Creator of SIA Whisky, designer, challenging traditional financing methods and fun!
Hi Carin, it’s lovely to speak with you, tell me a little about yourself?
So have you always been a fan of whisky?
I was first introduced to the wonders of Scotch whisky about 15 years ago when I was living in New York. A friend invited me to have a Scotch after I had challenged him by saying I don’t drink Scotch, that I tried one once and I didn’t like it. He asked me a bunch of questions about flavours, types of spirits I liked and why and then took me on a whisky adventure.
I tried 4 single malts that night, and was instantly hooked at the varieties and complexities by region, and I came to respect the tradition and heritage of this amazing spirit through visits to Scotland, distillery tours, and basically reading every whisky book and magazine I could get my hands on..
Do you remember your first whisky?
Absolutely, it was a fantastic Oban 14.
Aside from SIA, what is your favourite whisky?
The Oban 14. Hands down. It was my first love, and you always remember you first love, right?
What’s your working background?
I studied Visual Communications and Graphic Design almost 20 years ago. I’ve witnessed that industry change drastically and have loved being along for the ride from the print world into the digital age. I had the pleasure of working at very high levels for very large companies like ABC News and Reuters in New York City, down to helping very small companies build their logos, websites, software and mobile applications.
I’m happy to have “gotten off the train” when I did. It was no longer fun to sit at a desk for 8 hours a day, staring at a computer screen so that thousands of other people could appreciate my work by staring down into their tiny little computer screens. What I love -really love- about whisky is that sharing a whisky with something means you are connecting people and enjoying in “real life”, you get to sit down, share a moment or a celebration with someone and just slow down.
Why did you decide to make your own blend, without any prior blending knowledge or history?
Like most things, when you find something you love, the very next thing you want to do is to immediately share it with everyone you know. When I tried to share Scotch Whisky with friends, they all had the same reaction I did when I first started- “Scotch- that’s my grandfather’s drink”, “Oh no- it’s too strong”, “It burns my nostrils and tastes like gasoline”, “It’s for old men, and too expensive.”
So I set out to change these perceptions. At first, by trying various existing brands out on people at tasting events that I hosted or participated in, where novice Scotch drinkers were involved. Prior to that, I had hosted many Scotch tasting events, but came to find, when I billed them as “Scotch tasting events”, only people who already loved Scotch were attending, and I was after a different audience, one to introduce whisky to, and to learn their tastes and stereotypes and try to shatter them.
Where did you make this blend?
SIA is blended, matured and bottled in Scotland by Douglas Laing and Co. Ltd (Glasgow). As you know, in order to be called a “Scotch Whisky” various rules and regulations need to be adhered to. We’re big fans of Douglas Laing here in the Corner.
Did you have any help in creating this blend?
Absolutely, since I was new to the industry, I knew I needed to find help. I went through my various books and read up on independent bottlers. I also reached out to a large number of importers. Almost everyone turned me away. It was very discouraging. Here I was with so much passion and the will to create something new, and got endless doors slammed in my face.
At last, I met the person who would change it all for me, Lauren Shayne Mayer of Spirit Imports Inc. She and her sister Gabby and father Alan run the Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America, as well as the Whisky Extravaganza events (which I had attended in the past) and own many of their own brands as well.
They immediately “got” what I was doing and helped me through the process of sourcing, manufacturing, COLAs, importing and navigating the distribution process. I couldn’t have asked for better partners. SIA wouldn’t be the success it is today without them.
How long did it take you to perfect the blend? Was there a specific flavour profile you wanted to achieve?
The actual blend back and forth went fairly quickly, all in all, less than a few months. I had a VERY clear idea of what I wanted from the winning blend I experimented with in all of my tasting events, so really it became ‘which blend from which distiller, most closely matches my prototype?’
What made you believe that this could become a viable business?
The success of the kickstarter campaign is what really fuelled my drive in that it made me fully aware that I had created a product that people were ready to enjoy. They were ready to purchase bottles, ready to drink it at their local bars and restaurants. Today, when people send me photos of themselves with their bottle of SIA, or an email saying that they enjoyed it at their local bar, it really lights me up.
What did you want to achieve with SIA, and did that change along the journey?
My goal has remained constant, to create a new, and exciting blend of Scotch Whisky which is easy to drink and accessible for people who are new to Scotch Whisky, AND one that could become an experienced whisky enthusiast’s everyday whisky. SIA is priced right for an under $50 gift, a first (or repeat) purchase, and fits right for many mid-high end bar program cocktail menus. All around a home-run!
SIA is quite different in both design and product, did you set out to make this as individual as possible?
Yes, the intention was to make a very easy-to-drink Scotch Whisky, one that could be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or in a cocktail. By design, SIA meets this criteria and appeals to not only someone who is new to the world of Scotch Whisky, but also to someone who has been enjoying Scotch Whisky for a very long time.
The design is ultra-modern, is that to target a specific market? Or was it just how you envisaged it would look?
My background is 17 years as a Graphic Designer and Creative Director. Design is VERY important to me. Everything from the bottle shape and colour, label design and even the name itself, underwent a very deliberate design process. It was and continues to be my intention to have SIA stand apart from the crowd a bit.
Design is a simple way to do this, as most of the time, a customer’s experience of selection happens on the store or bar shelf and the decision is made before you even have a taste. I also talked to almost 100 bartenders and bar managers about the shape of a bottle. They all agreed, a great bottle design is one that doesn’t take up a lot of room on the shelf, is easy to grab by the middle and is easy to grab and pour from the neck.
SIA’s distinct shape meets these design needs. Also, I chose the glass for SIA to be clear (rather than traditional green or brown glass) showcases the beautiful honey amber colour of the spirit and it is quite beautiful when backlit at a bar. The height is a little taller than a typical bottle, so the high placement of the label reads clearly when on a tiered shelf.
The name “SIA” (see-ah) is easy to pronounce and because SIA is a short name, it allows the logo to be large printed on its label. I find it a challenge when you are sitting at a dark bar and can’t even read the labels a few feet away from you because they are printed so small with long, complicated names.
Tell us about SIA, it’s a Blended Whisky, which regions have you married together?
SIA is a blend of Speyside (50%), Highland (40%) and Islay (10%) malt and grain whiskies.
Why did you decide to blend grains and malts, rather than just malts (what used to be known as a vatted malt)?
Really it was all about flavour. It came to be that the blend I thought most closely matched my prototype was one that used both malt and grain whiskies. It also happened that the winning blend had a high malt content (about 40%) which makes SIA very smooth and easy to drink. Many blends use a lot more grain whiskies as they tend to be less expensive, and the drinkability suffers a bit.
SIA is non age statement, but what’s the youngest whisky in the blend?
The youngest whisky in SIA is five years old and the oldest is nine years old. I’m very much in appreciation that the new line of NAS Single Malts are helping to lead the charge to educate store buyers and consumers that older isn’t always necessarily better. It is a challenge I used to come against more often, and thankfully, it’s become less so.
How would you describe the flavour and nature of SIA to someone that has never tasted it?
SIA is remarkably smooth. The nose is delicate, citrus and spice. SIA opens the palate with smokey vanilla, notes of caramel, and a fruity spiciness from the sherry cask finish. There’s a hint of smoke, but it’s just on the warm finish.
What’s the reaction been to SIA so far?
SIA’s been very well-received. We’ve got a great sell-through rate (almost 50%) in all of our accounts in California and Illinois (our two markets in the US), I’m working on making that number stronger over the next few months.
How hard is it to start out in an industry of which you had no prior knowledge?
It has been and continues to be extremely challenging. But I love it. I do have to say, the hardest part wasn’t the transition from one industry to another, but more so the transition of working for myself. I have worked, uninterrupted since I was 16 years old.
That’s 21 years straight of working for someone else, with their priorities, direction, timelines and demands. I’d been developing my Whisky business all by myself while I was working my full-time design job, sneaking in Whisky work whenever I could-on lunch breaks, evenings and weekends for many years. Even taking on freelance design work to be able to fund it all.
The biggest struggle came when I finally quit my full-time job, just 4 months ago. Time management and priority juggling were new challenges to me. It was now completely up to me to decide what my most important “to-do’s” are for the day. And thankfully, that’s now usually refreshingly obvious.
Have you found breaking into the industry is harder as a woman?
Honestly, it’s all been so new to me, so I can’t say any challenges have to do with gender, but more of my being new to the industry. My importer partner is a team of sisters, my distiller is a father and daughter team (Fred and Cara Laing), and my mentors have all been women with their own brands, so if anything I’ve only seen strong females leading the charge.
I can say that on the sales front, liquor store owners are predominantly male, and bar managers skew more male than female, but again, this hasn’t really made a difference. There is something curious that happens at big conferences and spirit showcase events, from time-to-time I do get someone thinking I’m an employee or hired for the event to pour, some older men in particular have a hard time believing that I’m the owner. With younger people they think that this is really amazing, a delicious product, they love the crowdfunding angle, and are eager to purchase bottles and learn about which bars and restaurants carry SIA.
You part funded this through Kickstarter, I know this is a crowd-sourcing platform that usually funds projects such as films etc. Why did you use this for SIA?
I had previously been funding everything to date (and continue to do) through bootstrapping with my personal savings, which makes things difficult at times and makes me have to make very careful, though-out decisions about how to scale and where to spend my hard-earned money.
I had contributed to Kickstarter projects well before the idea of funding a portion of the funds to create SIA via Kickstarter ever crossed my mind. I loved the idea that I could help to realise someone’s business or passion and get to participate somehow in making it come true.
The great thing about funding a project on Kickstarter is the updates. You get to see the creator’s process from the inside, their challenges, and their triumphs. I thought it would be great to share with my backers the entire process of creating a new brand of whisky which is why I ultimately chose to list my project on Kickstarter. I have a lot of friends who work in the Tech/Software Industry – who have noted how enjoyable it has been to watch the process of creating a product where actual manufacturing is involved, take shape.
Did you expect to get as much support through Kickstarter as you did?
I’m blessed to have a lot of loved ones in my life who have been very patient to hear me talk about my dream of creating a brand of whisky now for well over 10 years. I think they were all very excited when there was finally a clear way that they could help to make it a reality, AND they were impressed to see how far along I got it on my own. So I knew I’d have a good contribution there, and the great thing about Kickstarter is that once you reach a certain threshold, your project begins to show up higher in the results, so then suddenly strangers started to get in on the fun, too!
Why do people donate, do they receive anything in return, or is just the excitement of being a part of it?
The tricky thing about Kickstarter is that there is a list of “prohibited items” – items that are illegal or heavily regulated (baby products, exercise equipment, tobacco and gambling to name a few) are prohibited on their site.
Alcohol is prohibited as a reward for obvious reasons (underage/minors, shipping across state lines where alcohol shipments are not permitted, etc.). So I had to get creative with my rewards. In exchange for backer’s contributions, they received shirts, flasks, tickets to my SIA launch parties in New York and San Francisco, event rental space, even the grand award of “your name” Edition on 1,000 bottles of SIA, which someone claimed.
Douglas Laing blend and bottle this for you, we are great fans of Douglas Laing, how did this partnership come to be?
I’m a big fan of Douglas Laing too. Family-owned and operated for three generations and truly experts at their craft. I really like their products Big Peat and Double Barrel, so I was delighted to hear that they would be our partners on the blend. The introduction came from my importer who had worked with them on other projects in the past.
This must have been a long hard journey, what’s your proudest whisky moment to date?
My proudest moment …can I pick two? The first would be the reaction to the SIA Kickstarter campaign a few years ago when it launched. No one had ever crowd-funded a Scotch Whisky before so I knew I was taking a big gamble. The amount raised and interest from people all over the world asking ‘where they could buy a bottle of SIA?’ was incredible.
The second proudest moment would have to be this past March, when Douglas Laing’s SIA blend received a Double Gold Medal in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. It’s a very prestigious and exclusive award, and to win their highest Medal placement my first year in business felt amazing. I’m very proud, and grateful to my partners (importers, distributors, distillers and retail and bar/restaurant accounts) for all the success SIA has achieved in such a short amount of time.
Did you ever feel like giving up? What kept you moving forward and believing?
Wow. Yes, definitely. Building a brand is a very long, complicated, challenging and expensive process. What kept me going and continues to do so, is this certain philosophy that’s served me well in my life, and I pass it along to anyone who is starting a new business. There will be challenges. That’s a fact. It’s how you perceive these challenges. I choose to view them instead as “checkpoints” in my journey- a moment in time for me to look in to myself and decide if I really want this. How badly do I want this? And when I say to myself “Yes, I do want this, definitely”, I use it as fuel to further my intention towards my goal. You have to find what works for you.
Do you have any advice to others, who may be inspired by you to try and produce their own blend?
If you are new to the industry, partner with someone who can help you navigate the waters. It will make all the difference in saving you time, money and frustration. As for blending, start small. I began experimenting in my own kitchen taking two single-malts I liked and mixing them in different proportions (50/50, 25/75, 75/25) and tasting them on friends and strangers.
Then when you have a few you like, try using 10% of another, complimentary whisky. It doesn’t need to be overly complex. It’s a curious thing, people sometimes look at me strange when I say that this is how I got started, but it doesn’t need to be any different than experimenting with ingredients when making a cocktail, or cooking something in your kitchen. Just have fun with it.
So what next for SIA?
My main focus right now is the approaching holiday season and making sure stores are properly stocked with SIA. Because it ships to almost all states, and is at an affordable $49.99 price point, SIA makes for an excellent corporate gift or gift for yourself, your boss, your friends or your family. Also, as holiday parties are approaching, working with certain bars that carry SIA on their holiday cocktail lists and private party menus. Next year, I’d like to expand to other metro markets in the states, and finally bring SIA to the UK and abroad.
I think the versatility of SIA works well in its favour, and I would imagine this is a mixologists dream, do you have a SIA cocktail recipe you can share with us?
Thank you so much, that was the intention. SIA’s flavour notes compliment a variety of spirits and cocktail ingredients. SIA is extremely cocktail-friendly and blendable and I find cocktails are a great way to introduce people to Scotch Whisky. On my website, I created a drinks page and included recipes that are relatively easy to make at home, meaning you don’t need to find a very obscure ingredient or spend a lot of time creating a new type of syrup or tincture. There are a variety of types of drinks as well, fitting for various seasons, occasions or ingredients.
Thanks Carin, this has been a really interesting interview for me and you have such a unique story to tell. I really look forward to keeping a close eye on SIA and watching you go from strength to strength, and when you’re next over here in Scotland meeting up for a dram!
Thanks for having me- I appreciate your questions and hope your readers enjoy my story. I’d definitely love to meet up for a dram (or three). Here’s a link for purchasing, – your readers are welcome to post or message me via Twitter or Facebook with their images and thoughts about SIA!
Carin is definitely a Whisky Corner kind of girl and is very interested in feedback, so give SIA a try and get in touch with Carin, there’s nothing better than a really approachable, enthusiastic owner, who welcomes feedback.
To see my thoughts on SIA, read my tasting notes here.
Kirsty Clarke (@kirstyclarke29)