This is the Spirit: Meet the women making careers in Irish whiskey


Irish whiskey is having a moment, with two million more cases sold last year than before the pandemic.

While a surge in the number of craft distilleries has prompted reports of market saturation, it has opened up employment opportunities, including for women, in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

Figures from the Irish Whiskey Association show that the workforce is now 37 per cent women, with more women taking up production and managerial positions.

“It’s very male-dominated, but I don’t think that should put anyone off,” says Emma Millar, distiller at year-old Hinch Craft Distillery in Ballynahinch, Co. Down. She started her career in Scotland after studying Food Design and completing a Masters in Brewing and Distilling.

“In my few years in the industry, I have already seen an increase in women in distilling and blending roles.

“We move a lot of drums, each weighing around 50-60 kg, so it’s hard work sometimes. But you don’t really want to be demarcated because you’re a girl. They want to be treated the same way. So I’m stuck in every single thing.”

Athlone native and self-confessed ‘whisky geek’ Sarah Dowling moved home from Scotland to work as a blender and now runs Cooley Distillery in Co Louth.

“I was definitely the only woman in the room at times. But I never felt like I was the first woman in that room.

“My advice to anyone thinking about entering the industry, regardless of gender, is to just give it a go. There are more opportunities to work in the Irish whiskey industry than ever before. My experience was so positive. There were times when I felt like I really stumbled upon an open door.”

Helen Mulholland, Ireland’s first female Master Blender, says there were few roles – male or female – when she started in the industry nearly 30 years ago, at a time when Irish Distillers, owned by French drinks giant Pernod Ricard, dominated the scene.

“When I started in the beverage industry, there were only three distilleries [in Ireland] and Irish Distillers owned two of these,” said the Portstewart, Co Derry native. “There was very little movement in the jobs because the roles weren’t there.

“Across Ireland there were two blending rolls and probably two still rolls, maybe three. [People] been there a lifetime.”

Since 2013, the number of distilleries on the island of Ireland has grown from four to 42. That makes for a crowded market, admits Irish Whiskey Association head William Lavelle. But he’s still optimistic about the industry’s growth prospects.

“It’s a tough game but we believe there’s a lot of room for growth out there,” Mr Lavelle said.

Irish whiskey sales have doubled since 2014, although this strong growth could slow this year as producers are forced to exit the Russian market. Russia has taken the UK’s place as the second largest market for Irish exports after the US in 2021.

Meanwhile, Irish people are drinking less alcohol, with consumption down 4.7 percent over the past year and 30 percent over the past two decades, according to the Revenue Commissioners.

Mr. Lavelle said new markets with large populations such as India and Nigeria, as well as higher-priced premium brands will boost sales.

“People are drinking less, but they’re drinking better, and they’re drinking in different ways — cocktails and mixed drinks,” he said.

“What we’re seeing is new consumers coming to Irish Whiskey and it’s the leading brands – the top 3 brands, Jameson, Tullamore Dew, Bushmills – that are at the top.

“We’re going to see more millennials and more Gen Z coming to Irish whiskey.”

Ms Mulholland, a former Bushmills master blender, says it wasn’t an overnight success for Irish whiskey, largely because the product is taking so long to get to market.

“At this stage in my career, I don’t really see a lot of products coming to market – the 25-year-olds, the 30-year-olds.

“You work with history and you create history. You lead the journey for a while, but you only oversee the distillery for a short time, and then you have to hand it back.”

She recently took on the role of Master Blender at Lough Gill distillery in Sligo, which was bought this year by Sazerac, owner of Paddy and Southern Comfort. The US company intends to further develop the Athrú brand and create a visitor attraction at Hazelwood House on its 100-acre estate.

Making whiskey is a mix of ‘science and art’, creating recipes and watching how the liquid reacts with casks and temperature changes over time.

“There’s something quite romantic and enduring about whiskey,” says Hinch’s Emma Millar. “It’s like a long forgotten story.”

Cooley’s Sarah Dowling has never seen any of the whiskeys she’s worked on be bottled. “I can’t wait for that day. It’s going to be such a sense of pride.” This is the Spirit: Meet the women making careers in Irish whiskey

Fry Electronics Team

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