Meet the women making their mark in the Scotch whisky industry

Laura Hay, 26, ambassador for the Malt Whisky Society
Laura Hay, 26, ambassador for the Malt Whisky Society
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HER curves poured into a plunging black dress, Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks hosted a glitzy, celebrity-studded Johnnie Walker Blue Label event in Rio last month, declaring, “A lot of people don’t consider women whisky drinkers, and I’m representing a new group of women who are enjoying it very much.”

It’s clear America has a lot of catching up to do, since there’s nothing new here about women enjoying a tipple. On this side of the pond we’ve been breaking down the doors of the tweed and testosterone, whiskers and windbag, men-only clubs and knocking it back with the boys for a good decade at least.

What is new, however, is the level to which women are breaking through the glass ceiling of what was traditionally a male industry, and not only making waves but making whisky itself. Women are no longer just a growth sector of consumers, but are becoming increasingly powerful in the production and management sides of the £4.23 billion industry. Although the Scotch Whisky Association doesn’t hold statistics on the number of women working in the sector, it’s clear that among the 10,300 people employed in the country’s 108 distilleries, females are holding increasingly high-profile positions as master blenders and production and distillery managers.

Women like Glenglassaugh distillery’s duo of Mhairi McDonald, its production manager, and Susan Colville, who has just been named as the Aberdeenshire malt’s European brand development manager. McDonald and Colville were key to the creation and production of Glenglassaugh’s new Revival whisky, which was launched last month. It’s the first bottling made from scratch since the Portsoy distillery restarted in 2008, and the pair are working on its follow-up, due out shortly. “It has been really exciting to produce a whisky we have made ourselves,” says McDonald.

“We are all involved in nosing and tasting of samples, and that’s why I enjoy working in the whisky industry. I love the product and the variety that comes with it.

“Each distillery has the same raw ingredients and processes, but the results are so different,” adds the 26-year-old.

Having taken over as production manager last year, McDonald is now responsible for organising the 30 tonnes of malt used each week, as well as the yeast and gallons of water, and sees it right through to its transformation into raw spirit. With 280,000 litres of alcohol expected to be flowing out of the distillery by the end of the year, her days are busy. “My job is varied, practial, I get to use my science background and also speak to people.

“One minute I’m sorting out maintenance – cleaning the mash tun, the drains, servicing the boiler – the next I’m taking a tour round. Then I’m in the distillery, making the whisky, looking at the spirit quality, ordering the malt and yeast and checking we have enough water,” she says. “It’s really interesting. I’ve learned a lot and get to see all aspects of making whisky. To do a job where you can make whisky and talk about it too, what could be better?”

McDonald started her whisky career directing campervans around the Glenfiddich distillery visitors’ centre car park, where her father also works, and when she hit 18 and went to study science in Edinburgh, landed a job at the Scotch Whisky Experience. “I learnt to nose, and working there made me decide it was the whisky industry I wanted to work in.

“I really didn’t want to be stuck away in a lab, so switched to a degree in brewing, distilling and malting science at Heriot-Watt University.

“It’s a great industry to work in and I’ve never had any problem being a woman in it. I hope I have got where I am on my abilities. I’m looking forward to whatever challenges are thrown at me,” she says.

Her Glenglassaugh colleague, Colville, won Young Brand Ambassador in the Whisky Magazine Icons of Whisky awards this year, the first woman to carry it off. But if both McDonald and Colville are relative newcomers to the whisky industry, Stephanie Macleod, master blender at Dewar’s, has been working in the sector since 1993 and a full-time master blender since 2006. “The number of women now working in the industry is growing,” she says. “It’s such a big employer, we’re really seeing the numbers coming through and things are definitely changing.

“The industry has always embraced change because it’s a big product for a small nation and we have to maximise what we have. There’s no way you could depend on an all-male workforce. Women are now starting to work more on the technical, managerial side.”

While the industry may be immune to gender differences, whisky expert Annabel Meikle, a Scotch Malt Whisky tasting panellist, considers whether women may in fact have more sensitive noses than their male counterparts, whether they are better at nailing the elusive aromas – from phenol, birch tar and camphor to eucalyptus, lavender and juniper – that give whiskies their distinctive flavours. “I used to say there wasn’t any truth in the theory, it was that women were better at describing tastes, at saying, ‘Oh, that’s rose petals and that’s lavender.’

But now there is scientific proof that females have a better sense of smell for evolutionary reasons, for example ewes looking for their babies need a stronger sense of smell so maybe there’s something in it.”

As she prepares to judge Whisky Magazine’s Independent Bottlers Challenge 2012, a worldwide whisky competition, Meikle agrees that a career in the whisky industry is there for the taking for a new generation of younger women. “If someone had told me when I was 15 that I was going to be a whisky nose, I would have laughed. But now it’s up there with viable careers for women, and it has definitely made the industry a more interesting place.

“Because it’s more accessible to women, there are more women in it, and that will have a knock-on effect. It has also changed the whisky we drink. We now buy lighter, sweeter whiskies in general, which are created for a broad market, not just for women.”

Stephanie Macleod

Master blender at John Dewar

& Sons, Glasgow

Macleod has worked in the industry since 1993 and has been a full-time master blender since 2006, creating a range of blends. Dewar’s also has female distillery managers in Roselyn Thomson at Aultmore, Speyside, and Carol More at Aberfeldy, Perthshire.

Rachel Barrie

Master blender at Morrison Bowmore Distillers, Glasgow, which produces Auchentoshan, Bowmore, Glen Garioch and McClelland’s

Barrie’s Ardbeg ‘Corryvreckan’ botttling for Glenmorangie was named World’s Best Single Malt Whisky by Whisky Magazine in 2010.

Gillian Macdonald

Head of analytics and whisky

creation at Glenmorangie, Tain

Glenmorangie has produced the best-selling single malt in Scotland almost continuously since 1983, shifting around 10 million bottles per year.

Annabel Meikle

Whisky expert and nose, Scotch

Malt Whisky Society, Edinburgh

Joining the SMWS at the Vaults in Leith in 2001, Meikle became global ambassador, travelling the world to deliver tastings and training staff and sales teams when it was taken over by Glenmorangie. Still an ambassador for SMWS, she sits on their selection panel and is now introducing tastings to the Scottish Café and Restaurant, in Edinburgh.

Georgie Crawford

Distillery manager at Lagavulin, Islay

Crawford runs the entire show at the prestigious island distillery. Trained at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, she moved to run the Talisker visitor centre on the Isle of Skye in 2007, and in 2010 Diaego asked her to manage Lagavulin.