Changing the narrative

Changing the narrative

A revolution in the Highlands

Interview | 18 Oct 2019 | Issue 163 | By Kate Packwood

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Annabel Thomas does things differently. In 2013 she left her career in London as a management consultant and started Nc’Nean Distillery, an independent distillery on the remote Morvern peninsula on the west coast of Scotland.

Traditionally, the whisky industry is not an environmentally friendly business. It’s a relatively unsustainable, wasteful and carbon-heavy industry, but it doesn’t need to be. Annabel has made her distillery fully organic, as close to carbon neutral as possible and implements highly sustainable new approaches to an age-old industry. That’s not the only thing she does differently. Annabel is a fierce advocate for gender parity within the industry and argues that the two main areas of discrimination lie within in recruitment and branding.

“It’s not that women don’t drink whisky, and love it, but there is still a bias in the way that whisky is talked about across the industry as a whole and this kind of weird inbuilt assumption that women don’t drink whisky, in terms of what pictures are shown on brands’ social media feeds” she tells me. It’s almost as though women drink whisky in spite of whisky marketing, not because of it, and there are fewer women drinkers as a result of that.

Annabel argues that a lot of this is because women tend less towards neat spirits, whereas the Scotch whisky industry’s social media channels show “almost exclusively men and they are almost always drinking whisky neat”. She wants people to realise that it’s ok to mix your Scotch. Bourbon and Irish whiskey’s marketing campaigns embrace being used in a long mixed drink or a cocktail, but Scotch markets itself almost exclusively for straight-up drinking. The recently released Nc’Nean Botanical Spirit, a ‘whisky-related’ product, is not intended for neat drinking but rather for mixing, while the currently maturing liquid that will be their whisky will be ready next year.

It was a road trip round Islay that set Annabel on her path to making whisky. Immersing herself in Islay’s distilleries she took tour after tour and found that each was telling the same story. The story of Scotch, the traditional way. While that story has value, it showed her that there was an opportunity for things to be done differently, in particular in terms of sustainability and flavour development.

When it comes to gender parity within the whisky industry, not only does Annabel push for the story to be told differently, but she recognises the need for a different story.

She put in place two distillers, one woman and one man, both of whom she had trained up from scratch. But when it came to appointing a distillery manager, the one position which she wanted filled by someone with distillery experience, she was shocked to find that there was not one female applicant. She found that while there are women working in the whisky industry and many doing wonderful things within it, there is a dearth of women working within distilleries.

It was with this in mind that she decided to invite applications for two women to do a week-long, all expenses paid internship at her distillery. She wanted “to throw a bit more light on what actually working in a whisky distillery involves… demystifying it a bit”. She feels the perception is still very much that it is a male role, shovelling a ton of barley around, which is both outdated and misleading.

What happened next she did not expect. An overwhelming response of 170 women from across the world and from every background conceivable applied for the internship.

The massive flood of applications (she had hoped for about 40 at best) showed without a doubt that there was indeed an enthusiasm and need to learn what goes on in distilleries, but also what a lack of opportunities exist by traditional routes.

I asked Annabel how she had selected two from so many applications. Firstly, she removed those who had applied because it seemed fun but who showed no significant desire to change their career. Secondly, she removed anyone who was already in the industry or peripheral to the industry who could conceivably set up work experience through other contacts. Finally, she set about prioritising those who were genuinely at a cross-roads or tipping point and who really might get something out of it in terms of the direction of their career and put it to most use.

The two successful applicants were Jemma Grant from Scotland and Judith Boute from the Netherlands. Interestingly, both women are from business backgrounds: Jemma works in asset management and Judith works in insurance propositions for one of the biggest brands in the Netherlands. Initially, I was surprised at this choice – the two women were clearly successful, educated and in privileged positions. I questioned Annabel on her selection, but her response made sense. Judith and Jemma come from such different backgrounds to the whisky industry that the internship provided the opportunity of “propelling their knowledge way beyond anything they could easily access on a personal basis.”

The internship afforded Judith and Jemma all aspects of working in a small, hand-operated whisky distillery. They were given an introduction to mashing, fermenting, milling, distilling, cask filling, warehousing, blending and tasting. They met with barley growers and helped on tours at the distillery Open Day as well as going on an afternoon long foraging tour for local botanicals such as bog myrtle used in the botanical spirit.

I asked Jemma what she felt her obstacles to joining the whisky industry were and she reiterated the difficulty of coming from such a different background and the inherent fear in leaving one career that’s working, for another that is such as unknown quantity. Also, the lack of allure of the entrance level jobs such as working in the warehouse which might progress to a distillery job. Although working in asset management, Jemma recently completed her masters degree in gastronomy, with a focus on Scotland, of which whisky was a big part. Her dissertation was on craft distilling in Scotland, but focused primarily on gin. She had almost applied for the brewing and distilling course at Heriot-Watt but had been deterred by the “unknown quantity of it, so had jumped at the chance of applying for the internship at Nc’Nean and to get hand-on knowledge and experience of the process from start to finish”.

Judith too came from a gastronomy angle, having done her undergraduate in business economics with a focus on the food industry, followed by a masters in consumer studies. She does voluntary work with young people in the hope of broadening their horizons. She says, “It’s very important for the younger generation to see that anything is possible for women”. Having come from the Netherlands to partake in the internship, she had by chance arranged a Scottish holiday two weeks prior, touring whisky distilleries and tasting as many different styles as she could. She remarked on the difference between the larger distilleries and their impenetrability compared to the immersive and inclusive single focus experience she was afforded at Nc’nean. The small team and secluded location meant that the interns were right at the heart of the distillery’s workings and able to really see what goes on and ask as many questions as they desired.

Annabel is conscious that while her internship can offer her two interns the demystifying, inside information and hands-on experience that is needed to make an informed decision about whether a distillery career is right for them, the location and size of her distillery mean that she can only help a very small cohort of interested women. Because of this, she is eager to make this impact have as much effect as possible, not just for Judith and Jemma but beyond them. She comments that apart from anything else, there are 168 women who didn’t win the internship who have a passion and desire to learn more about joining the industry. She is still ruminating on how best to foster and continue this community of women.

Her advice to anyone interested in working in a distillery is to get work experience. Yes, getting experience in a distillery is tricky, but even working in a whisky-focused bar will give good broad experience. She also recommends doing as many tours of distilleries as possible. Finally, she recommends seeing if you can find anyone in the industry and pick their brains. The whisky industry is remarkably open and friendly, and finding someone to chat to you about their job will be easier than expected and very helpful.

When I quizzed Judith and Jemma about their favourite aspects of the internship, both adored the creativity afforded by blending. Perhaps that is the lesson to be learnt, that women bring a creativity and a new (dare I say fresher?) way of thinking, which can only be an asset to distilleries.
The story thus far has been that whisky distillery jobs are better suited to men, but if we learn anything from Annabel’s revolutionary approach, new ways of doing things can build and improve upon tradition.

It’s time to tell the story of distilleries differently, and it’s time to tell the story of who drinks whisky differently, with women playing central roles.
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