“I find it important never to rush them [a new female whisky drinker] into tasting whisky but to let them try it gently and at their own pace. You might get the occasional point blank refusal but generally it is well received.” – Penny Ellis
Penny Ellis is a director of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, which runs this year from the 2-8 May this year. She is also owner, along with her husband Gavin, of the Knockomie Hotel located in Findhorn in Speyside, where she actively promotes whisky to all guests in the Malt Library, which features more than 80 single malts.
What is your background in whisky?
My whisky journey started in the 1980s when I was first introduced to the ‘water of life’ at a New Years Eve party. Since, I have held a keen interest that was further developed when I joined J&B Rare as their Catering Manager, which encompassed the corporate hospitality. Later I worked for Cutty Sark Whisky as a visitor’s manager based at Glenrothes Distillery. I have been actively promoting and selling whisky to our guests for the past 20 years since becoming married and being involved in Knockomie Hotel .
What made you want to be involved in the world of whisky?
I suppose you could say it evolved from being part of my career to being part of my everyday life in the running of a hotel located in Speyside, where the majority of Scotland’s distilleries are based.
What dram made you passionate about the drink?
I don’t think there ever was a particular dram that inspired me as there are so many different distilleries, all with a different aroma, taste or finish. Living in Speyside would probably mean that it would be Speyside whiskies that I would favour over other regions.
You run a hotel and are director of one of the biggest whisky festivals in the UK – how do you find time for it all?
Running a hotel in Speyside means that tourism is an integral part of the success of both the hotel and the region. Whilst being two very different businesses, each with their own challenges, it is rewarding to be part of a successful event that brings visitors to this part of Scotland who are here for the whisky but may return with their families. As with many aspects of life, when it’s interesting and fun you make the time!
What is your favourite part of what you do at both the hotel and the Festival?
I would say the natural answer is the meeting of visitors and hotel guests, who come from all over the UK and the world; to speak to them and see what has brought them here, whether it is the leisure tourism experience or if they are considering investing in the region.
What achievement are you most proud of in your career?
I think there are several areas of my career to date that I am proud of. Being part of a team running a successful business for the last 20 years and being invited to become a board member of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival would be two.
Do you feel more women should or could be involved in the whisky industry?
There are already several women involved in the whisky industry including distillery managers who are women. There is always room for more!
Do you think the perception of whisky as a “male” drink is changing at all?
It is changing and many more women are drinking blended whisky that can be served with a mixer, such as dry ginger ale, however the single malt whisky is still mainly perceived as a male drink. At Knockomie we try to change that perception.
You’re trying to change perceptions but what are some reactions from women who have never tried whisky?
The reactions are always more positive than negative, mainly because for many women it has never crossed their mind to touch whisky. Trying it for the first time can be challenging and it is always good to talk to them about what their favourite drinks are then look at what whiskies they may enjoy. I find it important never to rush them into tasting whisky but to let them try it gently and at their own pace. You might get the occasional point blank refusal but generally it is well received.
Finally, what is your favourite memory of whisky drinking?
My favourite memory of whisky drinking is sitting with friends I hadn’t seen or spent time with for years, and having had a delicious seafood meal, relaxing by a roaring fire with a wonderful dram in great company.