“Whisky is something very personal, very emotional. It’s important to respect that.” – Nicola Riske
Nicola Riske is Edrington’s Brand Ambassador and Key Account Manager in the USA.
Based in New York City, Nicola focuses across the company’s full portfolio, from Highland Park to Macallan and Famous Grouse.
In this Whisky Women interview, she tells how she got into the world of whisky, why letting people come up with their own tasting notes is critical, and why the whisky industry has a gigantic heart.
How did you first get into whisky?
I first got into whisky back in 2005, when I was doing some freelance marketing work for Diageo on their reserve portfolio. It was there that I was introduced to whisky and began exploring all of the different regions and flavors. Being a Canadian girl with Scottish roots, I was immediately taken with whisky’s rich history and heritage and decided to learn as much as I could about it.
In 2010, I became involved with the United States Bartenders Guild, to further my education in spirits, bartending and the craft of the cocktail.
The opportunity to work full-time in whisky finally came up in 2012 with Edrington and I’ve been fortunate enough to represent their beautiful whisky portfolio for the last three years as an ambassador.
What captured your imagination about this fine spirit?
The stories are what first drew me in, tugging on my heart strings. As mentioned, I’m a Canadian with Scottish roots, so the exploration of Scotland really intrigued me. I then fell in love with the different aromas, flavours, textures. And the more I learned….the more questions I had – which led me to my current studies at the Institute for Brewing & Distilling. I absolutely love that I never stop learning with this beautiful spirit. I constantly have questions. I’m always searching for answers. I always have my nose in either a dram or a book – usually both.
What was one of the first whiskies you fell in love with?
I remember the exact moment, actually. I was working at WhiskyLive in 2006. I had been asked to pour at a table covered with whiskies that I’d never even tasted. I was panicked. The Whisky Ambassador, Spike McClure, approached me & poured me a small taste of Dalwhinnie Distillers Edition. I asked him ‘What are the tasting notes?’ and he replied: ‘What do you taste? What do you smell?’ It was the first time that someone had asked me how I felt about the whisky, instead of being told what I should smell or taste or feel.
Spike – in that moment – taught me to value my palate. The whisky was divine – but the lesson was invaluable. Every time I teach people about whisky, I teach them to respect their palates and respect the palates of the people around them. Whisky is something very personal, very emotional. It’s important to respect that.
What do you love most about your role?
I love teaching people about the flavour and fun of whisky. My favourite moments are those ‘a-ha’ ones that come from people who don’t think they like whisky at all, and then…. ‘A-HA!’ You see their expressions change and their faces light up and say: ‘I never knew I liked whisky?!’ I simply love being a part of that, seeing someone fall in love with this spirit as much as I love it.
And, of course, the people in this industry are simply the best. They are some of the warmest, most passionate, giving and wonderful human beings I know. The heart of this industry is gigantic.
What is the most challenging part of being a brand ambassador?
I would say that New York City is one of the most challenging markets in the world for whisky – it’s a busy city in general – so, it’s important for me, as a Brand Ambassador, to be organized and focused with my work so that I can also enjoy my time off with my family & friends. My family comes first, always!
Do you think more women should or could work in whisky?
You meet someone who’s never had a whisky: how do you get them to fall in love with it?
Before even pouring a whisky for them, I’ll usually ask them ‘What do you usually drink? If I name a few flavors and aromas, tell me which ones interest you…’ I’ll select a whisky based on that and let them know that there’s no right or wrong with whisky. You simply have to ask yourself three questions: ‘What do I smell? What do I taste? How do I feel?’ If you reply to all of these questions positively, then you’ve found the right whisky for you for that particular moment! Is it overwhelming on the palate? Add a splash of water. Water is to whisky what oxygen is to wine – open it up and release those sweeter, fruitier aromas and complexities. If the person doesn’t like their whisky neat, a Whisky Sour or a Blood and Sand are fantastic introductions to it. I adore classic whisky cocktails.
You spend a lot of time travelling: what’s one of your favourite places to visit?
There are so many. New Zealand is one of my favourite countries to visit, but mainly because I love the adventurous outdoors there – going caving and skydiving and whatnot. In the United States, I must say that I’m currently in love with Charleston, South Carolina. The food and beverage industry is spectacular and the Southern hospitality is outstanding. It’s a great vacation spot, if you enjoy culinary adventures.
Desert Island Drams: you can take three to your island – what are they?
Highland Park 18 year old – a whisky that I try to carry on me as often as possible;
The Macallan 17 Year Old Fine Oak – my favourite whisky to sip on the beach;
Bulleit Rye – so that I can make Manhattans for happy hour.
What’s one of your favourite memories involving whisky?
My first trip to Orkney with Highland Park. Orkney is a different world. It is beautiful and the wind makes you feel like you can fly. It’s also a place that is so rich with incredible history and Viking heritage. I fell in love not only with Highland Park as a whisky there, but the earth on which the distillery stands.
On my final day, in the middle of February, I rolled my pant legs up and danced in the waves of Scapa Flow. Actually, back to your previous question on favourite places to visit, it’s quite possibly one of my favourite places on earth. It’s unlike anywhere else.