If you thought that women and whisky are worlds apart – think again. The fairer sex is warming to the world of whisky, enjoying the flavour of the liquid amber in increasing numbers – some so much that they are choosing careers in an industry that was previously the preserve of men alone.
Gillian Macdonald is one of those women. And she’s not only distilling award winning whisky, she’s doing it at Penderyn, the only distillery in the verdant landscape of Wales.
After completing a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, Macdonald gravitated to the whisky industry. Macdonald joined the Penderyn team in 2004, after taking a gap year when she had completed her studies. Mentored by Head Distiller Dr Jim Swan, Macdonald has taken the lead in distinguishing Welsh whiskies from their Scottish cousins.
“At Penderyn, we use a single pot still with two tall columns, rather than the two pot device with no columns that is most common in Scotland,” she says. “This gives Penderyn whisky a smoother, more delicate and lighter style, even though the still produces the highest strength malt spirit in the industry at 92% alcohol. This means that we don’t have to leave the whisky in the cask for as long as Irish and Scotch whiskies.”
Penderyn whisky is smooth with a sweet note, which Macdonald believes appeals to female drinkers, added to the fact that if women know that a whisky has been made by a female distiller, they are more likely to try it.
”I have seen the levels of women’s interest in whisky increase significantly over the last few years, and it’s great to be a part of changing consumers’ perceptions that it is a drink that is only for older men sitting sipping spirits in gentlemen’s clubs.
“Whisky is for everyone, young and old, and it is gaining popularity across age and demographic groups. With so many different expressions, ages, types of whisky and whisky cocktails becoming popular, there are more ways that the spirit is appealing to a wider audience – and this includes women,” she says.
Local women are playing a role in the whisky industry too – Karen Chaloner, co-founder and organiser of the annual FNB Whisky Live Festival, the largest whisky festival in the world, is globally recognised for her contributions to the industry, which she joined in 1993 and became the South African marketing manager for Johnnie Walker and J&B whiskies.
She went on to co-found The College of Whisky, and became one of the first women in South Africa to be appointed as a Keeper of the Quaich – an invitation-only appointment to a exclusive whisky society that honours those who make outstanding contributions to the international success of Scotch whisky.
Chaloner is not only passionate about spreading the word about whisky – it is also her favourite drink when she’s off duty.
“I have a number of different favourites that I love – each for different occasions, and it depends on what ‘flavour’ I’m in the mood for. A hot Stellenbosch afternoon suggests a shot of whisky in a long glass mixed with ginger ale, while a more smoky or peaty whisky in a tumbler with a spot of water would be perfect for a winter evening in front of a fireplace,” she says.
Chaloner’s partner (co-founder of the FNB Whisky Live Festival) and fellow Keeper of the Quaich Sian Neubert, agrees: “Whisky is a very versatile drink. It can be enjoyed with different mixers, as an ingredient in some fine cocktails, and there are enough different flavours to enjoy neat in all sorts of different situations.”
“It also complements fine dining very well, particularly with game meats, cheeses, seafood and chocolate.”
Both Chaloner and Neubert agree that South Africa holds its own among the other whisky distilling countries of the world, that include Japan, Canada and Australia.
“Locally produced Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky and the range of Three Ships whiskies are recognised globally, with the Three Ships Bourbon Cask Finish having been awarded a gold medal in the category award for the Best Rest of the World Blended Whisky at Whisky Magazine’s 2011 World Whisky Awards,” says Chaloner.
“Draymans Highveld Single Malt Whisky is also the first single malt produced and matured entirely on the Highveld.”
These modern women are using their tenacity, experience and business sense to play leading roles in the world of whisky. However, it’s worth noting that the first known female distiller was Helen Cumming of the Cardhu distillery in Speyside, which is now owned by Johnnie Walker, a whisky company responsible for some of the finest blended whiskies in the world.
Cumming was blessed with the ability to think on her feet, and was smart enough to regularly outsmart the Excise men who would raid the then illicit private stills, in the early 1800s.
In one tale, Cumming heard of their imminent arrival, and quickly hid her still, replacing it with bread baking equipment. Before she opened the door to the officials, she dusted her arms with flour, and then explained that she had been baking. The ploy worked and as the officers drank tea, assuming that the distilling smells were from her baking, she warned other distillers in the area by raising a red flag from her barn. Her daughter-in-law continued the family tradition, establishing Cardhu as one of Scotland’s finest malt whiskies, and an important element in Johnnie Walker blends.
Black Bottle also boasts a proud and fascinating heritage, with its origins in late 19th century Aberdeen where the tea merchant Gordon Graham’s ability to blend tea soon moved to the blending of whiskies. This particular blend, which he marketed in opaque black bottles, in time, became the whisky of choice of the locals of Aberdeen.
The brand’s history also abounds with other fascinating characters such as the impressive matriarch Anne Jane Graham, known as Granny Graham. Known for her strong will, she even changed her nephew’s surname to Graham to ensure that the family name would continue its association with Black Bottle.
“Women and whisky are not strangers to one another, and this fantastic industry is so much the better because of their contribution,” concludes Chaloner.
“Girl power” at the 2011 at the FNB Whisky Life Festival
Meet some of the whisky industry’s most acclaimed women movers and shakers at the FNB Whisky Live Festival, which takes place at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, from 2 – 4 November (18h00 to 22h00 daily) and at the Sandton Convention Centre, from 9 – 11 November (18h00 – 22h00 daily).
This year, the festival will host a number of international and local women distillers, and ambassadors, all of whom have made their mark on the industry. These include:
- Gillian Macdonald, distiller from Penderyn (Wales’s only whisky distillery), will be conducting tastings of Penderyn’s flagship Madeira Finish and will help visitors learn what differentiates Welsh whisky from Scotch and Irish whiskey.
- Karen Fullerton, global brand ambassador at The Glenmorangie Company, will co-host at the Glenmorangie stand, where Pride 1981 – Glenmorangie’s most luxurious expression to date – will be unveiled. Pride 1981, named after the year of its birth, is an extremely rare limited edition, with only 1,000 bottles available worldwide. Visitors to the festival will be
able to view and purchase this masterpiece, as well as learn more about the complex and intriguing world of single malt Scotch whisky.
- Candice Baker, brand ambassador for The Edrington Group Whisky Portfolio, will be your host at the Macallan Aroma Zone. She will present The Macallan Aroma Box – a collection of 12 highly articulate scents, which international perfumier Roja Dove has created to describe the classic aromas, and scents of The Macallan Range. You will also learn to identify and describe these key aromas, as well as how wood affects the colour, flavour and fragrances of The Macallan’s different expressions.
- International food whisky guru Martine Nouet will be co-hosting hands-on whisky canapé cocktail parties with Pick n Pay chefs in the Pick n Pay Canapé and Whisky Pairing Zone, showing you how to make three canapés using fresh ingredients, and pairing them with whiskies for the ultimate cocktail party for you to re-create at home.
- Angie Morrison, the first ever female whisky sommelier at famous Cape Town whisky establishment – the Bascule Bar – will be your host at the World Whiskies Award stand, where you will be able to sample some of the world’s finest whiskies.
Ladies night out
The FNB Whisky Live Festival organisers have also made a concerted effort to cater to the ladies.
Shop ‘’til you drop at the various premium lifestyle stands including luxury jewellery brand, Tag Heuer, take a turn through the Tasting Hall to sample some of the 180 whiskies and whisky liqueurs on offer or join one of the many interactive and fun workshops. These include the Schweppes Art of Cocktail Making Zone where you can whip up a variety of delectable whisky cocktails, or the Compass Box Art of Blending Zone, where you can blend and name your own unique whisky.
Alternately, enjoy a premium ladies night out, by booking your seats on the highly sought after Volvo Connoisseur’s Experience, ‘The Ultimate Guided Whisky Tour’. This tour sells out within hours of tickets opening each year, and offers festival goers the opportunity to be chauffeur-driven to the festival in a luxurious Volvo where you will then join a guided tour to savour rare whiskies not available in South Africa.
There will also be deli-style food available to complete your “great night out” experience.
A variety of ticket options will be available for purchase via the website – www.whiskylivefestival.co.za – from mid-September 2011. The organisers suggest you book early to avoid disappointment.
For more information please visit the website or e-mail email@example.com
The FNB Whisky Live Festival promotes responsible drinking. No persons under the age of 18 years old will be allowed into the Tasting Hall. Designated driver tickets are available with discounted food vouchers and a bottle of Valpré mineral water included in the ticket price. Various chauffeur drive services and drive responsibly initiatives will be on hand to ensure that everyone in your party is able to have a good time and a safe journey home. Part of the ticket proceeds will continue to be donated to The Foundation for Alcohol Related Research.