Journalist, Taster, Judge, Risk Taker and Free Spirit
Miss Whisky (@themisswhisky) was created by London-based journalist and Canadian expat Alwynne Gwilt in 2011 out of a desire to widen her knowledge of whisky and to help increase the number of females writing about this fine spirit.
Having fallen in love with whisky during a tasting at Milroy’s whisky shop in Soho in 2008, Alwynne continued on her quest to discover and learn about the ‘water of life’, buying a bottle for herself every birthday and Christmas. A change of job direction in 2011 saw her pondering her next career move and during a four-month bout of traveling she decided to return to England and delve into the world of whisky.
The site launched in November 2011 after much research of the industry and she hasn’t looked back since.
Hi Alwynne, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, it’s both a pleasure and an honour to interview you, so here goes….
You are from Canada originally, what brought you to London?
I came over in 2007, because my dad is English and as such he holds a British passport, as do I, so I wanted to take advantage of the fact I could travel easily without the need for lengthy paperwork. At the time I was working for Canada’s National paper, I wanted to travel but I wanted the opportunity to stay with the paper also, once I made the decision to move and the paper agreed to employ me on a freelance basis, I moved within three weeks.
I had planned to stay in London for only a year and I left all my belongings with a friend’s mother, with a promise not to be away for too long. Unfortunately, once I moved to London, I learnt that the exchange rate was so poor, and London was so much more expensive to live in than I had anticipated. I had spent all my savings in just a couple of months and could no longer afford to work freelance, and so I went into financial journalism for an media company. I attended the interview with little hope of actually being employed, but I enjoyed the interview so much and we had such a laugh that they offered me the job and I was happy to accept. We have such a great relationship that I still carry out some work for them now and again.
What was it like growing up in Canada?
I grew up in a town of between 65 – 80 people (at this point I’m staggered and ask really? So many times, Alwynne must want to throttle me). Alwynne then recommends reading Rob Gard’s book “Distilling Rob: Manly Lies and Whisky Truths” (website http://www.distillingrob.com/ Twitter: @whiskyguyrob) as it really sets out what growing up in such a small town and then heading off to the “city” is like, (with some differences). I had travelled over to the UK by myself at 14 to meet family and have widely travelled, (as my father was English this gave me the impetus to travel).
Schooling in Canada was very different to the school system over here, the classes were very small (only 25-30, comprising of ages 5-8 in one class and 8+ in the other), this allowed me to push myself further and work without the “boundaries” that are imposed by having specific year classes.
There was no real night life growing up as we didn’t move into a city until I was 16, there was a local shop a couple of miles away, but that was all. I made the decision to go into Journalism, after being inspired during a school writing class. Instead of the creative writing we usually had the school changed this to a weeklong journalistic class. I wrote a piece on why the school let pupil’s smoke even though most of the students were too young to even buy cigarettes (they had a “smoking pit”, which included students as young as 14) and I interviewed the School Principle for this. I noticed that he was very much on edge during the interview and this gave me a buzz, then by lucky coincidence, when they article went to the local newspaper, they happened to be looking for a new “teenage journalist”, this was an amazing opportunity for me and set me on the journalistic path I also did a stint hosting late night radio. (Is there nothing this woman can’t do? When I posed that question, musing out loud, I was told that Alwynne can’t juggle, although she wishes she could).
Do you still have family out in Canada?
Most of my family still live over there, including my father, step mum, siblings and grandparents.
Do you get to back to Canada much?
I try to go back home every year.
Do you miss Canada?
Not really, I miss family more than I miss the specifics of which country I am in, my father loved travelling so the wanderlust is in the genes.
You work closely with “The Balvenie” (amongst others), how did that come about, and how instrumental do you think that has been in your career?
Timing, sometimes you just get lucky, whilst starting Miss Whisky I met Andrew Forester of Balvenie at the first Whisky Exchange Festival I went to, and in speaking to Andrew one day, I mentioned that I needed to decide if I was going to really push my love of whisky and make it into a career or go back into full time journalism.
Andrew asked if I would be interested in holding some tastings, which I did, then it just grew and grew. I was absolutely terrified, but I held my first tasting and loved it, teaching people about whisky gives me such a buzz, I love helping people learn more and seeing them enjoy themselves and becoming more confident in their own knowledge. Balvenie (@Balvenieuk) have been really supportive of my own business and all the other project I undertake and they have never tried to “handcuff” me to themselves. I’ve been drinking Balvenie whisky for so long and l loved their ethics as a company and really like the fact that they are still family run, I loved the distillery before I had anything to do with them workwise and so it’s been a genuine pleasure to be able to work with them.
I note from your website (misswhisky.com), you also work with a wine company “Humble Grape”, how did that happen, and what’s your role within that?
Humble Grape are a really cool quirky importer of rare, boutique wines, and they happen to supply wine for the pub I hold my own private tastings for, and the owner of the pub introduced me to them, they are really bespoke, and we collaborate together, I help with any whisky knowledge they need and they help me with any wine I need. I really enjoy wine, but I like to sit around and drink with friends, rather than to analyse it in the same way I would whisky.
Although incredibly well known you seem to have been able to still remain quite private, so tell me something about you that nobody else knows, or that would shock me.
After much “uming” and “ahhing” Alwynne told me this one, it’s her Grandmother’s favourite story. When I was 16 and working for the local newspaper, our town was only 80,000 people but we got a lot of big acts coming to play, Elton John, etc., Nickelback were playing all the time as they were just starting out and Chad Kroeger used to hang out in the bars near me a lot. One day I met him and got chatting and was invited to go backstage, hangout with them, interview them and have my picture taken with them.
One of the most risky things I ever did was at the age of 17, when I ran off to Colombia to visit my first love by myself. My super cool dad, bought me my plane tickets as a graduation present. As I was technically underage, my dad had to sign all manner of legal documents to say that Canada would not be responsible for me should I get kidnapped and that basically “I was on my own” and there I stayed for a month before coming back for University.
You must have seen and achieved so much within your career, but if you could pick only one, what would be your favourite “whisky moment or achievement”?
That’s a really hard question to answer. My goal posts have shifted quite a lot as I’ve had different jobs, with different goals. When it comes to whisky, my biggest achievement for me personally would be the moment I took a big risk and quit my job to try and make Miss Whisky a success. I’m still so excited by it all simply because I love the whisky industry. I remember just as I quit my job, sitting in a park on a bench with some friends and one friend asking what I would do once I quit. I said simply: “I’m going to write about whisky,” which she was surprised at but so were most people. I’m really glad I took the plunge as it’s been a great ride so far but it’s like lots of things in life: you don’t always realise how crazy the idea sounds until you look back on it.
Your latest piece is a review of Supermarket “Own Brand” Whisky, (which I really enjoyed, if you’ve not read it yet, you should), what made you decide to choose this article?
Timing worked out for me again, I was a judge at the “Quality Drinks Awards” not just in whisky, but gin, vodka, etc this is mainly a supermarket and small independent company industry awards. I was so surprised at just how good the quality was, it’s easy to just write off own brand whisky, but there are some really amazing, good value whiskies there. I think these awards help raise awareness of them, and of just how good they can be. It helps people to take a chance on something they maybe otherwise wouldn’t or be brave enough to take a step away from better known brands.
On the back of this article, what do you think about “whisky snobbery” that can exist out there?
The one thing I’ve learned since getting into whisky, is that the more snobby or singular you are the more opportunities you miss out on. I’ve recently been looking into the blending process, and realising just how traditional this is, and just how many amazing blends out there. If you want to be a snob then you are really just missing out yourself. If it’s being presented in the whisky community not to drink blends, this then passes on to a new generation of whisky drinkers. Sometimes there are terrible blends, but sometimes they are amazing, so try everything, if you don’t like it, then move on to another.
You would have seen the recent (@Dewars) epic advertising fail, with their misogynistic, sexist and chauvinistic “Meet the Baron”, as a prominent woman in whisky, what are your views on this?
I thought it was really sad, maybe I should have been angrier, but more than anything else I felt so sad. I couldn’t get over the fact that there must have been a lot of young people in marketing involved in this advertising campaign and that they must actually still have this archaic view that its only men that drink whisky. I wondered how many woman also worked on this advert, and how will we ever change the whisky industry if massive global brands actually will advertise like this. I wonder how long it will be until some other “large” company makes the same kind of mistake.
It’s almost Christmas, how will you spend this Christmas?
Relaxing and cooking duck this year, it will be nice and quiet and I’ll be able to have some quality time with loved ones enjoying myself and having a rare day off for a change. I have banned myself from Twitter and such like for the day.
Do you have a special dram lined up for Christmas Day?
Nothing in particular, but I have a few drams left over in bottles I’ve tried over the year and really enjoyed, one particularly outstanding whisky being Jamieson Rarest Vintage Reserve, which I had on a blind tasting and it is one of the best whiskies I’ve ever tried.
If you could only ever drink one bottle of whisky for the rest of your life, which would you choose and why?
Much laughing and a refusal to answer the question comes next, even gentle joshing couldn’t prompt an answer, however being ever tenacious, we managed to negotiate it down to three bottles), a Talisker 10 which is a really great all round lightly peated dram, a Balvenie Doublewood 12, smooth and a good “go to” whisky and a Yamazaki 12, this is such a versatile whisky, which I can either have neat as a short drink or mix it with soda water as a long drink and it still holds its own.
2013 has almost ended, how do you feel looking back over the last year?
It’s been busy, exciting, such a thrilling year, all the work I’ve been able to do has been genuinely pleasurable, from all the trips to Scotland to being awarded the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival “International Ambassador of the Year” in May. This was announced in a room full of 600 people, I was so overwhelmed (as I was so used to coming runner up, in fact I usually joke that I am the best runner up) and put on the spot for a speech, I genuinely had no idea that I was going to win, it was a real honour. In retrospect I’ve had a fantastic year, I am so lucky to have been able to fit everything in and although it’s been tiring the passion I have for whisky and the passion that the people I meet, either in the industry or people that like to taste whisky have, drives me on.
Lastly, 2014 is soon to be upon us, what do you have planned for the year ahead?
I’m quite a fluid person, I like to grab any opportunities that come up. I hope to write more, develop MissWhisky.com and seeing where the year takes me. I am hopeful that there will be more trips up to Scotland and the whole world over.
Thank you so much for your time Alwynne, I hope you have a lovely Christmas and a fantastic New Year.
Kirsty Clarke (@kirstypryde1)