For several years, whisky has been perceived as a man’s drink. According to research conducted by OurWhisky in 2020, of all the images featuring people posted on Instagram by the 150 world’s leading whisky brands, 82% of them showed men, while only 18% showed women.
Whereas prejudices are hard to die out, in reality, things are changing. Whisky has long since ceased to be a “man’s world”. In the last decade, more and more women have not only started drinking whisky but have become an integral part of the industry. Nevertheless, brands on their social media still choose to not properly represent a large proportion of their customers, demonstrating not only an outdated view of society but also a distorted perception of their demographic. A choice that could seriously damage the business itself.
A more inclusive approach would mean allowing new points of view to lead the tradition to unexplored directions. A new way of perceiving whisky, no longer relegated to the world of the elite but intended for a community of enthusiasts who want to break through the boundaries imposed by prejudice. This is all possible thanks to the inclusion of new people in the whisky world with their unique perspectives and ways of understanding the experience, bringing a breath of fresh air.
Intending to change stereotypes and support women who aspire to a career in the industry, some associations and brands have taken action to make the whisky world more inclusive. In 2020, The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) has launched a Diversity and Inclusivity Charter to encourage equal opportunities. The Charter sets a series of minimum benchmarks for all SWA member companies to meet. The aim is to achieve a 50/50 gender balance in the workforce while eliminating any gender pay gap. Indeed, while The Charter is just the start of the conversation, the whisky industry has witnessed the rise of several great women as distillers, blenders, managers, entrepreneurs, and organizers.
Kate Watt, entrepreneur in the whisky industry
Kate Watt is certainly one of the major whisky entrepreneurs. She entered the world of whisky almost by chance, starting to work at Springbank export office. Soon, it would turn out to be one of those life-changing opportunities. From Sprinkgbank, she continued working for Glenfalclas, then as a freelance until she, together with her husband Mark, started their own personal label in 2020: Watt Whisky.
We wanted to know more about her unique perspective as a woman entrepreneur in the whisky industry and ask her about her experiences.
A chat with Kate Watt
How did you start working in the whisky industry and, what was the thing that excited you more about it?
I kind of got into the whisky industry by accident. I didn’t even know the job I ended up doing for 15+ years existed! I’d just graduated Uni and was looking for a job, preferably abroad, that would allow me to travel and use my languages. I’d applied for the Foreign Office and a couple of translating jobs but hadn’t got them and then Mum heard that someone that worked in the Springbank export office was leaving cause there was too much travel – the joys of living in a small town!
I figured it was worth a shot (no such thing as too much travel as far as I was concerned) so I phoned them up, explained that I had a degree in French and Hispanic Studies and asked if they had any jobs going. The rest, as they say, is history. At the time I wasn’t that enamoured with the thought of moving back to my home town but I thought I’d stick it out for a couple of years to get some experience and then move on somewhere else. I quickly changed my mind though cause it turned out I absolutely loved the job. I found out years later that I phoned up on the same day that Nicola (who had the job before me) left – clearly meant to be.
It’s a fantastic industry to work in. Ok, I didn’t get to live abroad but I did get to travel all over the world (using my languages), talk about whisky and meet some fantastic people along the way. And hopefully will continue to do so with Watt Whisky for many more years to come.
In recent years, the whisky industry has been opening up to diversity. Whereas previously it was considered a male-dominated industry, now more and more companies at different levels of production are signing up to programmes that encourage people from different backgrounds to join their workforce.
As a businesswoman, what is your experience? How has the working environment changed compared to the past?
There are undoubtedly more women working in the public facing side of the industry now than when I first started in 2002 but there are huge amounts more people working in the industry full stop. When I started you had all the big names, that had been working in the industry forever – Richard Patterson, Jim McEwan, Frank McHardy, Billy Walker, etc – who would all have been in their 50s at that time and then you had the new generation of 20 and 30 somethings coming in and learning the ropes. There wasn’t really anybody much in between. I suspect that was because nobody was hiring during the 80s when whisky was in the doldrums.
For the past 20 years, whisky has been booming so you’ve got more and more people, generally young, coming into the industry and loads of new roles being created within it. To use Springbank as an example – when I first started there the Sales & Marketing team consisted of two people, Euan Mitchell and me, for the whole world. Now I think there are 5 or 6 of them.
Some women working in the whisky industry in past interviews have commented on how their knowledge of whisky was belittled by the general public, as whisky has always been considered a male drink. Have you experienced similar episodes?
No, I’ve either been very lucky or just have an incredibly thick skin/am oblivious as I’ve never experienced anything like that. Yes, when I was younger, I’d occasionally get asked if I liked whisky but I always took that more as a ‘do you actually like whisky or is it just a job?’ rather than a ‘oh, you’re a girl, do you drink whisky?’. Mark got asked the same when he was young so I think it was maybe more to do with youth/experience than gender anyway. We certainly haven’t been asked that for a long time!
Do you think there are career paths in the whisky world from which women are still excluded?
No. Not from my experience anyway.
In your past experiences, you worked mainly in the export area. Do you think that some countries are more advanced than others in terms of diversity within the industry?
I can only speak from my own experience which has been overwhelmingly positive with both companies I’ve worked for and now in our own business. I think the UK, and some other long-established whisky drinking markets, still struggle a bit with the public/media perception that whisky is a man’s drink/world but I really don’t think that’s the case within the industry, which I’ve always found to be very welcoming and inclusive.
Recently, together with Mark, you launched your own whisky label, Watt Whisky, and it is having great success. What advice would you give to women who want to become entrepreneurs in the whisky world?
Get lots of experience before you start on your own. And be nice to people! We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for the contacts, friendships and working relationships both of us have made over the last 20 years.