“Every whisky is a liquid joy that unfolds sip after sip.” – Georgie Bell
Georgie Bell is the international ambassador for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. The geography graduate decided to switch paths after falling in love with single malt and the world of whisky, even doing a highly technical diploma in distillation. Here she talks about what drew her to the job, why she believes everyone should try whisky and why there’s sometimes nothing better than a good dram with friends.
You are known for being supremely passionate about whisky. What got you into it?
Before starting at the society I was a cocktail bartender in Edinburgh for 4 years, both part and full time while at university. In the beginning I really didn’t like whisky, but I kept trying it as I was in Scotland – so it would have been rude not to! I started on bourbon, often Makers Mark, as I thought it was sweeter and would drink it in Manhattans.
The dram that converted me, however, was a Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban with a little splash of water. The sweetness, combined with the rich flavours and elegant aftertaste hit all the right spots and I never looked back after that.
Why did you think whisky would make an interesting career choice?
When I graduated from university I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, but I did know that I wasn’t keen on moving back to London, as I knew that I loved Edinburgh. I thought maybe a career in the alcohol industry might suit me and the best way to do this would be to specialise in one spirit: I chose whisky because of my love of the spirit and everything surrounding it – tradition, heritage, production etc. The fact that there is no pre-determined career path is also quite a challenge and exciting as well; hopefully I’ll be able to carve my own.
What’s been one of your best experiences in working in whisky?
It’s hard to say, as there have been so many: whisky has been my working life over the past 2 years whilst at the Society. You meet the most unusual and interesting people here. Doing an impromptu tasting for Kim Cattrall is probably up there in the ‘Top 5’ moments!
I’ve met many amazing people and this often results in making new friends: an added bonus. Colleagues and customers in Edinburgh are so friendly, and I’m constantly learning from my peers who have taught me about whiskey and its heritage. I really enjoy sharing this knowledge, but I am well aware that I still have lots to learn.
Have you ever had to ‘prove’ yourself as a young female working in whisky?
Of course, but then I believe that anyone starting out in a new career has to do the same thing. I often get quite a few shocked faces when I walk into a room to begin a tasting, especially corporate tastings, but I just see this as a challenge to win the group round by the end of the hour.
Over recent years interest in whisky has spread to a younger and more diverse group and it is exciting to be part of this transformation. I do think that there is a bigger problem with age though. Yes, experience comes with age, but knowledge, youthful enthusiasm, passion, drive and determination is a good place to start.
What attracted you to the SMWS?
The Society is a fantastic place to learn and to develop a passion for whisky. To have access to high quality whisky from 129 different distilleries is inspiring, and the emphasis placed on flavour rather than provenance is great.
One of the main reasons I originally wanted a job there was to develop my palate and really be able to describe taste and flavour; as a panel member I’ve been able to do this and more. It’s now lead me down a fascinating route of bringing together food, perfumery, the science of scent, taste and other sensory aspects when experiencing a whisky, which in turn has inspired the tastings I lead.
What achievement are you most proud of in your career?
I recently put myself through a diploma in distillation with the IBD, The Institute of Brewing and Distilling. As a Geography student I have very little background in science, so to launch into a bio-chemistry/engineering diploma was a challenge. But I was fascinated by the subject and enjoyed every second of it. I recently found out that I have been proposed for an award as a result of getting one of the highest marks, and I am incredibly proud of myself for achieving this.
Do you feel more women should or could be involved in the whisky industry?
Of course! I really think it is a great industry to be in. I believe that at the moment there is a surge in passionate whisky lovers who just happen to be women, and that women are slightly more vocal of this passion than men sometimes. If you are female, and want to get on board then there’s nothing stopping you.
How would you pitch the idea of working in whisky to someone interested in getting involved?
Working in the whisky industry provides you with the chance to be part of such a proud and traditional activity. It is also a challenge as whisky production is a business and nothing stands still in business.
Why would you recommend someone who’s never tried a good single malt to give it a go?
You’ll never know if you like it until you try it! Don’t think of it as whisky that you might have tasted before. Think of it as a collection of flavours, associations and memories ready to be explored. Every single malt delivers a new experience depending on mood, climate, diet etc. If you don’t like that particular whisky today, try it again tomorrow, or next week. Every whisky is a liquid joy that unfolds sip after sip.
What is your favourite memory of whisky drinking?
There are so many to choose from! Most recently it was sharing a dram or two of Monkey Shoulder with a group of friends after a very chilled out festival in Cambridge this summer. Being able to have a shared experience like that is really special; the love of whisky originally bought us all together and savouring the whisky as the sun went down over the site while comparing stories was magical.