Women in Whisky: Four key women making their mark on the whisky industry

Roe & Co

In 2021, we’re increasingly moving away from the hyper-masculine ‘Mad Men’ era, a time period which saw whisky and powerful men inextricably linked – and towards a more gender balanced landscape. Today, there are more women than ever not just working in whisky, but drinking it, too. ⠀

We’re taking this opportunity to highlight four key women making their mark on the whisky industry. From brand ambassadors to distillers, blenders and whisky company founders, the future of whisky belongs as much to women as to anyone else.

Sarah Elsom, Head Distiller, Cardrona Distillery

Sarah ElsomNow head distiller at New Zealand’s Cardrona Distillery, it was Sarah Elsom’s love of wine which first led her to whisky – as well as a light-bulb moment at the summit of Ohau Ski Field. When a friend offered her a sip of single malt, she described it as the first whisky that threatened her love of wine. “It was so well balanced, the flavours woke something up inside of me and the finish just stayed with me. Spirits suddenly became intriguing and exciting”, she says.

After her last cellar hand stint in Canada, Sarah returned home to New Zealand. In contemplating where winemaking would take her next, she discovered that a distillery was being built just 20 minutes drive from her home. “I joined the team with an open mind as Cardrona Distillery was nearing the end of its construction in November 2015, and I’ve never looked back.”

As head distiller, Sarah oversees production, production planning and preparation for market on a daily basis. She also makes herself available for virtual tastings to support Cardrona’s entry and growth in the UK market. Sarah admits people often still react with surprise when they hear her job title, but says the surprise is short-lived as “most whisky lovers are a conversation away from recognising a kindred spirit.”

While Cardrona Distillery’s all-female team, led by founder Desiree Whitaker, wasn’t created by design, Sarah says it perhaps reflects the growing number of women in the industry. “We are breaking barriers everywhere”, she says. “There is no reason whisky should remain a gentlemen’s club.”

With increasing women joining the whisky industry, how can we continue to make it a more gender-balanced arena? With its bold flavour, high alcohol content and “dated pretence of where and when”, Sarah admits that whisky can be intimidating.

“It can be easy to write off if your early exposure to whisky is limited to the extremes of style and how-to. In my experience, women often discover they like whisky when they give it a go. Encouraging higher female attendance at whisky festivals and tasting events by redefining how whisky can be enjoyed will serve the trade.”

For Sarah, her favourite thing about the spirit lies in the passion and determination of the people who work in the industry. “There’s a community of people at the heart of its history. and a growing community of whisky producers, writers and enthusiasts leading the charge here in New Zealand. We are excited to show the world what we can do.”

Georgie Bell, Head of Advocacy, Incubation Brands, Bacardi

Georgie BellGeorgie Bell’s impressive whisky career began when she was still an undergrad. Working bartending shifts while studying at Edinburgh University, Georgie became fascinated by the history and culture surrounding the spirit,  and ended up penning her dissertation on the subject of whisky and regional identity, with a particular focus on Islay.

From there, she began working at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, before becoming their Global Whisky Ambassador. During this time, Georgie earned her second degree in Distilling with the Institute of Brewing and Distilling. On completion, she scored the highest mark globally, which allowed her to become a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Distillers as part of her scholarship.

These days, Georgie is thriving at Bacardi, and her role as Global Head of Advocacy for the company’s Incubation brands enables her to work on not only the single malts, but Angel’s Envy Bourbon, Teeling Irish Whiskey and Santa Teresa Rum among others.

Georgie’s role varies from creating global advocacy programming, supporting the Brand Ambassadors in market and their development, as well as inputting on marketing campaigns, writing education programs and working with bartenders to come up with delicious drinks that showcase Bacardi’s range of spirits in a new light.

Her ambition doesn’t stop there, though. Georgie is also a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Distillers, and a Keeper of the Quaich; accolades earned through her passion for the spirit’s history and complexity.  “I love that each distillery has its own story and legacy, and how the people at the distilleries are an integral part of that story”, Georgie says. “I’ve always been intrigued by the complexity, depth and spectrum of flavour – whisky is far from a one dimensional spirit!”

“I think it’s incredible how from five production steps – malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation and maturation – you can get a spectrum of flavour from light, clean and grassy whiskies like Aultmore, all the way through to big, rich sherry bombs”, she says. “And that’s what I still love about whisky today: the variety of flavour, stories and heritage, along with how a dram can bring people together in shared moments of joy.”

She’s also noticed a seismic shift in the whisky industry over the past decade, with a much larger representation of women working in and drinking whisky, as well as a change in the demographic of those drinking it. As Georgie argues; “Women have always enjoyed whisky! It just may not have been as visible until now. Changes in brand marketing campaigns have led to a more diverse audience drinking and enjoying whisky, and education through groups such as ‘Women Who Whiskey‘ and the women’s whisky nights at Milroy’s of Soho, have also helped with the increase.

“It’s a very different scene today from when I started in it”, Georgie says. “Slowly but surely, we have – and are – shaking off the stereotypical image of yesteryear. A big driver for me was realising that there were strong female role models within the whisky industry who helped guide me through my career. I’m hoping that I can now do the same for others and give back, in order to bring a new generation of people into the trade.”

While the whisky industry has experienced progressive change when it comes to more equal gender representation, it’s important that momentum isn’t lost. Georgie suggests both an internal and external approach could be the answer.

“From a whisky brand perspective, it’s important to feature equal representation in marketing campaigns, digital strategies, influencer outreach and advertising – for example focusing on both mother’s and father’s day promotions”, Georgie says. “Internally, there should be a diversity and inclusion policy in place when hiring, and a commitment to ensuring any educational material isn’t bias towards one particular gender, and unconscious bias training is given for all.”

Her advice to others looking to pursue their interest in whisky? “Try and go to a few tastings to try new whiskies and learn – there’s plenty out there, both virtually and in bars. Also, try a few whisky cocktails – my personal favourite is an old fashioned with Aberfeldy 12 and local honey syrup.

“From a professional standpoint, make sure you read, ask questions, reach out to those who have similar roles to the one you might want to progress into and find out how you could get there – and just have fun with it!”

Emma Walker, Master Blender, Johnnie Walker

Emma WalkerEmma’s classroom interest in chemistry was the first stepping stone that led her to a career in whisky blending. When she actually got to university to study it, though, it was her first taste of Talisker which led her towards another passion. Whisky; in all its complexity and nuances of flavour.

She went on to complete a PhD, and joined many of her friends down the route of working as a process chemist. “But, holding a passion for flavours and the science behind them, I knew I wanted to do something that could involve flavour with my background in chemistry”, Emma explains.

In 2008, she applied for a job at Diageo’s Technical Centre. It was to be the launchpad for her highly successful career in whisky. Today, Emma holds the accolade of first female Master Blender at Johnnie Walker. She works alongside a team of 12 expert whisky makers – and although she leads the team, Emma insists everything they achieve is the result of a joint effort.

“One of the things I enjoy about working as a blender is that no two days are the same, and every day involves working with a range of amazing people”, says Emma. “At any one time, we’re conducting hundreds of experiments, and exploring a wide range of innovative flavours and influences, distillation conditions, grain used, cask finishes and different types of oak wood – all in the pursuit of exceptional flavour.”

Since her Edinburgh University friends introduced her to Talisker and Lagavulin, Emma’s whisky palette sharpened and has continued to evolve, and she’s still blown away by the depth and breadth of different flavours whisky has to offer. “As a blender and someone passionate about flavour, that opens up a whole world of flavour experimentation that is just fascinating to me.  But most of all, I love the people that you meet as a whisky maker – that is perhaps one of the most enjoyable bits of my job, meeting wonderful people from across Scotland and further afield every single day.”

When it comes to gender representation in the industry, Emma explains her experience at Johnnie Walker has always been extremely positive, with a great balance of genders in the team. “I have been lucky to work with great people like Maureen Robinson and Caroline Martin, both vastly experienced whisky makers – as well as of course with Jim [Dr Jim Beveridge, Johnnie Walker’s former Master Blender] and the rest of the team.

“I often get asked about working in a ‘male’ industry, but to be honest, this doesn’t reflect my experience. I have reached the position I’m in through the support I’ve received from amazing people across the industry, and through gaining opportunities to build my experience and capability. Our team at Johnnie Walker has been selected on merit and have grown together, organically reaching an even gender split. This diversity is reflected in our distillery management and we see female operators, coppersmiths, coopers and engineers across our sites in Scotland. So, I don’t really feel like a trailblazer – I’m one of the team, in an industry as diverse as our whisky.”

Emma feels passionately about making the whisky industry as inclusive and accessible as possible, regardless of your background. “It’s important that the whisky industry continues to talk about the diverse range of people who work in whisky – if you see someone like yourself doing a job, it’s easier to picture yourself in a similar role. We strongly believe whisky is for everyone, and we’re encouraging inclusion and diversity in every sense, in the workplace, in our communities and with our consumers.”

While progress is being made, there’s still a long journey ahead. Diageo is determined to lead that agenda, Emma explains, which is why the company’s ten-year action plan has ambitious inclusion and diversity goals. “We will continue to break down barriers and challenge prejudice so that it is just a given that women work in and enjoy drinking whisky, and it’s not talked about as an issue to overcome”, says Emma.

One of the beauties of whisky is its ever-evolving nature and the secrets the spirit still holds.  “The one thing that I would say that has changed over the last decade has been our understanding of the science and technology involved in whisky making”, says Emma. “There have been many advancements over the last forty years in the whole process of making Scotch – it’s been wonderful to witness. Part of that has been a push towards making Scotch production more sustainable, and we continue to make great strides in that regard.

Nestled in amongst whisky’s steady evolution, though, one thing remains resolutely the same for Emma and her team. “We want to make great whisky – that is what gets us up in the morning.”

Lora Hemy, Head Distiller, Roe and Co.

It was her experience at art school, exploring the sensory world and the links between whiskey making, olfactory arts and cross-disciplinary science, that really piqued Lora Hemy’s interest in whisky.  In 2013, she decided to turn her passion into a career when she quit her job and embarked on a distillery trip across Australia and Asia.

After returning home to the UK, she achieved a Masters degree in Brewing and Distilling and today, Lora is Head Distiller at Dublin’s Roe and Co.  Since joining the whisky industry, Lora has noticed a gradual, positive change – including an increasing shift towards diversity and inclusion. “It’s great to see neurodiversity, human behaviours and capabilities being included in the conversation, and I hope that we can turn this into meaningful action that will help the industry more accurately reflect the communities it serves”, she says.

“I had the opportunity to work on some larger scale gin and whiskey projects working again with builds, but also with NPD, quality and operational management which gave me a diverse range of experiences – all of which have been very useful in my current role”, says Lora. As Head Distiller, she experiences a lot of variety in her day-to-day work. “My current days are all very different, depending on what is going on in the plant and the time of year. I might be root causing a particular process issue, organising site contractors, training teams from operations or brand, hosting visitors, planning for production and maintenance, carrying out the many administrative elements of running a distillery, or working on innovation projects”, she says.

Since joining the whisky industry, Lora has noticed a gradual, positive change – including an increasing shift towards diversity and inclusion. “It’s great to see neurodiversity, human behaviours and capabilities being included in the conversation, and I hope that we can turn this into meaningful action that will help the industry more accurately reflect the communities it serves”, she says.

A better representation and visibility of women across the industry and trade is what Lora thinks has driven the steady rise in more women engaging with whisky. Marketing and advertising has improved over the last few years to include a better gender balance, too.

So, what else can we do to ensure a more equal representation of the genders when it comes to whisky? For Lora, it’s also about ensuring communications are free from stereotypes and bias. “We also need to ensure that all of us in the industry continue to help create the types of opportunities that are open to everybody. Building genuine meritocracies is challenging – we need to ensure we are all constantly seeking to challenge our own internalised bias.”

Working in whisky is a career Lora loves – as much for the travel as for the social aspect. “It will take you on all sorts of adventures and introduce you to some really interesting people – this is absolutely the most fun element”, she says. There are many accessible ways to learn about whisky, too. According to Lora, the best way to start learning is “from a teacher that is passionate about their subject – there are plenty of those individuals running tastings and events that are a great first step.”

“There are plenty of fantastic qualifications that can be very useful if you have a professional interest in whiskey that you want to take forward”, Lora says. “But my own view is that authentic passion for whisky and being humble enough to want to continue to learn are much more valuable attributes than qualifications.

“We are all students in the whiskey industry and to be really good at what you do, you need to be open-minded enough to never stop learning.”