“If you want a career that embraces your passion – this is it. The people are what make this the most rewarding job.” – Annabel Meikle
Annabel Meikle – aka: The Whisky Belle – is a former global brand ambassador for Glenmorangie and leading lady at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, who has recently set up her own consultancy business.
In this Whisky Women interview, she talks about how a chance bit of timing got her involved with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and heading down the path to a career in whisky; how the industry has changed over the past 12 years; and why camping on Islay provided her most memorable whisky moment.
How did you first get into the world of whisky?
It was one of those occasions of being in the right place at the right time. I had trained in ceramics and textiles, and run a successful business for eight years. But I began to feel like a factory so took time out to work in a delicatessen, where I met a friend who went to work at The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. She lured me to the Vaults [in Edinburgh] where I fell under the charm of the Society so I started on the bar and making sandwiches in the kitchen. Fortunately, a job came up within the month, to provide tastings and events for members and their guests.
I took part in Society Whisky School, which was lead by Dr Jim Swan and Charlie MacLean. That was that, I was hooked. The Society and the industry friends that I made in those early days really shaped and supported my love for whisky.
What whisky was one you first fell in love with?
To be honest my first encounter with whisky involved dipping my finger into father’s whisky which I called his ‘nippy juice’! Needless to say it took a while for me to appreciate whisky properly.
My epiphany moment was a Lagavulin 16 yo enjoyed in The Balmoral Hotel with the same friend, Abigail Bosanko, who was to introduce me to the Society.
You worked for a long time with the SMWS and Glenmorangie – what were some key things you learned in those roles?
I started on the bar at the Society, and I always think it is the best place to start. I learned a huge amount from the loyal members, and the others who I worked alongside.
Sitting on the tasting panel with Charlie MacLean taught me to flex my nose, and how to express what I was experiencing. Knowledge is vital, but you must be able to understand your audience, and engage them.
The Society allowed me to grow and evolve, and prepared me for the variety of work required in the role of ambassador with The Glenmorangie Company.
You’ve recently set up your own business – why did now seem to be the right time?
I think you become a wee bit more reflective in your forties! I took the opportunity to look at the experience I had gained over the last twelve years and identify what I felt passionately about. As I discussed the idea with my family and friends I became more confident that the idea of setting up a consultancy was viable. There was a subtle tipping point when it changed from being an idea to reality. I started to talk about ‘my business’ and it was an exciting feeling.
I am very independent and wanted the freedom and flexibility to run my own business. I’m also a workaholic and a perfectionist so I only have to answer to myself!
What is the thing you are most proud of in your career?
Undoubtedly the position of global ambassador with The Glenmorangie Company. Glenmorangie was the only single malt my grandfather drank. My final interview was on International Women’s Day and I hoped both were an omen as I wanted the job like no other.
The opportunity to work with Dr Bill Lumsden was at the top of the list and it was a great privilege to learn alongside him. My most precious times were spent introducing people to Glenmorangie and Ardbeg distilleries.
How has the industry changed since you’ve been involved?
It has been such an exciting time to be part of the industry because the level of engagement has grown so much. A lot of the myth has been debunked which has made approaching whisky easier for everyone. The explosion in whisky festivals has allowed new drinkers to try and talk to the producers directly. I think there is a balance to be struck to make whisky more approachable while maintaining some of the beautiful and traditional aspects of the industry.
Do you think more women could or should be involved in the whisky world?
I believe that most, if not every industry, is improved by a balance in the work place. The exciting developments in whisky production worldwide have created opportunities for women. If you look into the history of production we see great female characters that played hugely important roles. They just didn’t make much noise about it!
Why would you recommend someone get involved in the whisky world?
I talk to people on a daily basis about how to get into or progress their way into the industry. Over the years at the Society I helped several young people get started and it is amazing to see some of the positions they now hold. I can’t remember how many references I have written. If you want a career that embraces your passion – this is it. The people are what make this the most rewarding job.
Imagine you’re snowed in at a cabin somewhere: what three whiskies would you want to have with you?
An old independent bottling of St Magdalene;
Glenmorangie Private Edition Sonnalta;
Ardbeg 17 year old.
What is one of your favourite memories involving whisky drinking?
One of my most memorable moments was on my first visit to Islay in the summer of 2001. I’m often known as ‘the whisky woman in the tent’ and on this occasion had arrived on Islay in sunshine. I pitched my tent at a beautiful spot overlooking the long, white beach and rejoiced there were no midges. Then, I poured a dram of Ardbeg 10 yo, and flash-fried my langoustines in the pan. I thought it couldn’t get better than that until I spotted a pod of dolphins diving through the waves as they broke towards the shore in the dusk. Truly a magical moment.