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Bushmills' Helen Mulholland on being the first woman to be inducted into the Whisky Hall of Fame

Plus, why she believes there are so few women working in the whiskey industry.


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.

So far this week, we've heard how Whiplash's Lysney Campbell was told she was "too small" and "not strong enough" to become a brewer, Alex Thomas of The Sexton Single Malt shared with us why the whiskey industry is nothing to be scared of, Emma Hiller from Hinch Distillery spoke on meeting challenges and changing perceptions and Bhagya Barrett of Rebel City Distillery chatted with about self-belief - and launching a brand during the pandemic.

Today we're closing out the series with the renowned master blender, Helen Mulholland. With a Master’s Degree in Science, Helen began her career in the small laboratory at The Old Bushmills Distillery and now, after 25 years, she is steeped in the art of whiskey-making and blending. In 2018, Helen became the first woman to be inducted into the International Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame and has recently become the first woman to receive a Chairman’s Award for her outstanding contribution to the development of the Irish whiskey industry. 

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 first started my career at Bushmills nearly 30 years ago. It was actually an industrial placement as part of my food technology course that I was studying for at the time. From the moment that I arrived on placement, I was completely captivated by the beauty of the distillery. I was aware of Bushmills craftsmanship and the quality of their whiskey before but as soon as I started working there, I just knew it was where I wanted to work for the rest of my life. 

I did my placement there, finished my course and then I did my masters. I came back to Bushmills after my studies as a lab technician. During that time, I tested the raw materials that go into making the Bushmills spirit. And, you know, it was an absolute labour of love. Working as a lab technician, that’s really where I built my knowledge. I was working in the plant, working with the raw ingredients so you learn everything there is about the process. From there, I moved into the areas of quality environment, health and safety and technical management before then becoming a master blender 15 years ago."

Q: What does an average day look like for you?

"Well, my mornings actually start off with tasting the whiskey!

I find that my palette is far sharper in the morning so I do my sampling of the new blends we’re working on at the start of the day so I can detect the flavours. From lunchtime onwards, I spend most of my time then on cask selection and research. I research where to source new casks from around the world and I also do a lot of future planning.

These whiskies that we’re creating will be fermenting for 30, maybe 50 years so there’s a lot of forward-thinking and planning that needs to be done for them. I’m planning what production we need, what whiskey profiles we’ll need. My job is really a lot of long-term planning."

Q: What do you enjoy most about what you do?

"What I really love about my job is that I get to create memories. Whenever I am creating my whiskies, I like to create a whiskey that will form memories when people go out and drink it. I get to work with all the beautiful casks, the beautiful crystal clear spirit that has such a lovely, fresh, pretty sweet flavour and aroma and then I pick the casks to enhance the flavour so that the Bushmills DNA is always present but also getting to add new ingredients and tweak the flavour profile to create new blends. 

Another really lovely thing about my job is that whenever I am out and tell people what it is I do for a living, the reaction is always so positive. There is such a love for the product I help create and the industry as a whole. People are always so interested and want to talk about it which I just love."

Q: What are the ups and downs in your career?

"The highs have completely outweighed any possible lows. But I guess a really difficult part to my job is that a lot the work I'm doing, the casks I am distilling - I won't get to see them being bottled during my lifetime at Bushmills. You're laying down the whiskies and the cask profiles for the next generation and you won't actually be here to taste them. You put all this love and this work into them and then you have to just let them go. There is this sadness I guess to the fact I won't ever experience my life's work but that's whiskey. 

That said, I was fortunate though that with our recent Causeway Collection was something that I actually worked on at the very start of my career, and I was here to see that be bottled and reach market. That was actually such a joy to experience and one that a lot of distillers don't ever get to experience."

Q: Did the industry being so male-dominated put you off from pursuing a career in beer?

"Not at all. 

I think when you're young like I was starting off, I didn't even realise that there were any possible drawbacks. I never really gave it a second thought. I have to say that I have never had any difficulty or ever been treated differently because I'm a woman in my entire career. 

When I started off in the industry, there were only three distilleries. The roles just weren't there, it didn't matter whether you were male or female because as blenders, you tend to stay in your role for 20-30 years. So, if I was put off at all by the whiskey industry, it was more than there weren't any jobs than that it was male-dominated." 

Q: Do you feel there are any particular challenges to being a woman working in what is quite a male-dominated industry?

"Again, not really.

I was so lucky in that when I started in the industry, I was taught by fantastic forward-thinking men. I never saw a difference and neither did they. As long as I was able to do the job, that I was prepared to put in the hours and the dedication and that I had the love – which you have to have – there was nothing that I couldn't overcome. And they saw that."

Q: What was it like to be the first woman inducted into the Whisky Hall of Fame ?

"You know, I was actually the first female blender in Bushmills - and also the first female blender in Irish Whiskey which was truly amazing. And then to be the first woman in the international Whisky Hall of Fame, I feel so incredibly lucky. Sure, I was named in the Hall of Fame but it is down to all the amazing people I work with that have made my job easier. And then to the people and the craftsmanship at Bushmills.

And just this year, I was lucky enough to get the Chairman's Award from the Irish whiskey Association and I'm actually the first woman to receive that award also. I'm incredibly proud and delighted that I am seen and being recognised for the work and love I put in."

Q: Why do you think there are so few women in whiskey?

"I think it really comes down to just the lack of roles that were available. The whiskey industry was for a long time a very small and compact industry that once people come into it - they didn't ever want to leave. The jobs and opportunities just weren't there - for both men and women. 

But I think that's changing now. Now with the expansion of the whiskey industry and the new distilleries opening up, the growth in jobs is incredible and the opportunities it now presents for women is huge.

It really is a golden time for the whiskey industry now. There is a demand for quality and talent in the industry and hopefully, that's a whole lot of woman."

Q: What advice would you have for women out there now who are thinking of pursuing a career in whiskey?

"I would highly recommend to anybody to start a career in the whiskey industry - there is no better career.

Whatever you give to the whiskey industry, it will it will give you back more than you could ever have imagined. Learn your trade and keeping learning. Every single day I learn something new about the industry and that's what really makes my job so enjoyable. Don't be afraid to learn, don't be afraid to ask. We love to find people that are interested that want to actually make it a career and make it a lifestyle.

And really, it's all about working hard, constantly learning and enjoyment because you have to enjoy what you do. In both the food and the drinks industry, the love and the knowledge that you put into something shows in the final product.

As long as you're passionate, you'll get there."

READ MORE: The Sexton's Alex Thomas on why the whiskey industry is nothing to be scared of