Women, Whisky and Wort

Women, Whisky and Wort

Making the cut in the whisky business

People | 05 Jun 2015 | Issue 128 | By Alwynne Gwilt

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The whisky industry can often be viewed as having a more masculine slant. From advertising featuring strong, male characters brooding over a glass of whisky on the rocks, to films where the hero shoots back a shot of the hard stuff, the wider world often sees males enjoying this fine drink. In turn, it can be said that many people also still think of it is as male-dominated industry, and an oddity for women to be associated with it, whether as consumers or producers.

The truth couldn't, in fact, be further from this. Women have been a part of distilling and brewing for millennia, even credited with inventing the first alembic still in Egyptian times (and, long before that, brewing beer). In medieval times, women ran numerous successful breweries and became known as brewsters - an important factor since one needs to make a quasi beer before distilling can take place. It was claims during the times of witch hunts in the 16th and 17th Centuries that this tradition started to die off - women who brewed or distilled were frequently labelled as witches, which led to many beginning to practise the art of making aqua vitae in secret.

In the 1800s, Helen Cumming and her daughter-in-law Elizabeth ran Cardhu distillery. It was a time when gaugers roamed the hills, finding people to fine for illegal whisky making - and it was Helen who continuously outsmarted them, in order to sell her whisky in the local area. Elizabeth continued the business successfully, tripling the distillery's capacity before eventually selling it to John Walker & Sons.

In the mid 20th Century, Bessie Williamson, who piloted Laphroaig in the 1950s and 1960s, comes to mind. Having come to Islay in the summer of 1932 to work as a secretary to then owner Ian Hunter. When he had a stroke in the late 1930s, Bessie took on more responsibilities, including US distribution and distillery management. When Ian died in 1954 she took over the distillery, and her passion for the brand and pursuit in spreading the word of it to the masses in both her home country and overseas territories like the United States, made it one of the first globally successful single malt brands.

Nowadays, women working in the whisky industry is not even something to question: they are part and parcel of what makes this business tick. In this feature, we take a look at just a few of the numerous examples of fantastic females who work in roles across the global whisky industry, from distilling all the way through to the final packaging that ends up on our shelves.

Deirdre O'Carroll

Process technologist, Irish Distillers, Cork

Deirdre O'Carroll is one of the first graduates of the Jameson Graduate Distiller Programme. Having studied food science and technology, O'Carroll says she became fascinated with cereals and the process of distillation. "And anything you are fascinated with, you tend to be good at because you're just naturally more interested in learning about it," she comments. One of only two people chosen for the two year programme, O'Carroll worked across all areas of the distillery. Currently based in the brewhouse, she is in charge of ensuring Midleton's new plant is as efficient and sustainable as possible, and is a part of the tasting panel, where she checks that the new make spirit coming off the pot stills is up to scratch. "A lot of people ask me if I found it daunting coming down here when there were so few women on site but no one here cares as long as you work hard!"

Angela D'Orazio

Master blender, Mackmyra, Sweden

Having founded the Scotch Malt Whisky Society branch in Sweden and worked as a brand ambassador for Glenmorangie before that, Angela D'Orazio was a fount of whisky knowledge when she started as master blender at Sweden's first whisky distillery, Mackmyra, in 2004. The company, now 15 years old, has become known for the interesting cask finishes and maturation techniques it uses, such as smaller barrels, Swedish oak, and lingonberry wine casks. "I love the pride and craft it takes to make whisky and I love all the good people of the whisky world; my fellow colleagues and the people who enjoy drinking it. If they read this, they know who they are."

Pam Heilmann

Distiller and vice president of production, Michter's Distillery, Kentucky

With nearly 20 years in the American whiskey industry, Pam Heilmann is a well-known figure in the world of this spirit. But her route into it was slightly unusual. During a trip to Kentucky and Tennessee many years ago she visited Jack Daniel's, Jim Beam and Maker's Mark and fell in love with the distilling process. When a job move saw her and her husband relocating to Kentucky, an opportunity for herself at Jim Beam arose and she says, "I was hooked from the first day." Working shifts at both the Clermont and Booker Noe plants she learned the trade thoroughly, often under the watchful eye of then Master Distiller Jerry Dalton. She progressed her way up to distillery manager at Booker Noe before joining Michter's in 2013. Today, she looks after the limited productions of rye, Bourbon and American whiskey that the company produces, ensuring the small batch process runs smoothly and is overseeing growth of production as the distillery expands to include a distinctive pot still doubler, which Heilmann helped design. According to Heilmann, the best part of her job is "the detail and the daily challenges. I like to say in distilling you can learn something new every day."

Casey McConnell

Production and packaging manager, Headframe Spirits, Montana

Casey McConnell focuses on all areas of Headframe's whisky production - from mashing to fermentation, distillation, barreling, and blending - while also working with external clients on recipe development and production. It's a role she got into slightly by chance. McConnell initially worked as the start-up distillery's first bartender in 2012, while doing her studies in molecular biology at Montana Tech. Her background set her up perfectly for a full time role at the company, where she got her teeth into its packing facility and business unit. "During my time as manager of that business unit, I was given opportunities to do research and be a whisky 'nerd'. I worked on projects involving everything from enzyme usage in our mashes, to working with our unique distillation system to improve the quality of spirits that we produce." Her 'nerding out' as she calls it, led to her current role, which focuses more heavily on the whole whisky making process. "This is an exciting industry to be involved in, and I look forward to coming to work every day."

Victoria Macrae-Samuels

VP Operations, Maker's Mark, Kentucky

Having studied chemistry, Victoria Macrae-Samuels started her career as an R&D Chemist. In the early 1990s, she moved to the Jim Beam distillery, becoming the first female supervisor there. A role in processing followed, before she was encouraged to apply for the role of Director of Operations at the company's sister distillery - Maker's Mark - in 2008. "I'm the only woman who does what I do in the Bourbon industry and I now think it's important to share your experiences as a woman. For years, I worked very hard to not be noticed, because it was the culture of business, but things have changed and there has been an acknowledgement that diversity is important." Macrae-Samuels - who is no relation to the Samuels who founded Maker's Mark - is also a breast cancer survivor, who shares her experiences with other women faced with the disease. Her best career advice? "Never compromise, never stop questioning, never stop learning."

Mirela Apopei

Product designer, Allied Glass, England

How a whisky looks on the shelf is an important consideration for whisky companies, and it is people like Mirela Apopei who ensure that it's an eye-catching product. As a product designer with Allied Glass since 2010, Apopei has worked with brands like The Famous Grouse and The Macallan to create beautiful bottles to house the precious liquid. According to Apopei, the job has its main rewards in seeing the bottle through from start to finish. "I love being involved in the whole process, starting with receiving an open brief to generating concept ideas right through to producing a 2D and 3D model which incorporates decoration and labelling in order to represent the intended finished product." The role does have its challenges, the main being the need to find the right balance between creating an artistic product, and being aware of what is realistically possible for a glass product such as this. "When a product you have been involved with reaches the market it is a fantastic feeling to see the finished bottle on the shelf of a supermarket or bar."

Georgie Bell Interview

Mortlach Global Brand Ambassador

Own up. We've all dreamt THE dream, haven't we? Being paid to travel the world talking about our favourite dram. For a precious few, the dream of being a Brand Ambassador is a reality.

Recently a new breed has started to appear, not necessarily Scottish or middle aged, sometimes not even male!

I had the chance to chat with one of the new breed, Diageo's Georgie Bell, to find out about being a Brand Ambassador.

As a young girl did you dream of being a brand ambassador?

Far from it! I originally thought I was going to be an air hostess.

So where did your relationship with whisky start?

It all started at Edinburgh University, but I didn't like Whisky. I'd left Essex to study Geography, with a plan of following in Scott's footstep to Antarctica.

My parents said, "Georgie, you've got to get a job. But don't get a job in a bar and do not get a job in a nightclub." Obviously that's exactly what I did. From the outset, it was spirits that really excited me. I realised I'd found my calling in spirits. It was there, working behind a bar, making cocktails; that's where it began.

Part of my degree was on the geography of wine. Which made me aware of the link between what I was pouring by night and studying by day. All of which, including a growing enthusiasm for whisky, led me to do my dissertation on whisky.

I'd started drinking Manhattans and moved onto sherried Scotch. I loved it! The more I tried and the more I learnt. The more I learnt, the more interested I became.

I was bartending, learning about whisky and getting to know the industry. By the end of my final year I was smitten.

When I graduated I knew I wanted a career in spirits and that I should get some specialised knowledge. I got a job at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and did a second degree in distilling "

Whilst at the SMWS I started to host some tastings and do some ambassadorial work. When I'd been there for a couple of years they asked me if I wanted to represent them internationally. So I became their Global Brand Ambassador. This experience enabled me to get my current role.

But you're not a typical brand ambassador?

When I qualified I went for a couple of jobs, getting down to the final interview, but didn't get them due to a lack of experience. This spurred me on to do the second degree. As we know, as with whisky, older, isn't necessarily for the better.

If you are driven and passionate, then that's the important thing.

How do you see your role?

The promotion of Scotch as a whole. Speak to any ambassador, no matter who they work for, they'd say the same. We're one family, flying the flag for whisky. We're breaking down stereotypes, changing perceptions of who drinks whisky as well as how it's enjoyed. The other brand ambassadors are like my big brothers. Outside the world of whisky, people don't realise what a warm and welcoming industry it is, one big family.

What's a typical day?

The job is just so varied, there really isn't such a thing as a typical day, I woke up in Edinburgh, this afternoon I had a meeting in London, tomorrow I'm at the distillery.

Away from the job, what makes you tick?

I really like to run. I ran the London marathon in April for The Children's Society. Apart from that, I'm always reading and love listening to hip hop and electro.

Then there are my friends. They are what really keep me grounded, so wherever I am, I like to keep in touch. Thank God for FaceTime! When I'm at home it's my friends that are my priority, so I always make time for them.

What does the future hold?

I have no idea. The past year has been crazy. Five years ago, I was at university. I hope to stay in the industry, maybe distilling, who knows? At the moment I'm really enjoying what I'm doing.

What does it take to be a good brand ambassador?

Passion. You can't teach passion. A drive to succeed, energy and enthusiasm. You must know your subject and want to embrace the opportunity of being a part of the wonderful world that is whisky.

Who are your role models, the people who've helped you settle in?

Angus Winchester from Tanqueray has taken me under his wing and Max Warner of Chivas, the work that he's done is inspiring. But on a personal level it's the guys from Bramble in Edinburgh who are always there for me. Without them, I just wouldn't be able to do the job.
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