People

Driven women

Caroline Dewar meets the women behind the whiskies
By Caroline Dewar
In times when we know that women are a largely untapped market as whisky drinkers and careers in scientific or technical subjects are of dwindling interest to school students, where do women fit into the industry work-wise?In the so-called “softer” areas of marketing and PR there are plenty of them, not to mention the many dedicated women who manage and work in distillery visitor centres.The incorrect perception is perhaps that making whisky or any kind of production or creation role is exclusively a male preserve but there are a number of high ranking women in this part of the industry. A few interviewed have been in it for 30 years and none of them less than 13. Indeed there have been women involved in Scotch since the 19th century, some being widows like the Champagne “veuves” who took over running the business.In the 20th century we have the famous name of Bessie Williamson, chemistry graduate who worked at Laphroaig as the secretary and was left the distillery in the owner’s will. She ran it for years – hands dirty and overalls on.It’s not possible to feature all of today’s whisky women in detail but here are a handful who illustrate a heartening passion for the product and the industry, and without passion you don’t get whisky right.Strangely, most of them came into whisky by default rather than as a burning ambition through their education. Though a few had family in the industry, it was only Pauline Ogilvie, now assistant manager at Glenmorangie Distillery, who was keen to get into it from the outset. Kay Fleming, for example, who manages Glenkinchie Distillery answered a newspaper ad for a trainee distillery manager some 20 years ago and started in Dufftown as she wanted an active production job, not a research role.Most have degrees or other qualifications in chemistry, engineering or, indeed, chemical engineering and one in food science (Stephanie McLeod of Dewar’s).Rachel Barrie (Glenmorangie) and Maureen Robinson (Diageo) both abandoned medical and pharmacy degrees respectively to pursue chemistry instead.Both now operate as master blenders though their job titles do not contain those words. Their remits go much wider.Rachel waxes lyrical about the pleasures of the sensory part of her job and is a joy to hear.Roseann Connell, blends manager at Edrington Group, left school as a teenager with no qualifications.She joined Edrington 13 years ago for parttime work but after a number of years steady progress, applied to do an MBA and cannot praise enough the support she received from her employers.Similarly for Carol Inch at Diageo’s Burghead Maltings group who left school, needed a job and responded to an advertisement for a laboratory assistant – it sounded a bit different and more interesting than other possibilities.Thirty years on she is Burghead group’s Barley operations manager looking at all aspects of the thousands of tons of barley that plant takes in each year and has a Diploma from the Maltsters Association of Great Britain – a rare achievement.So, if most of them were not attracted by whisky in the first place, where do they stand now? You couldn’t move them out with dynamite. They are happy and enthusiastic nay, ecstatic, about their work and their industry and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. All see it as an exciting place for much more growth and development in new markets and to new drinkers, particularly women and younger men, a nut marketers have been trying to crack for years and which finally seems to be getting somewhere.Good news at one company, such as giant Diageo’s huge new investment at Roseisle, down to little Bruichladdich’s revival of Port Charlotte Distillery, does not just fire up their own employees but permeates throughout the industry.Of course it is not only the large companies which involve women in production area roles. Chrissie Angus at Bruichladdich is bottling hall administrator, looking after all orders, whisky in for bottling and bottled supplies out for export, as well as bottled stock and re-work held at the distillery.Not all of them are Scots, either. Rachel Walters who is Edrington’s manufacturing manager in Glasgow is from Northern Ireland and Amanda Burke, supply manager at Diageo’s Leven plant is from Dublin. She looks after the Supply Department covering warehousing, blending, disgorging and the sweetened products and runs part of production following a number of years at Cameronbridge grain distillery.Rachel came into the industry via a stint at British Steel. She now converts female friends and relatives at home to whisky by showing how mixable it is and great for cocktails.Amanda originally applied for a job at home on the Guinness graduates’ programme. However, as a global company with Scotch interests they sent her over to Cambus grain distillery as a trainee brewer and she has been with the company ever since.Asking what drives them, all stressed the element of team work and how the people side is just as important as the excellence in standards of their part of the process and pride they take in doing a job well and contributing to the high quality of the end products. Not all think they are competitive people. Fair to say that perfectionism is a common trait, though.All are pleased not to have been treated any differently from men in their work and to have been given great opportunities, though Kay Fleming does tell of the dark times before Diageo came into being, of her first job in 1987.No one knew quite what to call her as they had not had a female trainee distillery manager before so she was demurely titled technical clerkess before somebody saw how daft that was.Each of these women is simply a person doing a job with lifestyles not necessarily any different from men doing the same things.Several are parents: Rachel Barrie with three small boys; Amanda Burke with two children; one has grown up children and one is a single parent who also has a heart condition and pacemaker.Just shows you the wonderful lure of the whisky industry.All said they could not do a job they did not enjoy to the max.Looking at the public face of the industry, several of these women, due to their expertise and presentation skills, are asked to act as occasional brand ambassadors for trade and consumer audiences, as are some of their colleagues from distillery visitor centres. They get a real buzz from it.However, if we look at those employed purely as brand ambassadors full-time, then there seems to be only one woman at the moment – Anne Miller of Chivas who criss-crosses the world entertaining and educating in equal measure.There are a number of women who run tastings, food pairings and education sessions as independents but that’s not the point.If we are to develop Scotch Whisky’s future and make it more appealing to women then maybe we ought to know that there are more of them out there with important roles in crafting it.If your daughter is of scientific or technical bent - steer her towards Scotch Whisky. It’s a woman’s life.