“I feel proud every day working in an industry that is borne from my home country. It’s an industry that is pure, honest and endearing.” – Karen Walker
Karen Walker is the Marketing Director of Scottish Brands for International Beverage, which owns brands like Balblair, Old Pulteney and anCnoc.
She has been involved in the whisky industry for 21 years and in this Whisky Women interview she speaks about her various roles, how things have changed over the past two decades and what whiskies really take her fancy.
Tell me about your career in the world of whisky:
I graduated with a degree in Business Studies and Marketing in 1992. As it was during the Gulf War and a UK recession I took the first job that came along, which was in the marketing department of an engineering company. Two years later they closed the Edinburgh office and I was out looking for a job. I was lucky – a role came up as Marketing Executive for Invergordon Distillers and I have never looked back!
I was at Invergordon Distillers for five and a half years and I not only gained invaluable experience in the marketing of Scotch whisky, but a wide variety of other spirit categories – Irish whiskey, Canadian whisky, bourbon, vodka, gin. Then a role came up at Morrison Bowmore Distillers (MBD) as Brands Manager and again, I jumped at it.
The years at MBD were invaluable. I travelled extensively around Europe as Bowmore punched way above its weight in that region at that time (15 years ago now!). Bowmore grew by 100% in the time I was there. Don’t be misled, I was not the only Brands Manager – there were two of us. However to be part of a team that cheered at milestones, celebrated at distributor wins, and joined together to work as a team made me realise there was nowhere else other than the Scotch whisky industry that I wanted to be.
I started with Inver House Distillers as Marketing Manager in 2003 with two Brand Managers and a Marketing Executive, managing the portfolio globally. Inver House Distillers was integrated into InterBev Group, part of the Thai Bev group, and on returning from maternity leave in Oct 2009, having had twins, I became Marketing Director of the Scottish Brands portfolio.
We are now a team of 10 and I am immensely proud of the marketing team and could not be here without them supporting me every day.
What makes you most interested in this spirit?
I feel proud every day working in an industry that is borne from my home country. It’s an industry that is pure, honest and endearing. And of course I love working with people every day that have a true passion for what they do, from the stillmen to the accountants.
What was one of the first whiskies you tried that you really loved?
The Lowlands. At the time I was young and female, obviously, so they were easier for me to enjoy on the palate and not too challenging. I have grown to love anCnoc 16 year old and Old Pulteney 12 year old. And Old Pulteney 21 year old, well, it is quite simply outstanding. But a Balblair for me during the festive period is gorgeous: add together a roaring fire with a happy family around me, an after dinner Balblair in hand, and the world is a great place.
What does your role entail on a day to day basis?
No day in any year is ever the same. We work on an annual calendar so projects come around year by year. This is what keeps every day alive, buzzing, challenging and rewarding.
What is your favourite aspect of what you do?
I love seeing concepts come to shelf, seeing the consumer enjoying something I know came from an idea in our Airdrie office.
I also enjoy developing partnerships worldwide with distributors’ networks where we build the brands in markets that we could not get to without them.
Then there is educating consumers about the nuances of Scotch and how complicated, how simple, yet how enjoyable it can be.
Whisky is increasingly of interest to a younger consumer. As a marketer, are you excited by this potential?
Yes, of course we are all excited about this. However education is still essential. The emerging markets of China, India, Mexico and Brazil are indeed exciting, however we have to ensure we maintain the integrity of Scotch and market our brands responsibly to any younger demographic.
What is your opinion on minimum pricing?
In the industry we have to market our brands responsibly, and in the Scotch whisky industry we do. I do not believe that minimum pricing/regulation is the best way to achieve the common goal of minimising alcohol abuse.
Do you think more women could or should work in the whisky business?
Absolutely. When I started 21 years ago I was a minority, trying hard to carve my way in a company with traditional management structures in place. This was the case in many industries, not just the Scotch whisky industry.
Things have changed now and today eight of the 10 strong team I manage are women, and they are all strong minded, capable, reliable and loyal and I enjoy every day I work with them. We work with men and women across all departments of the organisation and the industry. It is great to see women getting opportunities in senior management roles.
What is one of your most cherished memories involving whisky drinking?
There are many moments and happy memories to recall. Friendships I have made, and stories I have shared while enjoying a dram. Too many to tell in this interview!
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