement when it comes to taking a stance on whisky’s diversity issue in the UK. In September 2020, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) launched its Diversity and Inclusivity Charter, with an aim of making the industry 50:50 in terms of gender, acknowledging the barriers to the industry faced by underrepresented groups, and encouraging the sharing of diversity and inclusion best practice. Around the same time, Edrington-Beam Suntory, distributor of brands including The Macallan, Bowmore, Maker’s Mark and Yamazaki, started its own internal D&I steering group. Meanwhile, November saw spirits behemoth Diageo (which owns the likes of Talisker, Lagavulin and Johnnie Walker) launch its Society 2030: Spirit of Progress plan, a 10-year initiative which features ‘inclusion and diversity’ as one of its three key pillars. Taking its next step this March, the SWA announced a new stage of its charter in the form of a focus group.

Big commitments from big businesses. Nevertheless, the UK whisky industry is still in its infancy when it comes to shaking stereotypes – both in terms of its workforce and the people who drink the spirit. Compared to the US, black and minority ethnic representation in British whisky is glaringly low (there is currently only one black-owned whisky brand in the UK). A recent social media report carried out by campaign OurWhisky found that, in 2020, only 18 per cent of people-centred posts made by the world’s 150 largest and most influential whisky companies showed people of colour, and only 36 per cent featured women.

Though the study did not gather data regarding visibility of people with disabilities, people struggling with social mobility, and members of the LGBTQI+ community, visibility of these groups in whisky communications are even more rare – if they appear all.

“To date, we have not worked with any businesses within the whisky industry regarding diversity and inclusion,” said Lorraine Copes, founder of not-for-profit organisation Be Inclusive Hospitality, which has a mission to accelerate racial equality in the hospitality sector. Copes has spent the last two decades working in procurement for the likes of Gordon Ramsay Restaurants and Corbin & King, and is yet to meet a person of colour representing a whisky brand, be they a brand ambassador, account manager or sales rep. “Given that 17 per cent of the sector identify as black, Asian or ethnic minority, and will occupy roles in bars or operations, it begs the question, why are they not within these positions too?”

That isn’t to say that progress hasn’t been made in certain areas: according to market research firm Kantar, there’s been a 15 per cent rise in the number of women in the UK who drink whisky over the last 10 years. We’re also more likely to see a woman in the role of master distiller (think Lindsay Bond of Forest Distillery, Stephanie Macleod of John Dewar & Sons, Kirstie McCallum of Halewood Artisanal Spirits, Laura Davies of Penderyn and Dr Rachel Barrie of Brown-Forman’s Scotch division), while the introduction of apprenticeships is bringing in younger, more diverse future stars of the category. For example, as part of its 10-year plan, Diageo has committed to bringing more suppliers of female or minority ethnic origin into its supply chain and, even back in 2017, its Modern Apprentice scheme saw the appointment of Rebecca Weir, who is believed to be Scotland’s first female coppersmith, at its Diageo Abercrombie copperworks. Progress in terms of ethnic diversity, however, has not been so promising.
Lorraine Copes, founder of Be Inclusive Hospitality

“Barriers to people of colour in whisky have always been [down to] geography,” said Deano Moncrieffe, ex-Diageo ambassador and founder of the Equal Measures project, which has just announced its Education and Mentorship programme in partnership with spirits education body The Mixing Class. The project was born in the wake of the death of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 and this new development aims to help hospitality workers from black and minority ethnic communities, along with those from underprivileged backgrounds, to get a foothold in the drinks industry. It has been met with an overwhelming response, and support from the likes of Edrington-Beam Suntory and Johnnie Walker has not only been financial, but also involves an ongoing dialogue.
Deano Moncrieffe, founder of the Equal Measures project

As Moncrieffe highlighted, with most UK whisky distilleries being based in more rural areas and smaller communities, the demographics of local people often do not speak to the diversity represented nationwide. That’s not to say, though, that active recruitment of people from different backgrounds to those found on distillery’s doorsteps should be ignored. “The length of the supply chain and the variety of roles that exist allow scope for diversity, only if it is important to the leaders of those businesses,” added Copes. Kirsten McLeod, a drinks industry diversity consultant, agrees: “The challenge with attracting your broader audience is looking for different avenues to either advertise your roles or make your opportunities more well known.” She also suggests businesses can partner with people who have access to less represented communities or post jobs on local council job boards in areas with greater diversity, which may not be in the traditional geographical catchment targeted by the distiller.

One notable exception in the UK whisky scene is The Lakes Distillery in Cumbria. Dhavall Gandhi is a prominent Gujarati figure in the whisky world, who started his drinks career at Heineken before moving to The Macallan and then, more recently, took up the mantle of whisky maker for The Lakes. Gandhi is also a graduate of Heriot-Watt University’s famous Brewing & Distilling MSc, a one-of-a-kind course that sees students travel from all over the world to learn about the craft of distillation in the home of whisky. A testament to the university’s international influence, he’s joined by fellow Heriot-Watt alumnus Vaibhav Sood, who is The Lakes’ operations manager and also of Indian heritage.
Dhavall Gandhi in The Lakes Distillery studio

Marketing director Kirsty Taylor is keen to point out that Dhavall and Vaibhav’s recruitment wasn’t the result of actively looking to make the team diverse, but came about because the best people for the job are often those with a wide range of influences and perspectives – both personal and professional. “It is just sheer coincidence,” she says. “In our recruitment process we are very interested in people with an interesting story, because we find that people who have had interesting experiences through their own life tend to be better creative thinkers, better problem solvers and bring a different dynamic into our business.”

Young women are also becoming more visible in the industry. The role of whisky assistant at The Lakes Distillery is held by Grace Gorton, who is in her early 20s, while The Borders Distillery in Hawick prides itself on being an attractive employer for young local people, with a 50 per cent female workforce. At the age of 24, Sophie Pashley is the assistant distiller at Yorkshire’s Cooper King and, having started as a volunteer two years ago, she quickly made it up the ranks to her current role under the eye of co-founder Abbie Neilson. However, though things are changing, she feels that opportunities for young people in whisky, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are not as abundant as they could be.

“I honestly thought it would be impossible to get anywhere. I was hoping to maybe work in a distillery at about 45 – that was me being realistic, thinking I’d have to move to Scotland and live up there for a few years, start as a tour guide,” said Sophie. “Doing my WSET qualifications definitely helped because gaining that knowledge made me more aware of different career paths there could be, but it also made me a lot more able to get the job I wanted to get.”

Glenmorangie’s apprenticeship programme, launched in 2019, aims to give young people the tools they need to grow in the world of whisky and this year it is looking at the adjustments it can make to become more accessible, especially when it comes to encouraging disabled people to apply. It’s partnered with Inclusion Scotland to put the groundwork in.

Looking outwards, representation within the whisky world is so important when it comes to speaking to customers and democratising the drink.

For Copes, the lack of representation of ethnic minorities in outward facing communications does not paint a very inviting picture at present, while also pointing out that it’s at the top of the chain where real change has to happen.

When Becky Paskin, co-founder of OurWhisky and whisky writer, first starting writing about the category, its lack of diversity in marketing wasn’t something that occurred to her. It was only after becoming the editor of that she realised there was often a negative attitude towards women both inside the drinks business and also from a consumer perspective. According to Becky, OurWhisky was born as a way of challenging this culture.

“We wanted to enact some kind of change around the issue in the industry and this attitude that female consumers are faced with, either coming from other consumers or from bartenders as well,” explained Becky. Her own experience of sexism in the whisky world and her mission to eliminate it was well documented last year after she called out the use of sexist language in Jim Murray’s latest Whisky Bible in a Facebook post that made the headlines of The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Times, among others. Sophie has also experienced first-hand sexism when it comes to drinking whisky, being questioned on her knowledge of the category and even being asked if she likes it – before even getting to the bar. “One experience I do remember, was with my dad. I ordered a whisky and my dad ordered a gin and tonic and the bartender got them the wrong way around – that shouldn’t have happened.” Any woman reading this will know they aren’t the only ones.
Sophie Pashley, assistant distiller at Cooper King

In an effort to progress the perception of whisky to new audiences, December 2020 saw Glenfiddich make ‘Downton Abbey’ star Michelle Dockery the face of its brand and around the same time Beam Suntory’s Laphroaig Distillery relaunched its Opinions Welcome campaign, first seen in 2014, which aired on TV and included both men and women of colour trying the whisky for the first time. “We really want to make sure our adverts are representative, showing a lot of different people, genders, ethnicities, as [whisky] should be enjoyed,” said Ella Blake, who is part of Beam Suntory’s D&I steering group.
Michelle Dockery, face of Glenfiddich - Image Credit: Misan Harriman

Paskin does think that changes have been made and global standards for marketing whisky have improved – she also praises the aforementioned Glenmorangie advert for presenting diversity in a naturalistic and unforced manner. But the more that advertising continues to portray men as its key demographic, she says, the more that the stereotype of whisky as only a ‘man’s drink’ will be perpetuated. OurWhisky is now gearing up to launch its next phase, which Paskin hopes will help champion greater diversity in the industry, while also empowering those in it and allowing newcomers to whisky to discover more about the spirit. Come the summer, Equal Measures will be embarking on a nationwide outreach programme to connect communities in cities with spirits, including whisky, brands.

Is it good enough? Time will tell. For Copes, though, it is far too premature to identify whether whisky, or in fact any part of the drinks industry, is ‘doing well’ when it comes to diversity: “Effecting change towards equality is a road travelled,” she says. “Instead of the question being ‘What does it need to start doing?’, the question should be ‘What are you willing to do?’.”
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