“I often get the feeling that these ‘traditionalists’ believe whiskies are created for their sole enjoyment only…It takes an exhausting amount of charm and patience to guide such stubbornness to enlightenment.” – Patsy Christie
Patsy Christie is The Macallan’s brand ambassador in the Middle East.
Canadian by birth, Patsy started in the drinks trade young, inspired by her parents who built and ran a motel in Canada. Working in cocktails, she designed menus for major hotel groups, before falling in love with Macallan while working in Scotland. She has since created The Whisky Connoisseur Certificate Programme, alongside her brand ambassador role.
In this Whisky Women interview, she speaks about getting into the industry, the challenges she faces trying to open up the category and why she recommends having a thick skin in this business.
How did you first get into working in whisky?
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how long I have been working in, or surrounded by, the drinks industry. Before I was born my parents built a small motel that had 12 rooms in the Canadian country for hunters and fishermen. You could say that I’ve been surrounded by the culture of restaurants and bars since birth. They sold the family business when I was five years old.
My first paid job was as a dishwasher at the age of fourteen. I worked my way up to waitress then eventually bartender until 2007 when a gentleman from The Macallan’s Canadian distributor spotted me and asked if I’d be interested in representing the company’s portfolio as a Drinks Ambassador across the country. Two years later I transferred to Scotland, covering the UK until I was offered the opportunity to focus on The Macallan throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey in 2012. It’s been quite the journey, both in and out of the glass.
What was it about this spirit that really attracted you?
Whisky is the greatest spirit in the world! A vast amount of distilleries and unique brands, a rich history with centuries of perfected craftsmanship, and meticulous regulation and protection all contribute to the category’s unrivalled success.
What was one of the first whiskies you fell in love with?
The first guided tasting I was ever led through was a one-to-one in 2007 with my very dear friend Marc Laverdiere, The Macallan Brand Ambassador for Canada. At the time I was a devote Mixologist obsessed with the craft of cocktails and could never imagine signing my soul to any one brand. Our tasting ended with The Macallan Sherry Oak Cask Strength. I knew from the first sip there was something special about that dram, and there was something special about that ‘chateau’. Over the next few years, I would study The Macallan from the inside and quickly come to admire parent company Edrington’s ethos of community, craftsmanship and generosity. Simply put, there is no greater drinks brand to work for.
What do you love most about your role?
My “job” is to entertain, inspire and teach others about The Macallan. It doesn’t get any better than that!
What is the most challenging part of being a brand ambassador?
Definitely breaking down outdated stereotypes. It’s disheartening to see whisky devotees dismiss the talent of an incredible mixologist who mixes single malt libations, or scoff at the gentleman seated next them enjoying his whisky over ice, or exclude a young woman in this perceived ‘old boys club’. I often get the feeling that these ‘traditionalists’ believe whiskies are created for their sole enjoyment only, and to heck with however anyone else chooses to enjoy them. It takes an exhausting amount of charm and patience to guide such stubbornness to enlightenment.
What are you most proud of in your career?
Just before I left for Dubai in July of 2012, I was travelling home to Edinburgh from a week of trainings in London aboard an empty train. I caught myself staring out the window at the passing east coast landscape. It was a very rare moment of solitude in a fast paced, chaotic life. It suddenly hit me like a tonne of bricks how far from my blue-collar, northern Ontario roots I was, and how much further I would travel in the coming days. So I did what any tech-savy, self-promoting Brand Ambassador would do while having a deep moment, I tweeted: “Someone somewhere gifted me this life and while I often wonder what I did to deserve it, I promise not to let them down.” I can’t say there is any one experience or achievement I am most proud of. The entire journey is what I’m proud of and grateful for.
Do you think more women should or could work in whisky?
It is an honor and privilege being appointed The Macallan Brand Ambassador, as a young Canadian woman it’s obvious I don’t fit the stereotype. But sometimes it’s easier to get across a new perspective of a traditional subject, when the communicator doesn’t fit the mold. It’s a thrill to see audiences begin my tastings with apprehension, only to have them mesmerized by the end. I’m ferociously stubborn, so challenges amuse me. I suggest a thick skin, humble confidence and an unrivalled knowledge of the industry (including competitors) for any woman considering a career in whisky.
You meet someone who’s never had a whisky: how do you get them to fall in love with it?
It’s an amazing experience to meet and teach novice drinkers. I meet them almost every day; young Bartenders and Servers who are just starting their careers. I know what they’re thinking, I was once in their shoes, and I think it helps me connect with them. I’m given the chance to ignite their appreciation of whisky, of single malt, and what better prop to have than The Macallan?! Technicalities, tasting techniques/notes and unique selling points don’t really resonate with them, so I share my own, very personal journey with whisky, Scotland and The Macallan. I’m very honest with them, I tell them the things I admire and aspects of the industry I question. The drinks industry is a people industry first and foremost.
What is it like working in the Middle East? What are the biggest hurdles there?
The Middle East, as a whole, is an ‘immature’ drinks market. If you consider that international brands didn’t really invest in the region and open up offices until the millennium, the rest of the world certainly has a strategic head start. As such, expertise in marketing, distribution, retail and the general level of spirit knowledge still has a long way to go. But we’re bridging the gap at a remarkable pace.
Many of the challenges center on the demands of a luxury brand. From a short-term business perspective there are numerous strategies that can be applied for quick returns which are less labour-intensive and more economic. This is not what The Macallan represents, we place priority on long-term growth and everything we do must be of equal grade to the liquid inside the bottle. Most often slow and steady is a difficult concept to get across.
What’s one of your favourite memories involving whisky?
I used to use any excuse to visit The Macallan Distillery in Speyside. The estate is breath-taking and I can find true solace there. I’ve collected very special memories from the times I spent working alongside the distillery team, learning how to make whisky first-hand and befriending so many wonderful characters. Staying in Easter Elchies House, the manor illustrated on every bottle of Macallan, and enjoying a dram or two by the fireplace is indescribable.
Great interview. Very impressive journey on the whisky trail.