“[Whisky] is a centuries old product but it’s almost new too, because every time a cask is aged, there’s something new and different that comes out of it.” – Sarah O’Donovan
Sarah O’Donovan is a bartender at the Pullman Hotel, near London’s King’s Cross. The bar features an impressive selection of whiskies, housed in a stunning glass case and it is Sarah who runs the whisky tasting events at the bar.
In this Whisky Women interview, Sarah – originally from County Clare in Ireland – discusses why she’s fallen in love with whisky, how she sees the industry changing and her plans for the future.
How did you first get into whisky?
My colleague had a great interest in whisky and he helped me to learn more. I have an innate interest in engineering and that gives me a great fascination with the construction and operation of distilleries. I love the fact you have this beautiful, soft product coming out of an engineering process. In my family, my aunt, my grandmother and her father before her have all been licence holders, they’ve all owned pubs so it’s close to my heart.
What were some of the first whiskies you tried that hooked you in?
My first taste of anything other than Jameson – because everyone drinks that in Ireland – was a Laphroaig 10 year old and it completely overwhelmed me. I left it alone for a month or so, asked more questions about whisky, learned more and realised they weren’t all going to be quite so intense as that.
Once I started seeing other finishes in whiskies – like the Glenmorangie Signet – that drew me in as it appealed more to my palate. I was surprised, then, to find I actually quite enjoyed Caol Ila 18. We also have quite a few interesting bottles from Edradour, like the Chardonnay cask matured, and I’ve really enjoyed that.
What has been a surprise to you about the whisky world?
There’s always something new to learn and I’m quite surprised at how accessible it has been to actually go about that learning. It’s so open and everyone who is involved is happy to talk to you about it if you show an interest.
From a female point of view, people can be surprised that you show an interest I find but once that initial five seconds are gone it’s an open market and you can really ask loads of questions.
What do you enjoy most about what you’re doing?
As I learn more and more about whisky, I just want to tell the world about it right now. I don’t have a fear of speaking to just about anyone who will listen so that’s what I’m doing. It’s not like I am the first person to discover whisky but I feel like it because it is so exciting. It’s a centuries old product but it’s almost new too, because every time a cask is aged, there’s something new and different that comes out of it.
What is one of your main goals?
The mental image you get of whisky is of wing-backed chairs and libraries – I’m trying to dispel that myth and make people aware there’s also more than just Scotch. It’s still incomprehensible for a lot of people that whisky comes from Japan so when you mention Tasmania or something, it’s quite a surprise.
I find that as long as you get someone who’s willing to speak to you then being able to tell them the stories behind the bottles and the stories of the industry can really hook them in, can make you hold someone’s attention. I like the story of Wild Geese, for instance. It’s an Irish blend and is named after the fact that when James I came to conquer Ireland, the noble family he conquered – the Sarsfields – fled to France. But they believed they’d return so they were named the wild geese. They didn’t come back in the end but the whisky is named in honour of every Irishman who’s had to leave his country.
It’s great to see you so passionate about the industry. How do you envision the industry moving forward?
Whisky companies are definitely moving forward and realising people are becoming more discerning, at ever younger ages. People might say something like, ‘Oh it’s an 18 year old so it must be better than the 12 year old.’ I try to explain it doesn’t mean that but the main point is the questions are being asked.
Also, I think as you see more young women and men coming into the industry and starting to drink it, the proliferation of whisky will spread more. There’s still a bit of a notion that ‘when you grow up you’ll enjoy it’ but actually that’s where things like blends and cocktails are coming in. And the more bars there are that are serving these, the better.