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Women brewing up a storm in the Irish drinks industry

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Marie Byrne - Dublin Whiskey company

Marie Byrne - Dublin Whiskey company

Anna Malmhake, CEO of Irish Distillers

Anna Malmhake, CEO of Irish Distillers

Grainne Walsh owner of Metalman Brewery

Grainne Walsh owner of Metalman Brewery

Martina Delaney, Sommelier at Lecrivain restauran

Martina Delaney, Sommelier at Lecrivain restauran

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Marie Byrne - Dublin Whiskey company

Historically and culturally, the drinks industry has always been dominated by men. Men came up with the ideas that gave rise to new concoctions and new brands; they worked behind the scenes distilling and brewing; they owned pubs and bars, and they drove the marketing and advertising campaigns that promoted big brands. They evidently did quite a good job too - whether we like it or not, our country is synonymous with booze.

In recent years, as well as traditional brands such as Guinness and Jameson, new boutique drinks producers have set up in Ireland, making everything from craft beer to specialist whiskeys. So are we, whisper it, becoming more discerning, more responsible drinkers?

Certainly, women in particular are experimenting more - sampling not just wines or cocktails, but also stout and ale; whiskey and brandy. And coupled with these more sophisticated emerging trends are new waves of driven, passionate women who now find themselves at the very helm of an industry that previously ignored them. Here, we meet four of those leading lights…

 

Marie Byrne, 37

Managing Director of the Dublin Whiskey Company, a start-up she founded with Edmond O'Flaherty and Pat O'Brien in 2012. DWC has acquired a 17th-century mill building in the Liberties, from where a distillery and visitors' centre will operate in a year's time. Wexford-native Marie lives in Terenure in Dublin.

"I did a science degree in UCD, so I understand the distillation process. I'm a farmer's daughter - my family have a small farm in north county Wexford just outside Gorey - so I know about grains. But I've also always been involved in start-ups. So somewhere along the way, the Dublin Whiskey Company was born alongside Ed and Pat. It was a natural step in many ways.

Dublin was once the capital of the whiskey-making world. In the 1800s we produced more cases of the stuff than anywhere else, but in recent decades that's dwindled to a trickle. There really is a fantastic opportunity for Ireland to expand and create an even stronger export product: because Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirit globally.

There are admittedly not many women in a similar position to me - certainly, I don't have many female friends who have felt compelled to start up their own drinks company! I was having an email conversation with some Asian distributors recently and then they rang to finalise a few things - there was definitely an 'oh, you're a woman!' moment at first. But that initial reaction passed soon enough and then we just got down to business.

I will say though that having more women brings more diverse profiles to the drinks industry. There are no longer female-only or male-only drinks, so it makes sense that a greater variety of people should be behind the scenes designing and making the products, or driving marketing.

The Dublin Whiskey Company really wanted to be in the Liberties because historically the area there used to support so many distilleries. And now we're trying to support other small Irish businesses and local residents along the way.

We invited students in from NCAD to hold a fashion show in the distiller recently. I even try and shop locally. There are amazing food markets in Dublin 8 and I love popping into the Design Centre in Powerscourt Town House to pick up something from an Irish designer; Caroline Kilkenny is a particular favourite.

That local outlook also means we're trying to think of different ways to approach the business. Incredibly, we have €10m of investment to date, but we're raising additional, smaller amounts now by pre-selling casks. It's the 'every little helps' approach!

I'm proud to be involved in the Irish drinks industry, and now I just can't wait to get our Old Dublin Whiskey on shelves."

 

Anna Malmhake, 47

CEO and chairman at Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard - whose Irish brands include Jameson and Powers whiskeys, as well as Cork Dry Gin. A native of Sweden, Anna took up her position at the company's Dublin office three years ago.

"When we think of the Jameson background and history, most people think of John Jameson - despite the fact that his wife Margaret was just as influential. So really, both of their names should be on the bottle today!

Of course, we have this modern perception of women being excluded from the drinks industry, but going back through the centuries, at certain times they did fare better. Indeed, if you read about Stockholm in the 1600s and 1700s and you'll come across countless numbers of women who are brewing and distilling, or they own and operate successful pubs and inns.

Fast-forwarding to the modern-day, I think it's interesting therefore that the Jameson graduate distiller programmes have been awarded to more female applicants than male. They've obviously just been the most worthy candidates at the time, but it's nevertheless an exciting trend.

In fact, I have always thought there is a femininity to whiskey; it's perfume-like - that's the one other industry I would compare it to. I love perfumes; and I love whiskey.

I began my career by working in a store when I was a student back in Sweden. I was always very interested in cocktails, wine and spirits. There, I was able to learn all about the industry first-hand and later I wanted to branch out into marketing side of things. That move didn't happen immediately, but when in early 2007 the Swedish state decided to sell Absolut vodka, I got the phone-call asking me to come on board.

I didn't actually always like whiskey, however. I tried a very mainstream brand when I was in my early 20s and I just thought: 'No thanks, that's not for me.' Thankfully some years later I had a colleague who introduced me to a whole range of whiskeys - and suddenly I realised there were, for example, deep smoky varieties; that not everything tastes the same.

Regardless of who's behind the scenes, one of the reasons that whiskey sales are increasing is because more women are drinking it: they try it, and they like it. Irish whiskeys in particular are very smooth and very drinkable. There is a tradition in this country of distilling three times, and that process makes the end-result very fresh, something which appeals to women. Being in this role means that, no matter what, no one can tell me that whiskey isn't for women!"

 

Gráinne Walsh, 39

In early 2011, Gráinne left behind a successful career in IT to establish a craft beer company, Metalman Brewing. She lives in Waterford, where her beers are  also produced. Last year, Metalman's pale ale was awarded Beer Of  The Year by Beoir, Ireland's craft brewing association.

"I've always found myself working in male-dominated environments. I graduated from UL in 1996 with an applied maths and computing degree and also have a Masters from DIT in theoretical physics. At the time, not a lot of women were attracted to those courses. And when I began working for Amazon in 2007, out of a staff of about 80 I was one of only two or three women.

These days, I like to be involved in every aspect of the brewing process. I'm certainly not just a sales-head that saw craft beer as an investment. In fact, I'm a beer nerd! This has always been a labour of love.

A little over ten years ago I worked for the telecommunications company AT&T, and part of my job involved being based in Slovakia and the UK for a few years. I also had to travel back and forth to the west coast of the United States. Being abroad really made me appreciate just how wonderful craft beers could be. In Ireland at the time, we had next to no culture of small brewers producing their own, high-quality, niche products. Indeed, traditionally a lot of drinkers in this country make their choices based on brand rather the actual beer itself. They order one of the big, global names by default. I'm working to change that!

I'm not the only one, either. In the last 18 months there has been a real explosion of smaller brewers in this country.

When I started out in 2011, there were about a dozen others doing something similar; now there are close to 50. But I definitely view that as a good thing - it shows the demand is really there and that the average costumer is more and more willing to swap over to something less mainstream.

I'm also coming across a lot more female involvement in micro-brewing. Even a few ago, I really stood out: some people just assumed that I was doing the front-of-house stuff but that ultimately there was a man somewhere calling the shots. Attitudes like that aren't helpful, but they are rare and anyway, you just get on with it. I'd like to think that Metalman's beers speak for themselves, regardless of who's behind the scenes."

Martina Delaney (46) is originally from Finglas and still lives in Dublin today. She is sommelier at the Michelin-starred L'Ecrivain on Baggot Street, where she has worked for 20 years. In 2011, she was awarded Sommelier Of The Year at the Food & Wine Awards.

"When I was growing up in Finglas there was never any wine in the house. In fact, Dad drank only Guinness and Mum didn't drink at all.

After I left school in the late 1980s, I went to work in various restaurants as a waitress. And it was then that I realised just how fascinating wine could be - not only how it smells and tastes, but also the stories and the people behind the brands.

So, despite being absolutely clueless in the beginning, I began to train, take my exams, learn about soil categories, seasons, vineyards, fermentation methods - you name it, I was hungry to know more.

It was a brilliant time to get into wine, too. For one thing, there was a good bit of money about then. People were beginning to travel a lot more - going not only to Spain, France and Italy, but further afield to the US, Australia and New Zealand. Apartheid was coming to an end in South Africa. Suddenly, the industry was diversifying and becoming much more exhilarating.

Still, there's no doubt that in the 1990s I was one of the few female sommeliers working alongside a load of men. A great many of them were French. They inevitably trained in France and then came to Ireland for a stint to work in some of our better establishments. But when the recession hit a few years ago, most of them would have, understandably, left for London.

Certainly, the restaurant industry has had a few tough years, but things are beginning to improve, and new faces are beginning to emerge. Actually, there are quite a few female sommeliers in Ireland right now.

Julie Dupouy came to Ireland to work at Guilbaud's and is now director of wine at Donnybrook Fair; Nisea Doddy is at the Shelbourne; we have Aileen Burke at the Greenhouse, and Mary O'Malley at Shanahan's. It's exciting to see that.

I won't deny it's hugely demanding to work in a restaurant. Everyone from the bottom to the top works long, unforgiving hours.

But being a sommelier also ticks a lot of boxes: you can travel and meet people, you can witness the evolution of a particular region or country and, of course, you never stop asking questions and learning about truly great wines."

Irish Independent