“For me to be working on the other side of the world but for the same company I started with is a huge honour. Every day I wake up and feel like I am in a dream!” – Laura C Hay
Laura C Hay is a brand ambassador with Chivas Brothers in Australia, where she has been based for 18 months. Previously, she was based at The Glenlivet, a few doors down from where she grew up, and has worked in the industry for 10 years.
In this interview, she speaks about the loneliness of working in the middle of nowhere, the great friends she’s made in the whisky industry and why she’s glad she didn’t give up on her whisky dreams to work for ASDA.
How did you get involved in working in whisky?
In March 2002 when I moved home after college – home being three doors along from The Glenlivet distillery. I was sure I was going to end up working in Walkers shortbread factory, but instead I took a job as a tour-guide at The Glenlivet Visitor Centre. Wisest move I have ever made.
My passion for whisky first came from the production side. I wanted to know everything…I read so many books that I found around the distillery. I was also so privileged to work and live around people who had been in the industry for years. They answered any questions I had. They told me amazing stories about years gone by and how everything has changed. I found it fascinating!!
Was there a particular dram that really made you fall for whisky?
I’ve tried so many whiskies over the years it is really hard to pick one that stands out. However if I think back to before I worked with whisky I can remember the time I fell in love with it.
I was just turned 18 (I am saying this for legal purposes…I may of been slightly younger!) and I was up in Glenlivet visiting from college. I had always been a beer girl and my step-dad had decided it was time to introduce me to the world of whisky. We literally have thousands of bottles of whisky around our home in Glenlivet. He gave me a dram of The Glenlivet 18 years and a dram of Bowmore 17 years. I sat and nosed for ages and took my time over them. That was the moment I knew I loved whisky, the moment I awoke to the different aromas and flavours.
You’re my first ‘Whisky Woman’ from Australia. How different is the market there?
I am proud to be your first “whisky woman” in Australia! I have been out here for a year and a half now, traveling around and also working independently before I took the role on of Brand Ambassador of Chivas Brothers. To compare the market to home is a little misty as I am now used to the goings-on out here in Oz. At first I have to say it was rather daunting!
I do at times, feel very much removed as I am so used to being enveloped with distilleries and whisky people. Out here I have to “paint the picture” better for people to understand and fall in love with whisky. I like that as I love a challenge. In Scotland most people know a little about whisky. In Australia it’s still a very new market and it has really only been in the last 6 months to a year that whisky is taking off, especially, in Sydney and Melbourne. There are a lot of lovely wee boutique bars opening up, many of which are themed on the prohibition era, speak-easy style. Whisky, along with other unusual spirits, are becoming easier to find while the range of whiskies has definitely grown, and very fast. People in Australia are also hungry for more information on the whisky industry and are super enthusiastic.
Another amazing thing is the cocktail scene out here. Cocktails have never tasted so good! Being from the highlands of Scotland, I used be against the whisky cocktail thing but I have undoubtedly changed my mind. I’ve met so many amazingly talented people that create the most exciting whisky cocktails I have ever tried and this is another way whisky has definitely elbowed its way in.
I am so very proud to be out here and educate all types of people in the history of Chivas and the Scotch industry but at the same time I am learning too. It can be scary but that is the exciting part – everyday is a school day!
You have been involved in the world of whisky for more than 10 years. What changes have you seen?
When I first started, I know it’s cliché’, but it was real male-orientated industry. That may not ever completely change and that’s okay but I most definitely have seen a lot more females getting on board through the years, which is amazing.
Other things I have been through are distilleries opening and closing through the years. I remember the day Pittyviach was brought to the ground. I was working in The Croft bar in Glenlivet/Glenrinnes when one of the locals came in and said he just saw it being raised. I genuinely cried. To me, and of course most of us in the industry and local area, this was heart breaking news.
The same thing happened two Christmases ago, when I was driving through Rothes and I looked to where Caperdonich distillery used to be…empty space. Again my heart stopped briefly. However I have seen great things come about too, with the re-opening of Braeval and now Glen Keith.
And, of course the huge expansion at home was the biggest thing. The Glenlivet distillery practically doubling its capacity with a new still-house and a fancy new space age mash-tun, for example. It has changed drastically – very exciting times!
What achievement are you most proud of in your career?
This a really tough question. I am very happy that I am still in the industry I love – I’m very lucky and I will never take this for granted.
I’ve had many amazing moments through the past 10 years: sitting on the SMWS tasting panel with my colleagues and friends including Charlie Maclean and Robin Laing surrounded by like-minded people made me feel very proud.
Then, thinking back to when I did live in Glenlivet (aka: The middle of nowhere) I had some very lonely moments and I would never have thought in my wildest of dreams I would of achieved what I have so far. I worked and studied very hard as there was not much else to do.
Each moment I look back on very fondly, and each adds to my whisky stories. Now for me to be working on the other side of the world but for the same company I started with is a huge honour. Every day I wake up and feel like I am in a dream!
Do you feel more women should or could be involved in the whisky industry?
Yes, yes and yes ?
How would you sell the idea of working in whisky to someone interested in getting involved?
I do this on an almost everyday basis as I love the industry. I say go for it! You have got to love it though, it has to be your passion. Everything after that, with a bit of hard work, will one day fall into place.
I have had a roller-coaster ride with my career so far…there were days I thought: that’s it I’m going to work in ASDA! But I really stuck at it.
I just feel if you ever have a bad day, remember why you are doing it in the first place – I think of home and the amazing people I have worked with along the way and I am back on track.
Why would you recommend someone who’s never tried a good single malt to give it a go?
Everyone should try whisky at least once in there lives. I always imagine choosing a whisky is like choosing a perfume – it is a very personal thing. There is most certainly a whisky out there for everyone, you just have to have the time to find it but once you do you will not look back.
What is your favourite memory of whisky drinking?
I have had so many unreal experiences, especially now being out here in Oz and I could list many but I’ll choose two!
The first was my leaving ‘do’ for coming over to Australia. My lovely friend Chris Hoban brought me a wee sample of a Gordon & Macphail’s bottling of Glenlivet 70 year old that he got given at a tasting and saved for me. I was blown away…he is now one of my favourite people in the world! The whisky was fab-u-lous and the occasion was very emotional for me: saying goodbye to my friends and colleagues and heading out on an exciting new adventure.
The other is ordering a Glenlivet 12 years in a bar in Manhattan with my younger brother, Angus. We got chatting with the barman and explained that I was a whisky ambassador and my brother Angus was a stillman at The Glenlivet distillery. We found it awesome seeing it on the bars in New York. The poor guy looked at us as if we had horns growing out our heads – he did not believe a word we were saying. When we thought about it, it did sound kind of out of this world so we didn’t blame him for not believing us!