One of the greatest joys that #TeamCoco get out of interviewing great business women is the motivation that you don’t have to have it all planned out and that following your interests and getting your hustle on can get you to amazing – and unexpected – places.
Today’s interviewee Alwynne Gwilt started out listening in to police scanners for scoops at a national newspaper in Toronto and is currently a brand ambassador for Balvenie whisky based in London. Along the way she shifted her aversion to whisky from the spirit that gave her terrible hangovers from drinking on the beach at uni (!) to a love of the beautiful, nuanced and exciting spirit she knows it is today….
HOC: Hey Alwynne! We especially love speaking with businesswomen with interesting and varied backgrounds and yours certainly is – what brought you to the UK from Canada?
Alwynne: So my background is very different to what I do today… I started working in broadcast journalism in my home country of Canada when I was 16 and then went off to study broadcast journalist. I had the full intention to sticking around the journalism industry for the rest of my career and started working for national newspapers in Toronto and then moved to the UK in 2007 with the intention of staying for just a year. I’d moved over on a freelance contract and, at that time, being paid in Canadian dollars but living in London wasn’t the smartest way to do business!
I promptly got a job in financial journalism which is not my background at all. I ended up at an Insurance Magazine just before the crash and it was crazy and lavish – it was like ‘let’s go to Paris for lunch!’ very strange and such a different journalism world to Canada where that’s DEFINITELY not allowed…
HOC: Sounds pretty crazy! And where does the whisky come in?
Alwynne: Long story short, in this insurance company, I ended up going along to a whisky tasting in Soho as so many people in the financial world drink whisky. I was very anti-whisky and thought it was this horrible, disgusting liquid and I really didn’t want anything to do with it.
At this event I was totally blown away! It’s so great to look back and remember that moment when I was really taken aback – it doesn’t happen that often in life! I left the tasting and decided I wanted to get a bottle and it kind of went from there with friends buying me interesting whiskies for my birthday, I really got into it.
A couple of years later, I decided I’d had it with the investment world and decided to go freelance. I remember going to a food blogging workshop, and this was back in 2011 when nobody really had a clue what a blog was. I didn’t want to become a blogger – I was a journalist! – but when I got chatting to a food editor at The Guardian he recommended that that I needed to start a blog, so that I could start pitching articles about whisky. So I started a test blog called ‘Gwilty Pleasures’ – a riff on my surname – all about food, drink and travel just to try it out. I took a break from work and headed to Costa Rica for a few months and while I was there I formalised this idea I’d had in my head to blog specifically about whisky. When I came back, I started Miss Whisky (MissWhisky.com) and that’s really where it all kicked off!
HOC: Is the whisky industry the boys club I’d imagine that it is?
Alwynne: Not really! When I started my blog there weren’t any females writing specifically about whisky in the UK market but there have always been females involved in the creation of whisky. Industry people always ask me if it was intimidating getting involved as a younger female and do you know what, I always found the industry so welcoming. The only reason I ended up learning so much, so quickly was because I’d meet people at a show and when I followed up with them they said ‘yeh, sure why don’t you come and visit?’ . I never felt that I wasn’t part of the club and no-one wanted to talk to me. I think, from my journalism work, I have a brain that’s interested in so many things and I love to ask questions, I think that was appreciated!
HOC: Before we go any further – I have to admit – while I enjoy a whisky cocktail from time to time – I have no idea what is the difference between a whiskey with an ‘e’ – and one without!
Alwynne: I help you with that! With an E is generally Irish and American and pretty much everybody else doesn’t use an E and there’s various debates about why that came about. One story is that, back when Dublin used to produce more whisky than Scotland, they decided to put their stamp on the spirit and add an E – clearly marking which whiskey was the spirit of Dublin.
HOC: Ah that wasn’t as complicated as I thought! What’s happening in the whisky / whiskey industry at the moment and what should we look out for?
Alwynne: We’re seeing a proliferation of start ups, like we’ve seen in gin. Now when you go to a bar you see the gin list and have no idea where to begin – I don’t even bother trying to keep up with it! But the reality is that whisky takes a lot longer than gin so it’ll take a few years for things to really change.
There’s more and more whisky companies coming through which is interesting and we’re seeing lots more family owned businesses. There’s also some great things happening in world whiskies. Like a few years ago when people got really excited about Japanese whiskies, there are loads of places to look out for. Tasmania and Tawain and India and Africa…. it could easily get a bit overwhelming!
HOC: What a dream – combining travel and interesting whiskies! Where’s the most amazing place you’ve visited in the search for great whisky?
Alwynne: It’s funny but one of the first distilleries I visited was Balvenie in Speyside when the then brand ambassador brought some bloggers to see it! It was such a memorable visit, in the heartland of the Scottish whisky industry – there’s around 50 distilleries in that area. I really fell in love with Scotland through my blog when I’d pootle around the west coast to visit distilleries. I never got to drink anything on site though, as I was driving but I’d be taking my little bottles to get samples to drink in my hotel! Scotland reminds me of Canada, it’s very open and people are super friendly – really welcoming and the landscape is incredible.
The Mackmyra distillery in Sweden is so fascinating. It’s in the woods and is gravity fed which means that no energy is used. The whisky is matured in war time bunkers underground! You drive into the distillery and there’s all these signs almost warning you about a nuclear disaster. It a former bomb creating space and now they use it to store their whisky?! They’ve also got a female master distiller – Angela D’Orazio. They are really cool.
I’m dying to go to Tasmania, there are 8 distilleries there which you wouldn’t expect and it’s like a mini Scotland in the way the land sits – lots of mountains and water… There are so many beautiful stories. For the people who work at these places, this is their way of life and they don’t always realise the impact that their work has down the line, often on a far flung country. It’s fascinating when you think about all this spirit that has been maturing in warehouses goes all around the world and all the time and history and knowledge that goes into it. It’s really quite beautiful.
HOC: I always remember that Parks & Recreation episode where Ron gets to visit the remote Lagavulin distillery on the isle of Islay and gets super emotional…
Alwynne: YES! I was so excited when I saw that episode. I’m a big fan, I bought my other half a t-shirt that said ‘This is LITERALLY the best t-shirt’! Haha!
HOC: If someone fancied themselves a Ron Swanson (!) and wanted to try getting into whisky, what advice would you have for them? I’ve found it’s too often passed off as a ‘man’s drink’, whatever that means and it can seem intimidating for women?
Alwynne: So strange, I mean why is a certain flavour thought of as ‘manly’, whatever that means?! In fact, flavours are the key to finding a whisky you like. I got two of my best friends into whisky and I had it in my head that they’d only like the lighter ones as they’d never really tried whisky before. But, after some experimenting, it was the peaty, punchy ones they loved. They’d always prefer savoury food over sweet and loved smokey flavours – why wouldn’t that be the drinks they’d prefer as well? There’s so many ways to enjoy whisky – some great cocktails out there and some great options to try at home, which is becoming more popular.
HOC: Whisky can be seen as an expensive thing to get into, do you have any tips for House of Coco readers?
Alwynne: That can be true but there’s a lot of time and work that goes into whisky as opposed to other spirits and you’re not likely to get through a bottle too quickly! Generally, independent bottlers like That Boutique-y Whisky Company will be great value and really high quality – they release great bottles with really funky cartoony artwork. In all, there’s a growing trend to drink less but drink better and people are spending a bit more on spirits.
It’s always worth keeping an eye out at Christmas on places like Aldi! Every year, they bring out old whiskies insanely cheaply. Last year, for the first time, they’d bottled an old Irish whisky… I’m usually so late to the party on new releases but, for the first time ever, I read the article on the day this whisky became available. I discovered it was available online so snapped up two bottles I was dubious as it was so reasonable priced and it was so good. Two days later I came back home, after few cocktails, and bought two more bottles online before it sold out!
HOC: It must be so strange for you, looking back on your career and where you’ve got to…?
Alwynne: Definitely! I mean, I’ve now been a full-time employee of Balvenie for a year and a half and before that spent time working across the William Grant brands. I still have my blog, Miss Whisky, which is so important to me as it’s my roots!
It’s been a very different career path than I expected. My dad has been very happy, he’s got a lot of whisky over the years! One of the best things was when I did the opening tasting at the Victoria Whisky Festival in Canada which is right by where my Dad lives so he got to come along. It was one of those moments of thinking – ‘this is the most random thing!’ When I left home at 17 for journalism school, this is not where I thought I was going but it was so nice to almost bring it home….see, it all makes sense now! I totally knew what I was doing the whole time!
With that inspirational thought, we went off on a tangent about in-the-know bars in Seoul in South Korea and how Netflix could commission a series like ‘Nailed It’ based on making cocktails. But it would likely be a bit too messy!
To find out more about Alwynne’s work head to her blog MissWhisky.com