We caught up with senior distiller for the John Crabbie Distilleries, Kirsten Ainslie, to talk to her about the increasingly important role women are playing in the whisky industry and why it's beneficial for companies to focus more on gender balance. 

My love of alcohol began behind a bar, making and shaking exciting cocktails while working towards an MA in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh, specialising in gender in contemporary society.

After graduating I found myself volunteering at a distillery in an effort to learn the art of whisky and gin distillation. I’ve since built a career in the whisky industry – a noble and traditionally male-dominated realm, with roots deeply woven into Scottish culture.

In my role as a Senior Distiller at John Crabbie & Co I’m able to combine two passions; that for the golden dram, and working towards gender equality.

“We live in a time where there is more focus and opportunity for women to exist and excel at all levels if we’re prepared to enter the ring and fight for it.”

Carving out the beginning of my career in an unconventional manner; I originally spent time volunteering at a Glasgow based distillery, saying yes to every opportunity that appeared.

From shadowing the distillers while furiously scribbling indecipherable diagrams and terms I didn’t understand to later revise with my old pal Google to working on the bottling line and stalls at events, I eventually began hosting tours around the distillery – all in the name of serving the ultimate goal of becoming a distiller.

After a lot of perseverance and graft, an offer from above meant I could quit my cafe job and take up full-time employment as an assistant distiller. It was a real pinch-yourself moment.

Diversity in the industry

Gender balance and diversity in the whisky industry is becoming more of a focus and inclusion can be seen in various sectors.

Heriot-Watt University offers a variety of specialised degrees in Brewing and Distilling, in 2017-18, 21  per cent of students who studied the Brewing and Distilling postgraduate courses were female.

This increased to 28 per cent the following year, demonstrating growth in the number of women moving
into the global spirit distillation scene.

New boundaries are being crossed in other areas of the industry as well, such as the ancient craft of coopering oak casks. In 2019 the Cambus Cooperage welcomed its first female apprentices, while in 2018 The Abercrombie Coppersmiths the first female apprentice was hired.

Today Diageo is the largest alcohol production company in the world and they place a special emphasis on female representation in their company, with schemes like Plan W, aimed at empowering women to play an equal role in the economy and society as well as working towards filling 35 per cent of their leadership positions and 50 per cent of their graduate/MBA intake with women by 2025.

As of January 2019, women accounted for 44 per cent of their Board of Directors and 40 per cent of their Executive Committee. From the perspective of business success, study after study has concluded that diversity in the workplace translates into better performance for the company.

Inclusion of female candidates is one the central tenets upon which gender parity can be built.

While these figures demonstrate growth, there’s still work to be done – in 2018 The McKinsey Global Institute published new data on how women fare at work – and they found that in the craft spirits industry women work in “only” roles more often than not.

The only female distiller, owner, employee or women of colour. Implicit bias and its niggling, seeping effects still throw daily challenges at women which can result in a culture of surviving, not thriving.

We’re really only at the beginning of seeing long-term change and need more females to come through the door, quaff from the metaphorical quaich and fully embody the roles available in the whisky industry.

Inclusion, empowerment and support are key – you can’t change a system if you’re not in it.

Life at John Crabbie Distilleries

Today I work as one of the Senior Distillers for the newly built John Crabbie Distilleries in Edinburgh, where I’m proud to say we have an equal split of female and male distillers.

We have two sites across Edinburgh, and while our larger Leith-based distillery was being built we were able to conduct research and development on our pilot kit.

This began by trialling different strains of yeast, fermentation conditions, cut points, cask types, and fill strengths. I’m particularly excited to see the result of our experimental casks, which we’ve filled our spirit into at different alcoholic strengths to chart the variety of flavour compounds pulled from the oak.

While filling our more traditional Scotch cask types – ex-bourbon and sherry – we’ve sourced some more unusual barrels – those previously filled with sweet, nutty French Pineau de Charentes or spicy, rich Australian red wine.

This open-minded approach can be seen not only in our production ethos but spills down into the team, where the average age is 27. As a younger cohort of people work upwards through their careers, so too are fresh perspectives arriving – managers who realise the value of potential and make space on their teams for women, colleagues who are prepared to listen and act for positive change.

In our team, we’re having both the hard conversations and the funny ones, like why do we anthropomorphize with a female pronoun for the forklift but a male pronoun for the hammer (it’s not hard to guess!) or why do some suppliers only provide female polo shirts in shiny, unbreathable polyester while the masculine version is made from airy, practical cotton… We all try to be open-minded to our biases and are willing to be called out.

Through the support and investment of John Crabbie & Co, I’ve been able to learn this trade ‘on the tools’, working full time while expanding my education with a qualification from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, becoming a first-aider and earning a full fork-lift driver’s license amongst others.

The joy is that I’ve got so much more to learn. There’s more than one way to enter this industry; studying a specialised course in Brewing and Distilling, an alternative science course or like myself, pushing down doors and creating learning opportunities for yourself.

We live in a time where there is more focus and opportunity for women to exist and excel at all levels if we’re prepared to enter the ring and fight for it.

Distilling and drinking whisky is a passion of mine. I thrive on the physical demand of the job and can match this by spilling my creativity and the required scientific knowledge into the process. Evermore rewarding is the heady, tangible result of being able to hold the fruits of my labour in a glass.

After each shift I’ll head home both physically and mentally challenged, feeling exhausted but very alive. It’s an absolute buzz and I know it’s exactly where I’m supposed to be.

Quickfire questions:

What are your hopes for the future: “To start the Edinburgh Female Distillers Association, a support and resource group for women working in the growing number of distilleries around Edinburgh.”

What’s your current project: “I’m learning woodwork, so I can upcycle old casks into pieces of furniture.”

What are you currently drinking: “The lightly peated Crabbies 15-year-old with a little water, or a sweet Manhattan with a syrupy cherry.”

Kirsten Ainslie is the senior distiller for the John Crabbie Distilleries in Leith, Edinburgh

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