Gillian Howell is a rarity – a female whisky distiller.Another example of how Welsh distillery Penderyn is different. Richard Woodard reports
I don’t think it’s stretching the truth to suggest that whisky tends to be a maledominated world.You don’t need to be Germaine Greer to see that women are, shall we say, rather underrepresented in the higher echelons of the distilling business. Marketing? Sure. But the sharp end at the distillery? A man’s world through and through.There are, no doubt, all kinds of historical and socio-economic explanations for this. The handing down of skills from father to son, the physical strength required to move casks from A to B, not to mention the sheer lack of opportunity afforded to women in any industry in the past.But however you slice it, women distillers are about as rare as… well, they’re about as rare as Welsh whisky, in fact. So it’s somehow appropriate that The Welsh Whisky Company, distiller of Penderyn, the first whisky produced in the Principality for more than a century, should be training a young woman in the arcane arts of distillation.If this was a Jeffrey Archer novel or a Hollywood mini-series, Gillian Howell would have overcome all manner of obstacles to fulfil her childhood dream of running a still and bottling her own whisky, hand-crafted to her own special recipe. But chemistry graduate Gillian, 26, is refreshingly honest about her lack of whisky knowledge and passion prior to joining the company two years ago.“After leaving uni, I really didn’t know what to do,” she says, echoing the dilemma of many a graduate. Like others before her, Gillian put off the decision by travelling the world – but was still none the wiser when she returned home.The internet was the next stop.“You know how you end up on websites you weren’t really looking for?” says Gillian.“There was one called Go Wales, trying to stop Welsh people with skills and qualifications from leaving and going to work in England.” Thanks to this attempt to halt the Welsh brain drain, Gillian saw an ad for a trainee distiller and production manager at The Welsh Whisky Company.“I read the description and thought ‘that looks ideal’,” she recalls.The industry and its products may have been an attraction, but so was the size and nature of the company.Gillian had worked for GlaxoSmithKline in her holidays, but liked the idea of working somewhere altogether smaller.“You get involved in a hell of a lot more,” she says. “You’re not just a blip in the large matrix of things. And there was also the alcohol side as well. Having gone travelling and spent most of my time in bars, that was an obvious appeal!” But Gillian was emphatically not a whisky drinker, having only tasted Scotch in the past “if my dad had bought some”.She recalls: “The day that I got interviewed was the day that they’d filtered the first batch [of Penderyn] – and it was also probably the first time that I’d tasted single malt. Whisky wasn’t my drink and I wouldn’t say it is now – maybe at the end of the evening.“But I like it and I appreciate it a lot more than when I started.” So what does she drink when she’s out with her friends?“I drink pints of lager, but don’t put that!” she laughs. “Gin and tonic – I drink plenty of that as well.” If Gillian is still not the most enthusiastic whisky drinker, her family and friends are rather excited about her chosen career.“They think it’s wonderful – my dad especially loves the idea! All his mates are always asking him if he’s got any samples. My mates, they think it’s most amazing. They’ve all come up to the distillery. Some of them are in relatively dull nine-to-five jobs. They say: ‘My Goodness, Gillian, you’ve always got a story to tell!’” Hardly surprising when you consider the sheer variety of tasks Gillian is asked to tackle.For example, we meet at Whisky Live in London, where she is communicating the joys of Penderyn to enthusiasts from across the country. This comes more than two years since she started, on an initial ten-week contract, in January 2004.“It was straight in at the deep end,” recalls Gillian. “They hadn’t even launched the whisky, so I had to hit the floor running and I haven’t stopped since!” Asked to describe a typical day, Gillian says there isn’t one – which is one of the job’s major attractions. She oversees the daily distillations, making sure the still is running correctly and the spirit running off it is being maximised, but also performs a range of other tasks, including tracking the spirit when it goes into cask, nosing, tasting, drawing samples for Dr Jim Swan, the distillery’s consultant and Penderyn style guru.She is also in charge of production, and is involved in bottling, case transfer and despatch – basically, a little bit of everything.“Every day you go in and there’s something completely different,” says Gillian. “I do love my job.” And what of the future? Does she see herself as a master distiller, moving on to a big name distillery in Speyside or Islay?“I don’t know where the line is where you cross from being a distiller and a master distiller, to be honest,” says Gillian. “It’s a bit like being a Jedi Knight.“Storing the flavours and smells and tastes is still quite hard. I’m still in the development phase for that… Hopefully, eventually I should be able to take over from Jim, but there’s still a massive amount to learn.” Talk of moving on seems premature, she adds, when her first spirit won’t even be classified as whisky for another year.“Anyway, I can’t see any reason for leaving.I really love my work. Because it’s a small company, you’re growing with it. I think there will be a certain amount of loyalty involved.Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am.” And ‘where she is’ is as a standard-bearer, both for women in the extremely male dominated world of whisky distillation, and for Wales as it rediscovers its whisky-making past. Wherever that leads in the end, it’s not bad for a girl from Fishguard who still prefers to drink pints of lager in the pub.
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