In recognition of IWD, we’re celebrating a multitude of women from around the world who are making their mark in the very much male-dominated drinks industry.
The drinks industry, like any traditional sector, has a history of being male-fronted enterprises, but remarkable progress has been made thanks to a generation of brave, forward-thinking women. This week on foodandwine.ie, we’re celebrating such women from around the country who are making their mark in the very much male-dominated drinks industry. From what it's like to be the only woman in your workplace, the challenges they face and advice they'd give to other women, we chat with some inspirational women who work in all aspects of the drinks industry to share their stories.
Today's instalment comes from Alex Thomas, Master Blender at The Sexton Single Malt. Being just one of few women in whiskey, Alex decided to break the rules of traditional single malt whiskey by creating an unexpected yet more approachable taste profile and in doing so, she created The Sexton. She began her career fifteen years ago in the maturation department of Bushmills Distillery and has gone on to become The Sexton's master blender. Here, she shares with us what it's truly like to be woman working in whiskey.
Q:How did you get started in your career?
"I was very fortunate that back in 2004, my husband (who worked with Bushmills Distillery at the time) came home and he told me about a job opportunity that was coming up. Anybody that lives in the north coast will tell you that it's an absolute dream to work at Bushmills and I knew how much my husband loved it there - plus, we both love whiskey! - so I just had to go for it.
I still can't believe to this day that I actually got the job.
I started off in the maturation department and basically fell in love with it from day one on the job. After four years, I knew it was the career path for me. And I'm very fortunate that within the industry, they have training that you can actually go on and do the qualifications. So I joined the Institute of Brewing and Distilling back in 2008 and began my four-year journey studying and went on to qualify in 2012 as a master brewer and distiller. So it's really been nonstop ever since then."
Q: What does an average day look like for you?
"I can honestly say that there's never ever two days that are the same which is just fantastic – you never get bored!
One day, I could come in and I'm looking after the distillation side so I'll be taking the barley when it comes in, to make sure it's the quality that we were we've agreed to bring in. Putting that into the mash tongue checking our water, ensuring the quality side of things are all okay, watching the process and seeing that our times are correct and strength. Really anything on the process side of things. Another day, I could be on fermentation where I actually physically adding the yeast and start the fermentation process off. From there, I could be moving down into distillation, where I have the pleasure of making the cuts are making the heart of The Sexton. A different day, I could be left to experiment in the distillery where I get the chance to play with flavour profiles for new casks. I also get the opportunity to travel to Spain to pick out our casks which is just amazing."
Q: What do you enjoy most about what you do?
"The industry itself.
It’s a family industry and it’s such a lovely one to be involved in. They take you under their wing and teach you what generations before taught them and all they ask for in return is whatever you create that you represented Ireland well. It’s rare to find that way of thinking or treatment in any other industry. Whether it’s a competitor or a colleague, there’s always someone in the industry that will help you and help you get better at what you do. There’s just no other job like it."
Q: What would you say has been the most challenging part of the business so far? And the highlight?
"The highlight is easy: the launch of The Sexton into the US in 2017. It was my first ever creation to go to market and to launch it first in the US was just incredible. In a weird way, it was almost more comforting to launch it in America, somewhere that was further a field and see how it went down before taking it back home to Ireland. 2017 was a great year in my career as The Sexton became the number one Irish single malt in America in less than year of its launch which was absolutely amazing. So to bring it home in 2018 to the UK and Ireland, it was just a dream come true. I don't think I'll ever beat the high I felt from that.
But there have been lows, too. During the experimentation side, it's very easy to get defeated and feel that if you don't nail the flavours and the profiles right away that you've failed. So when creating The Sexton, that happened a lot so there were a lot of lows during that time. But that's the wonderful thing about the industry, you just keep trying. You can leave things to rest, you can change it from one cask to another, it may not taste great initially but doing something small like that can change the profile entirely. That said, I have very little patience so it was difficult to learn to wait and let this amazing spirit take the time it needs to ferment."
Q: Did the industry being so male-dominated put you off from pursuing a career in beer?
"I'm one of five girls but in many ways, I'm the son my parents never had! I'm very much the tomboy of the family so I can honestly say it never put me off being a female in any industry. Actually, before I began my career in whiskey, I worked in the wood industry which is also predominately male but I'm a firm believer that we can all do anything we want to do as long as we put our mind to it, regardless of gender.
I was very fortunate that when I started in Bushmills, there was a team of mainly men working there but all they wanted to do was teach me the trade and help me get better at what I was doing. It never mattered to them that I was female. All that mattered was that I showed an interest and passion for whiskey.
It also helped that I had the likes of Helen Mulholland who is the master blender at Bushmills and is such a source of inspiration. She's been in the industry for a long time and has achieved many things so I had her to look up to."
Q: Do you feel there are any particular challenges to being a woman working in what is quite a male-dominated industry?
"No...or at least none that I have ever faced. I think this idea of being a woman in the whiskey industry - or any male-dominated industry for that matter - and the difficulties involved just isn't really a thing. You’re treated just like anyone else.
I’m very fortunate to have never been treated differently because of my gender and I know that it does happen but within the whiskey industry, I can honestly say it's never something I have ever experienced. All they can see is your passion, not your gender."
Q: Why do you think there are so few women in whiskey?
"I think it’s purely to do with the lack of opportunities. There aren’t the same amount of people leaving as there is the number of people wanting to join it. Once you do come into the industry, you fall in love with it and don’t ever want to leave so there aren't very many job vacancies.
I guess another factor would be that whiskey was traditionally seen as a man’s drink. Women just didn’t drink it. I think that’s because women weren’t educated enough to know what it was like, we weren’t adventurous enough. But now, I think we all are adventurous, we want to try new things and experiment.
Also, I think that lot of people - not just women - think that working in whiskey is physically demanding and while it can be, there are also other sides to whiskey. There are the labs, the barley, the warehouse, accounts, design - there are so many areas you can work in the whiskey industry that I don’t think many people realise."
Q: Do you think whiskey will become an industry women want to or aren’t as hesitant to join?
I think there’s going to be a lot of women in the future of whiskey, definitely. I find when I go out to do tastings, I find it’s women who don’t really drink whiskey and I think that comes from what I was saying earlier about it being perceived a man’s drink. I also don’t think many people realise there are so many ways to drink whiskey that isn’t just on the rocks. So when I do these tastings, I mix it with ginger ale or have the bartender use it in a cocktail and suddenly, these women have become whiskey lovers. And I find it doesn’t just stop at enjoy it as a drink but they’re interested in how it’s made and the career opportunities it presents."
Q: What advice would you have for women out there now who are thinking of pursuing a career in whiskey?
"I think the best piece of advice I could give is to just not be scared. Give it a go - what's the worst that can happen? Okay, fine - you might not enjoy it and it's not the career path for you but you won't know that until you give it a go.
I'm proof that you can do it. You just have to believe in yourself. If you really want something, you have to give it 100 per cent and if you fail - well at least you tried. Take chances when you get them. Ask for help.
Contact us, ask us what we do, come spend the day with us - we'd be more than happy to show you what it is we do. We're passionate about getting more and more women into the industry and enjoying it because it truly is the best job in the world."
The Sexton is available to purchase in Tesco, Supervalu, Celtic Whiskey Store, Carry Out, Fine Wines, O’Briens Wine and select independent retailers and off-licenses.
READ MORE: Emma Millar of Hinch Distillery on meeting challenges and changing perceptions