“Beyond the industry, there needs to be a wider understanding that women are whisky drinkers. It’s not something that should be met with raised eyebrows any longer.” – Steph Murray.
Steph helps run The Dowans Hotel, in the heart of Speyside, alongside her family, who bought the hotel in 2012.
The hotel puts great emphasis on whisky, and in this Whisky Women interview, she explains how she fell in love with whisky, what they’re doing at The Dowans to put a focus on the spirit, and what would be on her desert island drams list!
How did you first get interested in whisky?
When I was younger, I always declared that I hated whisky. Smelling my dad’s whisky made me feel sick and so I was determined that I would never drink it despite the fact that I was endlessly told that I would ‘mature into it’ as a Scot!
This changed during a training session while working at One Devonshire Gardens in Glasgow. Determined to see my thinking about whisky change, the lady that took us through it insisted that I add water to each dram that I was tasting until my palate got used to the flavour.
From that moment, it became a learning experience that has led to the passion that I have today not only when I am drinking one of my favourites but also when my passion allows me the opportunity to convince people to take a leap of faith and try a malt when they may have been hesitant to do so before.
You and your family took over the Dowans in 2012 – what kind of a focus have you put on whisky at the hotel?
From the moment we looked into buying the Dowans until the moment we walked through the doors, and ever since, our aim has been to invest in the recognition of whisky as an ever-growing strength in the Scottish market but also to focus on the fact that it is a drink that no longer needs to be caged into the stereotype of old white men in smoking jackets and slippers surrounded by those of the same ilk.
Ever since I was introduced to Smokehead, the ‘rock’n’roll’ whisky, I knew that there was definitely space for more and more people to grow to love a good dram and that has been our aim with every person that walks through our doors, regardless of gender, race or age (over-18s obviously!)
We love starting that initial conversation about whisky and then seeing what comes of it. That has only increased now with our focus on home-created whisky cocktails using local whiskies and also the introduction of our new Whisky snug, ‘The Still’ (and the member’s club of the same name) which will allow us to even further integrate ourselves into the whisky world.
You have also put attention on food and whisky – how well do you think the two work together? Favourite pairings?
I have always had a passion for wine matching with food and that passion has steadily transferred to the matching of whisky and food, so much so that I am do this for the menus in our 57 restaurant and Spé, our fine dining offering, for those who would like it.
One of my proudest moments was recommending a whisky to go with a guest’s meal and them being absolutely stunned at the transformation of not only the whisky itself but also the dish by the combination. That just re-affirmed the range of possibilities that come from taking that small leap of faith (for those who haven’t tried it before) and recognising that there are just as many varying flavours in whisky as there are in wine and so why wouldn’t it be the perfect match for food?
We have now held several whisky dinners and all of them have successfully received positive feedback so the message is definitely out there. One of my favourite pairings to date is Bowmore 12 with our Home-Hot Smoked Salmon and Beetroot – it just went perfectly well.
How important is it to you to work with local distilleries?
It really is fundamental to our business and a lot of the support that we have received from the umbrella groups of those local distilleries has been overwhelming and entirely beneficial since we arrived in Speyside. Around 60% of our business is corporate based with much of that taken up by those that work at many different levels within the whisky industry so their influence on our business is intrinsically linked to our success.
Alongside that fact, we have benefited from the large amount of whisky tourists that come to the area and our close relationship with local distilleries helps us to provide a more personalised service to our guests, specifically with organising tours and providing them with the best of local whisky to sample in our bars.
What do you love most about the whisky world?
The diversity that exists within the whisky world. That includes the whisky itself and its malleable nature which allows it to be so versatile whether in food pairings or cocktail making; the variety of people who drink it; the ever-changing nature of the drink itself and the endless adventure of discovery that comes from a growing passion in seeking ever new whiskies to try.
Desert Island Drams: what three from the hotel’s collection would you take with you and why?
I have to start with the A’bunadh, which is undoubtedly one of my absolute favourites. It was one of the first whiskies that I tried when I came up here just before our arrival in Speyside and I just fell in love with it. It is just so moreish. Also, it has a great story and I love repeating it to guests.
My next choice would probably have to be the Bowmore Darkest (15 year old); I have yet to mature my palate enough to fully appreciate the peaty and smoky whiskies but this version of Bowmore has definitely opened my mind to the possibilities that are out there when I do start trying more of them!
My last choice, although it is not easy to cut it down to just three, would be the Balvenie Caribbean Cask. Before I started drinking whisky, I was a real rum fiend and I think that is why it is an instant hit in my eyes. Also, I sometimes find it difficult to fully taste the influence of varied casks on whisky (i.e. port, madeira etc) but I find that this version really does work and the rum is definitely a huge influence on the dram.
Do you think more women could or should be involved in whisky?
Undoubtedly, yes. There are a lot of women in the industry already but there is always room for more. Beyond the industry though, there needs to be a wider understanding of the reality that women are whisky drinkers. It’s not something that should be met with raised eyebrows any longer. In many other areas of the world, whisky isn’t deemed to be a ‘male’ drink and I just hope that that message continues to be spread further and wider as time goes on.
Why should someone who has never sampled whisky do so?
It has to be one of the most versatile drinks out there and for that, I think, why wouldn’t you at least give it a go? It has so many different bursts of flavour, so many varieties of strength and depth and body and it has so much history attached to it as well. It’s almost like its own national treasure.
And if a guest doesn’t have enough nerve to try a dram on its own then I or my sister (she is the cocktail goddess!) would offer to make them a whisky based cocktail, which is becoming a more common choice amongst our guests, or subtly combine it with a dish that highlights its strengths!
What’s one of your favourite memories involving whisky?
One memory that does come to mind though was sharing one of my dad’s favourite drams, Macallan 10, after I had just got into drinking and appreciating whisky. It was one of the whiskies that I used to declare I would never touch but that first dram together has started a bit of a bonding ritual for my dad and I with us sitting after a long day’s work and tasting one of the many whiskies that our country is famous for.