The Whisky Belle talks Spirit of Speyside Festival, “that” Whisky Job, Why women friendly does not mean women only, and, of course, Whisky!
Hi Annabel, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, it’s a real honour and I am glad to have finally had the chance to pin you down. I’m catching you at a really busy time at the moment (although I am not sure you ever have a time where you’re not busy)?
Before we go any further, massive congratulations on your new post as Scotland’s Regional Editor for “Whisky Magazine”, we are so pleased for you, how do you feel about this new appointment?
Thank you Kirsty – it is a really exciting role for me especially as I have worked with all of the editors of Whisky Magazine over the years. I have been a subscriber since I entered the whisky industry so it is wonderful to be a part of the team. My role will be covering events here in Scotland and reporting back to basecamp in Norwich.
What challenges do you foresee this new role may bring?
Already I’ve found that you have to make space in your diary which can be at short notice but it’s not such a hardship when I have to taste newly released whiskies! So far I have only experienced positive feedback. I’m not a great fan of confrontation but I will always express an opinion. If I am reviewing a whisky which I think is poor I will reflect that in my notes. I have reviewed and scored enough whisky to be able to distinguish between poor spirit, and one that I don’t like.
Have you always planned ahead in your career, or have you just taken business opportunities as they have presented themselves?
That’s an interesting question. I am very organised and I like planning ahead (note I still use a Filofax – child of the 80’s!). When I was establishing The Whisky Belle (@thewhiskybelle) (I gave it plenty of time to evolve organically. The original idea was quite different from what I am working on now and I’m grateful and happy that I gave it the chance to grow organically. I am a huge believer of creating opportunities and see potential in many projects.
Do you come from a whisky loving family? Tell us a little about your background?
I have whisky connections on both sides of my family. On my father’s side, my great grandfather emigrated from Scotland when he was only three and grew up on a farm in Natal with his two brothers. When they grew up they ran ox driven wagons up to where early settlers were living in Mashonaland (now Zimbabwe). Three of the five wagons was loaded with whisky and the first Meikles store was built from the whisky cases. My mother’s father was a Glenmorangie drinker and this was the only whisky he had in the house. When my mother introduced my father into the family, this was his first taste of whisky! My mother was immensely proud when I started work as the Global ambassador for Glenmorangie, needless to say. (You can read more about Annabel’s whisky family in the next edition of Whisky Magazine)
You’ve had a varied career, (including running a pottery business and working as a buyer of cheese!) where did it all begin for you?
Yes – I trained at Art College and then set up a pottery business. It was a really happy and creative part of my life. Having the confidence to set up my own business again was due to this. However, I became a factory and was having to effectively churn work out so I decided to wrap the business up before I became a factory. My default is food and I love the hospitality industry so then I worked in the deli selling cheese. It was a lots of fun and it eventually led me to doors of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
You obviously have an exceptional talent for business success but why did you decide to go into the whisky industry specifically?
Well – that’s very kind Kirsty but it’s early days! I’m very motivated and inject a lot of energy and passion into whatever I do. I knew that I had twelve good years of experience behind me. Originally I entered the industry by chance, but people were so welcoming and willing to teach and share their knowledge. Those same people were there to encourage and support me when I decided the set up the consultancy.
You are still very involved with the SMWS (@SMWSUK) will this lessen somewhat with the Editor role and your own consultancy work too?
I’m delighted to still work as an ambassador for the Society which is a role I have loved since 2001. They have access to some incredible whiskies and I never cease to be excited when a new list comes out. I am also lucky to be a part of the selection process of the panel. It is fascinating to be able to see what is coming through the system. During Whisky Month in May I’ll be working on their stands at various events and tastings.
You have worked very hard to get where you are today, are you a good example that with enough hard work and knowledge it is still possible to make a name for yourself in the whisky field, without being an “expert” at the start, so to speak?
I’m a great believer in learning from the base and in my case it was working on the bar at the Society. This allowed me to learn about whisky in a specialised environment, without having to be led with brand messages. I can’t think of a better place to start. I don’t have a science background and sometimes used to feel a wee bit intimidated by this. I clearly remember a trip to Milan in the Glenmorangie ambassador role with the director for Europe. I had a vicious throat infection and was terrified I would start coughing during the presentation! Thankfully I made it but it was Jim (Cook) that explained that my strength was in being able to relate the whisky to my audience on a level that made it a memorable experience.
You always seem to be on the go, what’s a typical week like for you?
Hectic! I absolutely love variety and this role allows me to balance the peaceful writing at home with tastings and travels. Yesterday I was filming with a buffalo farmer and a butcher, then had meetings. Today I’m working from home and then training the team at Heritage Portfolio and finally to a launch with The List. Later in the week I’m doing a tasting and working on development ideas with the Isle of Harris Distillery. I start early and usually finish late. It sounds glamorous but often I write in my pyjamas until lunchtime!
Have you found it more difficult to work within the industry as a woman?
I have never found issues, only positives. It isn’t something I focus on and actually feel it works to my advantage. Growing up with an older brother and sister knocked a few corners off and I don’t take myself too seriously. I do have a nickname though which is Bob which is a long story.
What changes have you seen within the industry over your 12 years (and counting)?
It seems a much bigger playing field but perhaps my boundaries have grown. When I started I was only really focused on single malt whisky and Scotland. Now I have a broader view thanks to really interesting growth and popularity on blends, grain whiskies made all over the world. Whisky is truly global and the consumer’s knowledge is vastly improved.
What do you think is next for the industry in general?
The recent figures from the SWA show the market is still very buoyant. I believe that the companies have been working for a long time to introduce younger drinkers into the market and I think this will drive growth. Hopefully we are moving further away from the shackles of old perceptions of how/when/why you should drink your whisky. My good friend, Dave Broom is talking about drinking your whisky with soda and green tea if you want to. I always tell an audience that once the whisky is in their glass it is their whisky – to drink how they like.
The whisky industry has always been a bit boom and bust, and with rumours of several distilleries running out of, or being low on stock, and the industry enjoying a very large boom at the moment, how sustainable do you think this boom is?
I think it is sustainable as the global interest in whisky is massive. The big distillers will be very focused on emerging markets, while keeping the established one interested with new expressions. I think the most important objective is to maintain the quality of what is produced, and in a sustainable way.
Do you think, based on our previous question, that the industry will see far more NAS whisky? What effect do you think this has on the whisky industry?
I think we will and based on my last answer – as long as the quality is good I don’t have a problem with NAS. I think it has driven distillers to look at methods of production and maturation that they might not have considered.
Do you think people will look more to international whisky now, is this a good thing?
Absolutely! I was thrilled to see the likes of Sullivans Cove and Balcones doing so well in the recent WWA. I am on the judging panel for these awards and the process is blind. I don’t see it as a competition between Scotland and the rest of the world. It’s exciting to see whiskies that are made with love and care doing well.
You are very involved in the International Women of Whisky Day at the Spirit of Speyside Festival (view the Festival Website here). Tell us about this event, I believe you were pretty instrumental in helping create this day?
I was lucky to be a part of this from the start. I just can’t believe how quickly it is coming around as it seems an age ago I was up in Aberlour discussing the initial idea with Ann Miller. We wanted to recognise that there were interesting women with their own story to tell.
How important was it to you and the Festival itself that there be a day of events to showcase the talents of whisky women in particular?
It is a great opportunity for all of us to be able to come together to share a platform and create a day of tastings that focus on our individual personalities. I’m really pleased that we have our own styles and reasons for being there and I hope that our audiences will enjoy the relaxed atmosphere. I feel very privileged to have had the chance to come together with Alwynne Gwilt (@themisswhisky), Johanne McInnis (@whiskylassie) and Angela D’Orazio (@AngelasShare). The Aberlour Hotel has been great to work with as a partner. I haven’t been at the festival for eight years so I am relishing the chance to meet up with friends.
Has there been any negative reaction regarding these events, for being too focused on women?
We have been quite careful to make it part of the focus but never in an exclusive way. We really just want our audiences to enjoy the tastings. I don’t think any of us place too much of the fact that we are special because we are women. I have to say – it’s been a lot of fun to organise and we haven’t even all been in the same room yet!
Just how difficult was it to bring such renowned experts, from all over the world, together for this day of events?
It was easy and happened very quickly, as with all good ideas. If anything we had too many ideas at first and decided to reign them in for the first year. I think it will be bigger next year somehow!
You are holding two events during the Festival; the Whisky Mountain walk and Test of the Senses. Can you tell us about these events, and why you chose these events specifically?
In my spare time I like to climb up mountains, a few years ago I climbed Kilimanjaro with a group from HIT Scotland and we raised £120,000 that provided 200 scholarships. This May we are tackling Mount Paradiso in Italy – blatant plug – http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/HItalianJob (This is news to us, dig deep people and give what you can to this very worthy cause)!
So when Dave Broom (@davebroomwhisky) couldn’t do the walk he suggested me as this was appropriate training! I’m really looking forward to it as apparently the view is amazing. (You can book tickets to this event here).
My tasting is part of the “Sensipedia tastings” and the focus is on analysing how we nose and taste whisky and then describe the individual experience. Two of the whiskies are nosed blind and I am asking the audience to ‘build’ a visual tasting note and write their own. It includes a sensory warm up too so it is lots of fun. I have a special cask sample at the end….(You can book tickets to this event here).
You offer (via your own website www.thewhiskybelle.com) a whisky and perfume event. I am completely intrigued by this, could you tell me a little more about it?
Years ago I found a book by Luca Turin about the history of perfume and it struck me how many similarities there were between whisky and perfume and the way we are fascinated by aroma. I started to delve a little deeper with the aroma psychologist, George Dodd, after attending his perfume making course. When I joined the whisky creation team at Glenmorangie I worked on the amazing kaleidoscope that we used to deliver tastings. I used visual prompts in conjunction with little aroma bottles and it was wonderful to see how audiences ‘got’ the aromas when they were singled out.
The perfume tasting is based on this but I work it around the audience and what they want specifically. I don’t work from a script as anyone who has been to one of my tastings will know! I recently met Kim Lahiri from the team behind the Aroma Academy and I have some special ideas for bespoke aromas so watch this space!
When you aren’t working (if that ever happens), how do you relax?
Oh – I have quite a lazy streak and love to zone out with a good book. I’ve been known to start and finish one in day. I live by the sea and have a lovely, if slightly scruffy, garden but when I’m working in it I am completely absorbed. My perfect day is burrowing away in the garden and then relaxing and admiring the hard work. My favourite holiday is pottering around with a tent somewhere in Scotland and invariably dropping into a distillery or two. Does that make it work? (when the work and passion are so intertwined it’s hard to say).
Annabel it was a genuine pleasure to interview you, genuinely one of nicest, hardest working people, I’ve had the pleasure to meet. I can’t wait till the next catch up.
Kirsty Clarke (@KirstyClarke29)