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That’s the spirit: Meet the women forging careers in Irish whiskey

Women now make up 37pc of workforce in what was once a male-dominated industry


Helen Mulholland, master blender at Lough Gill distillery in Co Sligo

Helen Mulholland, master blender at Lough Gill distillery in Co Sligo

Sarah Dowling, blending and distillery manager at Cooley distillery

Sarah Dowling, blending and distillery manager at Cooley distillery

Emma Millar, distiller with Hinch Distillery, Ballynahinch, Co Down. Photo: Jamie Cotter

Emma Millar, distiller with Hinch Distillery, Ballynahinch, Co Down. Photo: Jamie Cotter


Helen Mulholland, master blender at Lough Gill distillery in Co Sligo

Irish whiskey is having a moment, with two million more cases sold last year than before the pandemic.

While a surge in the number of craft distilleries has led to reports of market saturation, it has opened up job opportunities, including for women, in what was traditionally a male-dominated industry.

Figures from the Irish Whiskey Association show the workforce is now 37pc female, with more women taking up roles in production and management.

“It is very male-dominated, but I don’t think that should put anybody off,” says Emma Millar, a distiller at the year-old Hinch craft distillery in Ballynahinch, Co Down. She started her career in Scotland after studying food design and completing a master’s in ­brewing and distilling.

“Over my few years in the industry, I have already seen a growth in females in distilling and blending roles.

“We move a lot of casks, which are about 50-60kg each, so it is heavy work sometimes. But you don’t really want to be differentiated because you’re a girl. You want to be treated exactly the same. So I get stuck into every single thing.”

Athlone native and self-confessed “whiskey geek” Sarah Dowling moved home from Scotland to work as a blender and is now managing Cooley distillery in Co Louth.  

“I definitely have been the only woman in the room at times. But I have never felt that I was the first ever woman in that room.

“My advice for someone thinking of getting into the industry, whatever their gender, is just to go for it. There are more opportunities to work in the Irish whiskey industry than ever before. My experience has been such a positive one. There were times when I felt like I was really pushing on an open door.”

Helen Mulholland, Ireland’s first female master blender, says there were barely any roles – for men or women – when she started in the industry almost 30 years ago, a time when Irish Distillers, owned by French drinks giant Pernod Ricard, dominated the scene.

“When I started in the drinks industry, there were only three distilleries [in Ireland] and Irish Distillers owned two of them,” said the Portstewart, Co Derry native. “There was very little movement in jobs because the roles weren’t there.

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“There were two blending roles in the whole of Ireland and probably two distilling roles, maybe three. [People] were there for a lifetime.”

Since 2013, the number of distilleries on the island of Ireland has grown from four to 42. That makes for a crowded marketplace, admits the head of the Irish Whiskey Association, William Lavelle. But he is still bullish about the industry’s growth prospects.

“It’s a tough game, but we feel that there is plenty of headroom for growth out there,” Mr Lavelle said.

Irish whiskey sales have doubled since 2014, although that strong growth could see a slowdown this year as producers are forced to leave the Russian market. Russia took the UK’s place as the second-largest market for Irish exports in 2021, after the US.

Meanwhile, Irish people are drinking less alcohol, with consumption down 4.7pc last year and 30pc in the past two decades, according to the ­Revenue Commissioners.

Mr Lavelle said new markets with large populations, such as India and Nigeria, as well as higher-priced premium brands, will help bolster sales.

“People are drinking less but they’re drinking better, and they are drinking in different ways – cocktails and mixed drinks,” he said.

“What we’re seeing is new consumers coming to Irish whiskey, and it is the leading brands – the top three brands, Jameson, ­Tullamore Dew, Bushmills – who are at the vanguard.

“We’re going to see more millennials and more Gen Z coming to Irish whiskey.”

Ms Mulholland, a former Bushmills master blender, says it hasn’t been an overnight success for Irish whiskey, largely because it takes so long for the product to come to market.

“At this stage in my career, a lot of the products, I won’t actually see go to market – the 25-year-olds the 30-year-olds.

“You work with history and you create history. You lead the journey for a while but you only look after the distillery for a short period of time, and then you have to hand it back.”

She recently took up the master blender role at Lough Gill distillery in Sligo, which was bought by Paddy and Southern Comfort owner Sazerac this year. The US firm intends to develop the Athrú brand and create a visitor attraction at Hazelwood House on its 100-acre estate.

Making whiskey is a mixture of “the science and the art” of creating recipes and watching how the liquid reacts with casks and with changes in temperature over time.

“There is something quite romantic and long-term about whiskey,” says Hinch’s Emma Millar. “It’s like a long-lost story.”

Cooley’s Sarah Dowling has never seen any of the whiskeys she has worked on get bottled. “I can’t wait for that day. It’s going to be such a feeling of pride.”

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