The Islay Whisky Academy is a feminist business and always has been. Founder Rachel MacNeill lay the foundations through her work on the Whisky For Girls (& Guys) blog before creating the Academy to teach people to think differently about all aspects of whisky. The role of women in whisky both professionally and otherwise, has always been a focal point.
The 8th of March is International Women’s Day, an occasion that aims to shine a light on the women’s rights movement and to bring attention to issues like gender equality, reproductive rights and violence and abuse against women.
For many years whisky was marketed as a drink for men but that image has thankfully now been rendered obsolete. Women in whisky are everywhere. They occupy varied roles across the whole spectrum of the industry, from tour guide to brand rep to still operator to master blender. Perhaps most importantly of all, more women than ever before are drinking whisky, meaning a more diverse, more vibrant and ultimately more interesting community has grown around the spirit.
The community that emerges from a love of whisky is of great importance to the Islay Whisky Academy. That’s why Rachel created the Kinship, a group of Academy alumni from all over the world that stay in touch via Facebook, Whatsapp and various get togethers, both virtual and in-person.
With that in mind, we thought we’d take the opportunity presented by International Women’s Day to celebrate some of the wonderful and varied women who form such a huge part of our Kinship. We asked them some questions and are delighted to present a selection of their answers below.
Name: Donna Andrews.
Where are you: I live in Mill Valley, California
What do you do: I’m a commercial real estate finance attorney at a law firm in San Francisco, California.
When did you get into whisky: I started drinking whisky in law school – initially Chivas Regal, until I was introduced to The Glenlivet; this would’ve been around 1978.
When did you take part in the Academy: I attended the Islay Whisky Academy in October 2021.
What’s next: I’m always planning my next trip to Scotland (and Islay).
Whiskies to watch in 2023: This is a tough question – I’m seeing a lot of press for Glasgow 1770’s Red Wine & Ruby Port Cask Finish expression (and I’m intrigued)! Now if Ardnahoe were to release any whisky . . . .
Favourite Dramming Song: I always think of whisky when I hear “John Barleycorn Must Die” (the Traffic version), but I would pick either “The Nearness of You” by Norah Jones or “Sunset Over Loch Indaal” by Colin Steele, all of which can be found on Spotify.
Name: Terri Lam. I am all labels (oenophilic, nerd, geek, aficionado) obsessed with whisky and whisky making.
Where are you: Living in the Pacific Northwest on the unceded traditional lands of the Coast Salish Nations, aka Vancouver, Canada.
What do you do: In relation to whisky and spirits: I am a Freelancing Whisky Brand Ambassador and Distiller. Also representing various local importers and distributors for wine, spirits and sake. A lover of bringing like-minded people together and co-founder of a local wine club of 700+ members.
When did you get into whisky: Drinking whisky has been the celebratory choice of spirit in my family for generations; my first love was Blended Whiskies and Grain Whiskies. I am of Asian descent and we were served sweet fermented rice (known as jiu niang) after dinner or at bedtime so technically I’ve been drinking since I was a baby.
When did you take part in the Academy: IWA April 2023 Alumni – postponed from Oct 2020.
What’s next: It’s no secret that I’d love to be distilling, but these plans are currently on hold while I look at passion projects and alternative opportunities to participate in this industry. So many ideas percolating… something will come and you’ll be the first to know!
Whiskies to watch in 2023: While there are certain drivers that everyone loves (ie. Sherry Casks), there are some things I think are making a come-back and one that separates the good from the great are Bourbon Casks – you can’t hide the quality of spirit in bourbon casks. So if you’re making great spirits and not cutting corners in selecting casks, I think this combination of indicators will lead to discovering outstanding whiskies in the long-term game. Having said that, marketing plays a big role in influencing consumers. Whoever is the better storyteller will likely be the Scotch on Fire in the coming months. But personally, I’m very curious about the new make spirit Dunphail Distillery will be working on in the coming months and putting to sleep.
Favourite Dramming Song: As an individual who has sensory sensitivities, I actually don’t listen to music when I’m drinking whisky. However, this question now inspires me to find music and see if it impacts my tasting notes. Time to create a new Spotify playlist!!
Where are you: Boston Massachusetts in the USA
What do you do: I’m a Social Worker
When did you get into whisky: Whisky has always been something my family appreciated, used for mourning and celebration. A trip to Scotland in 2016 sparked a new love to deep dive into the world of scotch and I’ve never looked back! I did a tasting during that trip that let me learn so much more about whisky and how much I was missing out on by not learning more about it.
When did you take part in the Academy: I did the Drams course last winter and loved learning about whisky in a new way.
What’s next: I’m planning a trip to Scotland this year and can’t wait to return with the new knowledge and kinship I’ve gained the past few years.
Whiskies to watch in 2023: I have no predictions – I’m always surprised by what distilleries can surprise me and what people love.
Favourite Dramming Song: John Lee Hooker’s One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.
Name: Kama Totherow
Where are you: St. Louis, Missouri, USA
What do you do: My day job is in FinTech, but I started a nonprofit called Black Rock Society to honour the legacy of Helen and Elizabeth Cumming. I love how they gave the world amazing whisky and also took care of their community. BRS does tastings and classes with all proceeds going to charity, and we prioritize helping women explore whisky. www.blackrocksociety.org
When did you start the business: My business is nearly 4 years old, but we were quiet during Covid.
When did you take part in the Academy: I was in the Oct 22 cohort with the best mates ever!
What’s next: Right now we do a lot of home-based events, and I would love to expand on that with corporate events and cohosting with groups who need a nonprofit partner. Long term, I would love to see Black Rock Society chapters all over.
Whiskies to watch in 2023: The Glenrothes Maker’s Cut is hitting big with bourbon lovers!
Favourite Dramming Song: Trios Navaires De BL by Great Big Sea
Name: Cerys Knighton
Where are you: Cardiff, Wales
What do you do: I work part-time for the community arts charity Tanio, and I spend the rest of my time as an artist doing workshops, developing my own artwork for exhibitions, and taking on commissions for everything from portraits to book cover designs. I mostly work with ink pointillism (thousands of individual dots to create an image), oil painting, pencil, and I create scultures using driftwood, dried flowers, and clay.
When did you get into whisky: I started drinking whisky as a teenager, siphoning what I could from what my dad had in the cupboard. I truly fell in love with whisky from a dram of Ardbeg 10 – that got me really interested in trying different whisky, finding out how whisky was made, and wanting to visit distilleries to learn about scotch in context.
When did you take part in the Academy: I went on the Islay Whisky Academy Residential Diploma in October 2021 – it was the most incredible experience.
What’s next: I’m really looking forward to vol. 2 The Alchemy of Distilling as I really want to keep learning. I’d love to gain experience in whisky production. One of my ambitions would also be to do a whisky bottle design – the dream would be an experience where I could taste the whisky through its different stages and create a design in context. While I think design is far from being the most important thing, I do think when it works well with the whisky it can add to the experience. I also know that drinking whisky makes me feel inspired to get cracking on creating something, so it’s just something I’d love to do. An example of an amazing design for me is the Isle of Raasay Distillery’s bottle design which is based on the geology of Raasay.
Whiskies to watch in 2023: Isle of Raasay Distillery, Glasgow Distillery and I’m always excited to see what’s coming from Ardbeg, Kilchoman, and Tobermory’s Ledaig bottlings!
Favourite Dramming Song: Colli Golwg – Adwaith
Name: Ren Wheeler
Where are you: Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
What do you do: I’ve worked in all things food and beverage for over ten years and now I’m opening my own tea and espresso bar! We’ll have some cheeky whisky nights too!
When did you get into whisky: I had my first dram when I was working on a farm in my early twenties. I was very nervous because everyone told me that straight spirits were really hard to drink and not a lot of people like it. I took one sip and said out loud, “Oh no!” I enjoyed it immediately!
When did you take part in the Academy: I took the Courting the Dram course when it came out during the pandemic and attended the Diploma course in October 2022.
What’s next: Currently working on opening the cafe, but the big ambition is the tea and whisky bar. That one will be a couple of years out.
Whiskies to watch in 2023: I wouldn’t say I’m in the know enough yet to speak to what will be trending. Still just trying to get folks on this side of the pond to drink something other than the big brands they know.
Favourite Dramming Song: I’ve listened to Dark Reel by Rura roughly one thousand times since Neill played it for us during the music tasting.
Name: I’m Rachel MacNeill
Where are you: I am based on the Isle of Islay in Bonnie Scotland. The homeland of quality peated Scotch whisky.
What do you do: Founder of IWA, and Whisky for Girls – the first ever blog to focus on women and whisky ~ away back in the mists of time.
When did you get into whisky: Started drinking whisky when I was 15 and my dear friend Lamont gave me a dram out of a private cask at Bruichladdich. That was when I realised what it was all about.
When did you create WHISKY AFFINITY (C) online course: I wrote Courting the Dram – Vol 1 of the WHISKY AFFINITY (C) online course – during the lockdown years… when we had peace and quiet!
What’s next: To complete Alchemy of Distilling – Vol 2 of WHISKY AFFINITY(C) – and present more tutorials and lectures on Scotch, either online or in person.
Whiskies to watch in 2023: Most of the land-aware independent Scotch whisky distilleries. The world can’t get enough of small-scale boutique drams. Certain indie bottlers are putting out good drams. It’s a hard thing to do, to differentiate oneself when all the casks for sale are from a limited number of distilleries – but well-done finishings are a good thing. Old drams are expensive so the mainstream world is drinking younger whisky. I do not agree with “premiumisation” – I think everyone should have access to good whisky, not just people with money and wealth.
Favourite Dramming Song: I like many of Robin Laing’s whisky songs – and in fact he includes/references Whisky for Girls in one of his songs! My song list is as long as my whisky list… too long to go into here!
The Islay Whisky Academy would like to thank all the wonderful women that gave up their time to answer our questions. Each and every one of them is an inspiration.
You can listen to the IWA Women’s Dramming Songs Playlist on Spotify.