Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Heather; would you kindly begin by introducing yourself and your current position and duties at Sullivans Cove Distillery?
Hi Shane, thank you for having me along. I am a distiller at Sullivans Cove. The average week for me would include running the still through wash and spirit runs, ensuring new make spirit is diluted accurately prior to maturation, preparing and filling a bunch of barrels, sniffing and/or tasting the various liquids throughout the wash-to-bottle process, rolling many barrels, determining spirit cuts, a whole lot of liquid transferring, sharing a cuppa and a yarn with the bloke who delivers our wash, diluting matured spirits to their determined bottling strengths, monitoring the flocc settling process of our whiskies just prior to bottling, cleaning, cleaning, cleaning, being the whisky fairy who makes sure the bottling line always have something to do, speak lovingly to Myrtle our still, patting the barrels, and of course a whole heap of tests and data entry to document the lot (sans the sweet nothings to Myrtle and the barrel patting). I’m also responsible for quality control in the distillery, which is a new role and one that I am really enjoying at the moment.
Where does your interest in whisky come from and when did you know you wanted a career in distilling?
Hubby and I moved to Tasmania, and wondering what all the fuss about whisky here was, figured ‘when in Rome.’ Sullivans was the first stop, and after one sniff I quickly realised that my presuppositions about whisky needed drastically re-thinking. An existential crisis swiftly ensued and the only resolution was one that included stills, barrels, and fine spirits.
Tasmania is blessed with many distilleries, but most are small family-owned and run operations with few staff. Did you find it difficult finding work in a distillery?
Funnily enough, no! I was chatting with Rex at Nonesuch Distillery one morning about wanting to explore the industry, over his sloe gin naturally, and in a classic Tassie move, he posted on Facebook that I had good wine industry experience and desired to go into distilling. A scurry of phone calls followed, and the next day Pat Meguire at Sullivans phoned and offered me work. Still pinching myself over that one.
What’s your favourite thing about working at Sullivan’s Cove?
Aside from loving the product (especially our American Oak expression), everyone is valued for what they give the company. We are a small team but are from really diverse backgrounds and so we all bring a quirk and flare to the table. If you had to picture a quintessential distillery crew, we’re certainly not that! If what we sing while at work is any indication of the mix, if you spend a little time at the distillery you could hear fantastically terrible renditions of Sadie the Cleaning Lady, Besame Mucho, freestyle rap and everything in-between. It’s good fun!
What kinds of jobs are available in a typical distillery and how do the education requirements vary? Would you recommend any kinds of courses, formal education or industry experience for anyone hoping to secure work in a distillery?
The textbook roles include back of house operations (distiller, bond store management, production management, malting and brewing in distilleries that do these processes themselves, etc.), blending, front of house and hospitality roles, administrative and finance roles, marketing and sales.
Australia has become an off-centre poster child for the world whisky scene in the space of a few years and a couple of breaths, voila! We have a knack, we do indeed! This is where we need to work through our identity crisis, find who we are, embody who we are, protect our essence, and strive to just be better all the time. Education is so part of that. The balance will be maintaining the romance and quirk with developing technical knowledge and industry growth.
Obviously many of the administrative roles have formal education foundations, however, there isn’t a huge scope of education options for distilling roles. In fact, the vast majority of distillers have no related education; it’s all on-the-job based and handed down learning. I totally love this, it’s romantic! But as any industry grows, there comes a point where education must come to the forefront to ensure it is both preserved and held to the right standards of quality and practice through its growth. Right now, we are at that point. Australia has become an off-centre poster child for the world whisky scene in the space of a few years and a couple of breaths, voila! We have a knack, we do indeed! This is where we need to work through our identity crisis, find who we are, embody who we are, protect our essence, and strive to just be better all the time. Education is so part of that. The balance will be maintaining the romance and quirk with developing technical knowledge and industry growth.
And there are education options that strive keep that balance – the Tasmanian Whisky Academy offers courses that introduce interested people to the business and technical aspects of starting up and running a distillery. The Academy is a great place to start for industry insight and guidance.
The Institute of Brewing and Distilling (based in the UK, but with an ever-growing presence in Australia) offer accessible distance courses for those after technical grit. They are partnering with the Tas Whisky Academy to provide intensive face-to-face courses around Australia, so keep both eyes peeled on the Academy social media for these. A number of distilleries are also offering courses and on the ground experiences for those who want to dip their toes in, i.e. Redlands and Nonesuch here in Tasmania, who show the nitty-gritty “how do you do that?”, getting the hands dirty kind of stuff.
What did you know about whisky before you began working at a distillery and how steep has the on-the-job learning curve been?
Only that I liked the good stuff, the rest I have learned since. I guess the steepness of the learning curve depends on one’s approach to learning. I have no end of passion and geek-driven fascination for the field, so continually reading, asking questions and going deeper is a joy; being a curious cat helps.
How has your whisky education changed the way you enjoy whisky?
Drinking whisky isn’t boring anymore, it’s a little intense now, in fact! When I drink I want to see the overall personality of the whisky, to pick apart the components that make it up, and then put them back together in the palate’s mind to see how they hold in balance. Pre-spirits industry I enjoyed thinking about what I could taste and smell, but now ask why can I taste and smell these things? What did the narrative of this whisky’s life look like to give this result? When you find a whisky that has been crafted lovingly and with artistic intention at every point of the process, you can taste it. It’s as if every flavour and aroma introduces itself to you… and gives you a glimpse into their journey.
I want to taste the ferment style, the worm tub, the hard-and-fast or the low-and-slow distillation techniques, all those sexy bends and curves of the still, how the spirit was cut, the provenance of the oak, the maturation environment and the way all of these work together.
I love oak characteristics, but more so chase whiskies that possess a harmony between the oak and the distillery character. I want to taste the ferment style, the worm tub, the hard-and-fast or the low-and-slow distillation techniques, all those sexy bends and curves of the still, how the spirit was cut, the provenance of the oak, the maturation environment and the way all of these work together. Unashamedly get kicks from this!
Do you have a favourite whisky and if so, what is it and why is it your dram of choice?
Generally, variety reigns supreme. But that being said… Redbreast 15, Yellow Spot, a Duncan Taylor bottling of Mortlach 1993 18 year old, Yoichi (umami-mia!) and Glencadam 14 year old Oloroso cask will always slow a spinning world.
On an objective level, they’re all multi-faceted with a balanced depth. On a subjective (and admittedly oddball) level, in my mind, every smell and sound have a funny aurora-like colour pattern and the colour patterns of these whiskies strike a chord in me.
Are there any figures in the whisky industry that you take inspiration from or would like to emulate one day and if so, who are they and why do you see them as inspirational?
Many, and not just from the whisky industry! None I want to emulate – we all must express our individuality in our arts – but I find endless wisdom, influence and inspiration from Barry Crockett of Midleton Distillery, Christoph Keller at Stählemühle, Julien Frémont in Calvados, and Hubert Germain-Robin in California. They are colourful personalities, all obsessively passionate about their distilling niches, and all have forged unique styles from their own character. With them it never ends – they see the world through their palate, and their spirits come from the soul. It’s personal. To me, they embody my dream: an eclectic and eccentric blend of art and science, with noses deep in glasses.
Where do you see yourself in ten years and what are your future career goals?
Hopefully, a little wiser and certainly with a lot more still experience. We hope kids will be in the picture. I get that most women don’t see themselves raising kids amongst barrels, copper pots and high proof spirits… But the idea of sharing the passion and appreciation for fine spirits and their creation with a child gives me a buzz. #mumgoals
Aroma science gives me mega highs, as does the organic chemistry behind the lives of barrel aged spirits from the ground to the bottle. So as far as career goals go, I find myself focussing on these areas with the intention of specialising in them, and also with a growing interest in teaching others the same.
Have you received any odd reactions from family, friends or strangers when you tell them your occupation?
Nothing hilarious to report sadly. Haven’t been burnt at the stake or dubbed a witch (that literally happened to thousands of women distillers in the 1500-1600’s) or anything dramatic yet, just the odd marriage proposal. Really it just takes people back a little- it’s not a garden variety occupation. A great conversation starter!
Do you think being a woman will be irrelevant, an opportunity or an obstacle to your future in the industry?
Irrelevant in the sense that I’m just a person doing their thing, gender aside. A wonderful opportunity to be able to contribute to the breaking down of perceived societal barriers to career due to gender that is happening currently. This really excites me.
There have certainly been times in the wider drinks industry where I have felt like a bit of a sideshow, or that it was assumed that after a bit of hard work I’d bail, but when a person – any sex – shows that they are suited to a role and industry and can hoof it like anybody else, then they are accepted as one of the crew.
An obstacle? Nah. There have certainly been times in the wider drinks industry where I have felt like a bit of a sideshow, or that it was assumed that after a bit of hard work I’d bail, but when a person – any sex – shows that they are suited to a role and industry and can hoof it like anybody else, then they are accepted as one of the crew. I have certainly found this to be true and have experienced very little prejudice within the production side of the industry, and trust that will continue. The distillery folks in Tasmania are a neat bunch, and Sullivans is a cool family.
There have been certain adjustments, though, like learning not to put on eye makeup until after cleaning the still (picture a Gene Simmons’ doppelganger).
Would you like to see more women follow in your footsteps and do you have any advice for women either interested in or unaware of the opportunities in the whisky industry?
You’re darn tootin’ I would! For the vast majority of distillation history, women have been the souls behind spirits; in fact, the invention of the alembic still is generally attributed to a lassie by the name of Mary the Jewess, circa 200CE. Since the Industrial Revolution, distillation (and by default whisky) has become more synonymous with the man’s realm and is no longer on the to-do list of housewives everywhere. Yes, making whisky is often dirty, sweaty, hard work that at many times is not for the faint-hearted (ever spent days on end manoeuvring 250kg barrels?), but hold the phone – why on earth does that mean a woman wouldn’t want to do it or be great at it?
My advice for women is that it is a wonderful path that offers fulfilling and varied opportunities for the creatives, scientists and those who fall in the middle. It’s endlessly fascinating, a sensory hallucination that becomes your existence.
Is life class getting predictable? The board room getting you down? Feel like the only sure thing in life right now is the enrapturing aroma of the Tariquet 12 in your glass? Listen to your nose. Go and say hello to your local friendly distiller, hang out with them, and ask about opportunities in the industry. Don’t live near a distiller? Find one online! Asking is daunting sometimes, but questions make the world go round, right?
Calling you out ladies, dive in!