This is the new face of Irish whiskey - and it’s a woman

It’s a drink associated with the mature connoisseur, the hardened drinker and latterly the hipster, all of them men. Not anymore says Bill Linnane as the home of Irish whiskey has hired a woman as chief distiller at its new microbrewery

This is the new face of Irish whiskey - and it’s a woman

The summer of 1975 wasn’t a particularly remarkable one. The somnambulist prog of 10CC’s I’m Not In Love topped the Irish charts, there were lightning storms across the country and in the Munster Final between Cork and Kerry, sparks flew between Páidí O Sé and Dinny Allen.

And in an east Cork town, one of the longest surviving distilleries in Ireland stopped producing whiskey. The stills fell silent in Midleton on a Friday afternoon, after 150 years of distilling on the site, and the (largely male) workforce trudged through the gates for the last time.

Then, on the following Monday morning, they all showed up for work in the brand new, state of the art distillery to the rear of the old site, and the firm never looked back.

The old distillery was turned into one of southern Ireland’s busiest tourist attractions, and the new plant has been the home of Irish whiskey for the last four decades.

But distilling is coming back to the old Midleton distillery, and this time it is being overseen by a 24-year-old engineering graduate named Karen Cotter.

For centuries, the entire whiskey industry has been almost exclusively male – from the barley famers, to the distillers, to the consumers, it was a man’s drink in a man’s world.

But this young north Cork woman’s role as the head distiller of the new micro distillery in Midleton is a sign of changing times. She became part of Irish Distillers Limited through their graduate programme, which enables science grads to get a taste for the life of the distiller.

IDL don’t just want scientists though; they want scientists that can communicate so the application process includes submitting a video application .

This may explain why seven of the last eight graduates from the programme have been female:

“That’s not to suggest that that is why guys haven’t got through, but the initial idea could put a lot of men off applying.” But women have another advantage when it comes to distilling:

Research released by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil revealed why women perform better in scent tests – they have more cells in the part of the brain that controls the ability to smell. It’s believed that this superpower helps mothers bond with their babies, and also helps them select a mate. It just happens that they are also naturally gifted when it comes to discerning aromas in whiskey. But developing a nose for this spirit, can often pose a challenge.

“I’m still working on it; for whiskey it is a very specific set of aromas that you are working with, I’m on the distillery tasting panel – every charge that is bunged, every tanker that goes out, it is nosed by at least two if not three people, and it can’t be released from the site until that has happened, until it has been compared against the standard to see if it is perfect. So that is how I am learning to get into the scents more, where I am now is at the stage where I can tell if there is a difference with something, but I’m still working on putting words to the senses.

“Also, if you’re nosing whiskey, it is subjective, it depends what you’ve been exposed to; fruity notes are one of the things that are synonymous with whiskey, but I don’t like fruit much, but because I can smell fruit I can still get it, but there are other people who would be more adventurous with their food and they would get different aromas.”

But as for recipes, the brewery already have a few tricks up their sleeve: “We are lucky as our archivist Carol Quinn came across a notebook recently and it was John Jameson’s son’s notebook from 1826s, and it details a lot of the recipes they were trying at the time, and the different ratios of the grains, what grains they used, a lot of different parameters that they would have adjusted, trying to find a new blend, so we will be trying some of those recipes to see what we will come out with, or if we can replicate something that they would have made back in the day.

A lost notebook suddenly discovered just in time for a micro- distillery launch? Sounds like marketing bumpf, but Karen swears it is not: “I didn’t believe it either, but our archivist showed it to me, and it is in very good condition despite its age, because the paper back then was made from linen so it lasted much better than our paper today. They obviously don’t use the metric system, so it is hard to differentiate what they are saying, so Brian and I spent a bit of time going through it trying to figure it out”.

Mad men and hipsters: whiskey’s evolution

Historically whiskey was considered a man’s drink – the fire and heat of a first sip of the hard stuff was seen as too intense for the gentler sex. The role women played in the early days of whiskey was often in opposition to it via the Temperance movement and driving the Prohibition act in the US.

During the Second World War, Winston Churchill – himself an enthusiastic whiskey drinker – saw revenue could be created for the war effort via the Scotch industry. American GIs fell in love with the drink, and kept that love when they went home. Scotch became tied into notions of the heroic male, home from the war after serving his country.

Don Draper’s messy personal life may be oiled with the golden liquid but the rise of Irish whiskey has a lot to with a subculture that Draper would have despised – hipsters. They took old tropes of Victorian masculinity – bushy moustaches, sailor tattoos, hard liquor – and played with them, Scotch was ‘too mainstream’ so the hipsters took Irish whiskey as their own. Thanks to them, Irish whiskey is going through another golden age.

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