“Whiskey is becoming increasingly popular with women so I think more and more need to put themselves forward for these jobs. ” – Eimear Kelleher
Eimear Kelleher is the US brand ambassador for Irish whiskey brand, Tullamore D.E.W.
In this Whisky Women interview, she speaks about getting into the role, the biggest challenge she faces as a brand ambassador, and why the US whisk(e)y market is a vibrant one.
How did you first get into whisky?
It was straight after college. With graduation in sight, I was going through the typical “what am I going to do with my life now?” phase. I had no idea what I wanted to do but I wanted to travel and have a job where no two days were the same. As I was researching different jobs and Masters courses, a friend told me about this programme that pairs Irish graduates with international companies. I applied straight away and in early June 2014 I got a call about meeting with Tullamore D.E.W. I was over the moon.
That’s when it all really began. I researched all there was to know about the brand and the whiskey industry. Prior to that, I was clueless. I didn’t expect to be so fascinated by the business but I was hooked. My interview was with Tim Herlihy (US Ambassador) and John Quinn (Global Ambassador) – two of the company’s ‘Top Dogs’. We spoke for an hour about the role and what I could bring to the brand. From the moment the interview ended, I was on edge. I wanted that job more than anything. Two days later, the phone rang and I got my good news. My poor Mother nearly had a heart attack when I started screaming the house down.
What was it about the spirit that really attracted you?
The thing I love most about whiskey is its heritage. It’s a spirit with spirit, as cheesy as that sounds. Creating whiskey is a heartfelt process based on family traditions. There’s a story with each whiskey. A lot of people assume alcohol is just this mass-produced liquid from a corporation. They don’t know the heart behind the production.
Whether it’s one of the most well known brands like Glenfiddich or one on the rise such as Monkey Shoulder, there’s a captivating story with them all. Take Tullamore D.E.W as an example, Daniel E. Williams (D.E.W) started working in a distillery by the age of fourteen. By the time he was twenty-five, through hard work and determination, he took ownership. He renamed the whiskey after his hometown of Tullamore and lent his initials to every bottle. A young boy going from sleeping in the distillery’s haystacks to creating a legendary whiskey is quite impressive in my books.
What was one of the first whiskies you fell in love with?
Obviously it’s one of my beloved Tullamore D.E.W range and while it is a bit like Sophie’s choice, my heart belongs to our 12 Year Old Special Reserve. It has a higher percentage of pot still than the original, which gives it more of a spice, but it has such a creamy smoothness that keeps me ordering more. Aside from Tullamore D.E.W, the Glenfiddich 40 Year Old turned me into a massive Scotch fan. I got to try a dram of it in a cigar bar in Philadelphia courtesy of our East Coast Glenfiddich ambassador, Struan Grant Ralph. Thankfully he footed the bill. I went from a basic beer drinker to having Balvenie 21 Year in my house within a few short months – I had not expected that!
What do you love most about your role?
Where do I even begin? I love the travel and I love getting to host cool events. Since August of last year, I’ve been to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Delaware, Fort Lauderdale, Baltimore and Washington, DC. I’m such an eager tourist so while some people might stress over living out of a suitcase, I adore it. The events are also a ridiculous amount of fun, hard work, but fun. Last October my boss gave me the go-ahead to run a Women & Whiskey event that I proposed. We partnered with Susan G. Komen to raise money for breast cancer awareness month. My friend, Sinéad Lawlor, is a NY based fashion designer so she created three one-of-a-kind Tullamore D.E.W bottles with a ‘Think Pink’ theme. The event was a huge success and we raised awareness for both the cause and our brand.
But I’d say my all-time favourite aspect of this job is the people you get to meet. From the friendliest bartenders to inspiring CEOs, this job allows me to come across all walks of life. Getting to meet Stella David (CEO of William Grant & Sons) at our NCM was definitely a top moment so far.
While we’re a company of big brands, we’re a very close-knit team and that’s a big thing for me.
What is the most challenging part about being a brand ambassador?
It can be very difficult learning to say no. For some reason, people think brand ambassadors have unlimited budgets and all the time in the world to spare and that is certainly not the case. While I would love to say yes, unfortunately I can’t host every event or spend a fortune on any given day.
There are definitely a lot of challenges to this role but by no means complaints. It’s hard keeping momentum at times because you’ve told the same toasts or stories twenty million times but I compare this to being Beyoncé. No matter how many times she performs ‘Single Ladies’, the crowds are always different and make it impossible to ever get bored.
Do you think more women could or should work in whisky?
Yes and yes. I think women bring a different dynamic to this industry. Whiskey is primarily associated with men, often ‘older gentlemen’, but having a woman in the mix gives it a different vibe. It by no means makes the product ‘girly’, it just gives it a fresh take. Whiskey is becoming increasingly popular with women so I think more and more need to put themselves forward for these jobs. Out of our Tullamore D.E.W ambassador team, six of the nine people are female.
You meet someone who’s never had a whisky – how do you get them to fall in love with it?
It’s ultimately about breaking down their stubbornness. People often have this preconceived notion that they don’t like whiskey – “it’s too strong”, “I only drink flavored vodka” and so on. I find the best way of introducing people to whiskey is to give them a taste of a few different kinds so that they can see it’s not this one set taste. Trying a variation of Irish, Scotch and Bourbon is the best way of understanding flavour profiles. It goes from “I hate all whiskey” to “I like the vanilla and honey notes from the 10 Year Old Single Malt”. Nelson Mandela was right: “education is power”.
Ireland’s whiskey scene is exploding with new distilleries setting up, including your own brand’s. How exciting is it to see the development in this space?
It’s so exciting I could scream. We went from having two or three distilleries to having planning permission for another twenty. People often ask if this increased competition worries us a brand but honestly, it’s so great for the category that it can only help us.
What is the US market like when it comes to whiskey?
There is definitely a massive difference between the US and Ireland in terms of whiskey drinking. At home whiskey is still, unfortunately, associated with the old man in the corner of the pub. However, it is changing… slowly but surely. Whiskey in the US is just ridiculously popular and it keeps growing. Brown liquor is the new black. There are no stereotypes with it here. Young/old, male/female, lawyer/teacher, it doesn’t matter. I feel like people are slightly more passionate about their whiskey here as opposed to back home in Ireland. There’s also more of an interest here. People love learning about the differences between Irish, Scotch and Bourbon as well as new ways of drinking it such as in crafty cocktails or through pairings.
What is one of your favorite memories involving whiskey?
Without a doubt, when I got to sit in front of Brian Kinsman (aka BK), the Master Blender of Tullamore D.E.W, Balvenie and Glenfiddich along with my fellow Tullamore D.E.W brand ambassadors. I sat while he taught us about blending whiskey and how everything all comes together to create a great taste. We also tasted some unreleased whiskey with him that no one else in the world had tried at that point, and still not many have. That was the day the ‘BK Fandom’ began. Our Chicago ambassador, Mary-Jade Hynes and I physically can’t hear his name without raising our glasses in his honour. Search #TheKinsman on Instagram and you’ll see a trend that has developed with our William Grant group as a result!