*Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 22 February, 2013. I have received the very sad news that Helen passed away in London on the 29 April, 2015. I have decided to republish this interview in her memory. The author was the first to publish a full colour, illustrated guide to whisky, and had an incredible knowledge on the Scotch whisky industry. My thoughts and condolences go out to her family and those who knew her best. We all raise a dram to this wonderful Whisky Woman.*
“The thrill of tasting a new expression or discovering someone who has the courage to build a new distillery is just as good today as it was when we first started.” – Helen Arthur
Helen Arthur is a well-known whisky author and archivist and former whisky PR who has been involved in the industry since the 1980s.
As an original ‘Whisky Woman’ she published her first book – The Single Malt Whisky Companion – in 1997. It was the first fully illustrated whisky book to hit the market and was an international best seller.
She has since gone on to produce numerous titles and in this Whisky Women interview, she speaks of her 30-years of experience in the industry, how women’s roles in it have developed and the bemusement with which she and other whisky commentators view changes in the industry.
How did you get involved in the world of whisky in the 1980s?
I went to work in Scotland at Hall Advertising in 1981 when my husband Dick (who was in the Parachute Regiment) was posted to Edinburgh. Among other accounts I worked on was The Glenlivet and Glen Grant.
I then went to Manchester Business School and met a man called Patrick Gallagher. We set up a PR business together and our first account was The Famous Grouse. For the next 20 odd years I always had a whisky account among my PR clients so I found myself writing about whisky.
What made you want to continue writing about whisky?
I thought about writing a book on whisky after we completed a special project with The Glendronach, but didn’t find the time. In 1996 my husband died and I received a phone call from a publisher suggesting I might like to write a book about whisky as part of their ‘Companion’ series. Apparently they had asked other writers but they couldn’t help and they had all said I might be interested as I was recently widowed and could well appreciate something different to do, and I knew the whisky industry backwards.
I was quite nervous to start with but with encouragement from friends I wrote my first book. The most exciting thing was that for the first time they agreed to photograph each bottle and not just rely on labels as previous books had done. I also suggested they add more colour photographs to make the book different. It turned into an international best seller – one cannot ask for more than that.
I am very grateful to a huge number of people who supported me and gave me the benefit of their time and experience – they were all hugely inspirational.
What was the industry like 30 years ago for women?
There were quite a lot of women in the whisky industry but nobody talked about them – there were women working in distilleries, but our key strength areas included PR, marketing, visitor centres etc. We were very much front line.
Today, thanks to a change of view by the industry as a whole, women are very much seen as part of the total mix. There are key women in distilleries, as managers, makers, blenders, cask managers and a whole lot more and, of course, people like you and me who bring a feminine touch to the writing side of the business!
What is a favourite whisky you’ve tried?
That’s a very difficult one to answer. I have tasted many fabulous whiskies. One which sticks in my mind though is a Ben Nevis 27 years old – it was absolute nectar. A consistent favourite has been Bowmore 17 years old.
You’re also a spirits archivist. What interesting stories have you come across?
Boxes containing nearly every letter written by James Burroughs who founded Beefeater gin were a fascinating insight into his life and the period in which he lived. The fact that he’d gone to America to seek his fortune and that his return was so well documented really brought him to life. We also found his diaries and cash books with items such as shoes for his children.
Whilst working on the life of William Teacher I discovered similar details including lists of their daily deliveries from one of his shops of wine, port and whisky.
Perhaps the best has to be the telegram from Niagara Falls during Prohibition addressed to Laphroaig distillery saying ‘the medicine has arrived’.
What do you think is missing in whisky writing at the moment?
I realise I am a bit of a dinosaur, but I do feel that whisky writing has changed. If you pick up any magazine topics are shorter without great depth and many of them are simply repeating what others have said over and over again – inevitable, perhaps, but I know there is still a lot out there to tell.
I think we need more in-depth interviews with people who have made whisky great over the past 50 years – there has been an extraordinary revolution in the whisky industry and it has grown exponentially. This is true in part because of demand, but there wouldn’t have been that demand without the dedication, professionalism, love and consistency of standards which the guys (and gals) at the coal face put into making whisky every single day.
We have also lost sight of the terroir aspect of whisky and perhaps some in depth research on this might be interesting. For example Diageo moved away from maturing everything at source some time ago, whilst others firmly believe that everything has to be done at the distillery.
What achievement are you most proud of in your career?
I think the best achievement overall has to be that I have introduced so many people to the wonderful world of whisky through my books and tastings, and have made a huge number of friends.
Also, through my profession, which is also my passion, I have been able to raise money to help others. My husband was looked after during his last three days by our local hospice – St Michael’s in Hereford. The year after his death through a network of lovely friends I held whisky dinners in private houses and we raised over £7,000 and I continue to raise money for them each year.
Additionally I have raised money through whisky events in Kenya to help build schools in the Northern Territory, dig a well for an orphanage in Nairobi and pay for a young girl to have a heart operation.
And, of course, having my name on my own whisky collection is pretty cool!
You’ve known folks like Jim Murray and Jim McEwan for years. Do you all discuss industry changes?
I don’t see them as much as I did but we do still chat. I think we are all slightly bemused by the inevitable changes happening in the industry, such as the fact distilleries are getting larger and more automated. But we all still love working in the industry and the thrill of tasting a new expression or discovering someone who has the courage to build a new distillery is just as good today as it was when we first started.
Do you feel more women could or should be involved in the whisky industry?
I think women are finding a proper place in the whisky industry. There is no doubt that there is room for some great female whisky writers. I know that we bring a different complexion to the world of whisky – we smell and taste things in our own way and our descriptors are usually more varied (or, you could say whacky) than those written by men.
What is your favourite memory of whisky drinking?
The first single malt I remember trying particularly was Highland Park. Patrick Gallagher and I had gone to visit the distillery with Matthew Gloag of Famous Grouse. We sat by the shore near Maes Howe – the ancient burial site – and watched the sun go down on a warm February day. Magic!
I do also remember my grandfather suggesting I might like a whisky when I was very young – he liked a tot most days. It was, I think, VAT 69. My great grandfather was a vintner, so it must be in the blood!