“From where I dram there’s never been any shortage of women working with whisky and judging from the nearly 50% female attendance Spirit of Toronto now garners, there’s no shortage of women enjoying it as well.” – Johanna Ngoh
Johanna Ngoh is the executive producer of the Spirit of Toronto Annual Whisky Gala, Canada’s largest whisky show, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in May this year.
She is also the author and publisher of Single Minded 2014: A Modest Guide to Really Good Whisky, which gives consumers advice on the whiskies that she has personally spent money on and would recommend.
In this Whisky Women interview, she talks about getting into the business, the chaos and part folly of starting a whisky show, her proudest moments and her belief that women are a strong component of the whisky world.
You’ve been writing about whisky for more than 10 years. How did you get into it?
I shipped my motorcycle to Scotland in 2000 for a six-week tour and while it was a magnificent journey that I long to relive, the whisky is what really stuck with me. Upon returning to Canada I joined a local whisky tasting society that happened to be in need of an editor for their newsletter.
In the end I wrote but one issue [as] the club was in fact a front for an importer – my real purpose in ‘volunteering’ was to shill the whiskies they were selling to club members. We parted ways but I so enjoyed that one stint writing about whisky that the following year I went ahead and published a newsletter called ‘Single Minded, A Single Malt Whisky Journal’.
Do you remember a whisky that really inspired you early on?
The first whisky I purchased for myself…Highland Park 25 Year Old. I clearly recall trying to choose between this and the Auchentoshan 1965, 31 Year Old. I’ve since tasted the latter and while it’s a stellar dram, in retrospect my palate was not yet developed enough to truly appreciate its subtleties, though I continue to keep an eye out for it at auction and on my travels.
I also remember with great fondness the Bowmore Cask Strength bottling from the distillery’s old core range. It was glorious and being high proof it was my first Glasgow kiss from Islay; a real belter as they say, robust and full of Kildalton character. It was the first whisky I tasted on Scottish soil, proffered to me as I tripped into Oddbins on the Royal Mile my first blustery evening in Edinburgh. As one accustomed to the short leash of a government controlled liquor monopoly, I was simply awestruck by the dizzying array of whiskies peering out from every corner…it was as though I had entered Aladdin’s Cave. The shop clerk noted my quiet reverence, poured a generous dram and invited me to have a look around. I did, and I’ve never looked back.
You’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Spirit of Toronto Whisky Gala this year. When you started, did you think you would get to this point?
I wasn’t even certain I’d make it to October 29, 2004, never mind a tenth anniversary. My father kept urging me to develop a business plan but I refused, knowing full well that it would only reveal the depth of my folly. My strategy was to instead barrel ahead at full tilt, calling on my network of industry contacts to support the effort. Much to my delight it made sense to the majority of people I spoke with although I still have an email from one of my favourite distillers with the words “commercial suicide” in bold and underlined.
Nonetheless, even as the pieces came together I was ready to hit the proverbial stone wall that would spell the end of my grand plans. Then one day my sister called to say that she’d had a look at the show’s website. “So, all of this is for real? These people are actually coming from Scotland, Ireland and Kentucky? I guess this means you have a show, huh?” We laugh now, but I remember all of a sudden feeling this enormous weight as I realized that in a few weeks I’d be hosting a room full of brands, speakers and whisky enthusiasts.
What do you enjoy most about organizing this event?
Spirit of Toronto is very much a collaborative effort between myself and my husband, Charles Anderson. My favourite part is pooling our ideas and energy with a focus on hosting the best event possible. From its very inception Spirit of Toronto was to be the show that we’d always wanted to attend ourselves. We’re happy to have achieved that, so much so that we invariably regret not being able to actually take part as there are so many operational details to attend to.
It’s a delight every year to see the familiar faces of what I now call the ‘Friends of Spirit of Toronto’, a group of dedicated fans who have been with us from the beginning. Along with the brands who have supported us from day one, they play a large part in the high quality of the event and they’re always top of mind as we plan every edition.
How important is it for you to support/promote Canadian whisky as someone based there?
We boast a growing number of whiskies that deserve our praise and pride, but for the most part Canadian whisky continues to fly under the radar even at home. An industry friend who recently toured some Canadian distilleries remarked the reticent attitudes he encountered reminded him of the Japanese whisky industry ten years ago.
The exception is John Hall of Forty Creek Distillery, a supporter of Spirit of Toronto from the very beginning and for far too long the only Canadian whisky exhibiting at the event. At our inaugural show he was scheduled for a masterclass and much to my shock and embarrassment absolutely no one turned up! I was mortified, so much so that I waived his table fee the following year.
In 2007 I had the opportunity to taste the single malt, single rye and single corn whiskies he uses to blend his Forty Creek Select, and I wrote an article about the whiskies and John’s winemaker’s approach to whisky. I recommended to John that he present a masterclass at Spirit of Toronto sampling these component whiskies, and I billed it as a ‘deconstruction tasting’. The class was fully subscribed and generated a lot of buzz. In fact, John Hall is now one of our most popular presenters.
Given the challenges of keeping up a print newsletter in the digital age, I stopped publishing Single Minded v1.0 in 2007, but my interest in writing about whisky was still there. Coupled with the growing number of whisky queries I was receiving from Spirit of Toronto goers, I decided to revive Single Minded as an annual guide, and it is really my love letter to whisky, highlighting the affordable, accessible whiskies that I hold to be every bit as good as whiskies costing twice the price, and quite often better still.
Like many other long time whisky enthusiasts I’ve become disillusioned with certain aspects of the industry, mocking the consumer with its never-ending string of deluxe-super-premium offerings. The reality is most people’s comfort zone is sub-$100. I long ago lost the desire and wherewithal to keep up with all the new releases and limited editions, and while I continue to enjoy the old and defunct (in other words, rare!), what keeps my interest alive are what I call the daily drinkers, everyday whisky that 95% [of people choose from].
Single Minded stays far from ratings as I am personally allergic to them and this new guide is in the same vein. The only criteria is whether or not I would spend my own money on a whisky so this new incarnation focuses exclusively on whiskies I’ve purchased myself.
What are you most proud of when it comes to your whisky career?
Maintaining both my independence and enthusiasm: two things that I’ve often seen erode once one channels their love of whisky into a business. Keeping an arm’s length relationship has been fairly easy as Spirit of Toronto showcases whisky from a myriad of producers so can’t afford to play favourites with any one brand.
Enthusiasm, [however] becomes a precious commodity the more time you spend with the industry, particularly sales and marketing. The romantic in me pines for floor maltings and direct-fired stills, but the reality is that making whisky is a business whose bottom line is carefully guarded. Luckily I’ve had the pleasure to make friends with some very passionate people and its always invigorating to meet and discuss our beloved water of life, be it production, sales or the mere pleasure of its consumption.
With respect to tangible achievements, the Spirit of Toronto charity auction that raised $7000 on behalf of Michael Jackson and the Parkinson Society of Canada was a very fine moment, both for myself and for the show.
What advice would you give someone keen to get involved in the whisky world?
Follow your bliss. I would really have nothing more to say because I think what the whisky world needs is more creativity and passion, not drones following a well-worn template. Without enthusiasm and fresh ideas we would never have seen the likes of Ralfystuff, Maltstock or the Limburg Whisky Fair. Last year a friend started an event in Kingston and his festival [in February] will ferry guests by horse drawn carriages — this is so romantic and really brings a sense of occasion to the event. It’s this kind of whimsy and imagination — practical or not — that the world of whisky could use more of.
Do you think more women could or should be involved in whisky?
The first whisky society I joined was run by a woman. The first whisky tasting I attended was presented by a woman. I deal with more women than men when I work with the brands that attend Spirit of Toronto, from marketing coordinators to brand managers and vice presidents. Language notwithstanding, Whisky Magazine and Fine Spirits France is the best whisky publication in circulation, and for its first six years it was edited by a woman. Johnnie Walker Blue Label 200th Anniversary: this is the best blend I’ve ever tasted and it was the handiwork of one of the Scotch whisky industry’s most talented women.
From where I dram there’s never been any shortage of women working with whisky and judging from the nearly 50% female attendance Spirit of Toronto now garners, there’s no shortage of women enjoying it as well. The only gender bias I have ever come across in whisky is in its advertising, but sadly that’s a short-sightedness you’ll find with the marketing of many consumer goods.
What is one of your favourite memories associated with whisky?
Probably my favourite memory is a raucous weekend of malt and mayhem in Amsterdam when Charles and I visited Johannes of www.maltmadness.com fame. When Johannes found out we were staying around the corner from his favourite ‘liquorist’, he insisted we visit even though he couldn’t join us. When we announced that Johannes had sent us, the shopkeeper simply smiled and led us into a crowded basement. He waved at his overstock and told us to see if there was anything of interest. I spent the next two hours cross-legged on the floor, opening various shipping boxes and sifting through bottles on the shelves. Some of my best-ever ‘dusties’ were unearthed that day including a Macallan 1979 Gran Reserva and a Rare Malts St. Magdalene 1979.
Just over five hundred dollars bought an embarrassment of riches ten years ago. It was whisky’s age of innocence in retrospect, and I have to admit that I occasionally miss those days.