SB meets… Nc’nean internsBy Georgie Pursey
Sustainable whisky distillery Nc’nean hosted a week-long internship last month, with the mission of encouraging more women to consider careers in the whisky industry.
The week gave three women the chance to experience all aspects of a working distillery, from fermentation to distillation, as well as foraging, bartending, and blending.
We caught up with Emma Fenton, Ellen Barlow and Amelia Webb, the three ladies selected for the position, to find out what they took away from their week-long experience at the B Corp distillery.
Tell us about your background – have you previously worked in the drinks industry, and how did you get into it?
Fenton: “I’m an environmental scientist working on climate change, I’ve only ever worked in the drinks industry doing bar work whilst studying, but am passionate about whisky and have been trying to find a way into the industry since doing a diploma in whisky through the Edinburgh Whisky Academy a few years ago.”
Barlow: “I have no previous experience in the drinks industry, however I did become interested in this area while studying my chemistry undergraduate degree. I then heard about the brewing and distilling postgraduate degree which was available at the same university so decided to give it a try and have really enjoyed it so far.”
Webb: “My industry background is relatively little due to being a student during Covid-19. I previously had some work in local breweries and distilleries when I lived in Orkney but my more direct entry into the industry is my degree. I study at Heriot Watt university in the BSc hons programme for Brewing and Distilling in Edinburgh.”
Why did you apply for the Nc’nean internship and why do you think you were selected?
Fenton: Nc’nean is a completely unique distillery, producing delicious whisky but also prioritising sustainability and environmental concerns. The internship offered an amazing opportunity to learn about the whisky industry from a group of people committed to protecting the environment at the same time. I wanted to see if there was a way I could bring my passion for whisky and passion for climate together.
Technically I wasn’t selected. There were only two spots and those went to two amazing women at the start of their careers in brewing and distilling. The distillery were amazingly generous in opening up a spot for me as well. I think maybe because I was coming from the perspective of an environmentalist and whisky-lover rather than someone with specific brewing and distilling training – offering opportunities to a different group of people.
Webb: I applied for the Nc’nean internship because it was always a hope of mine to visit and work for the distillery during my summers. I fell in love with the company when I heard about the charity auction of the bottles they did a few years ago. I gained more interest when they came to the university and gave talks to the students during sustainability week. I then heard about the internship opportunity that came up through my university intranet and I jumped at it, it did feel a wee bit like fate had played nice.
I hope I was chosen for the internship because I conveyed the passion I have for the craft and the company. I’m a big fan of Nc’nean whisky so coming to work there for a week was just so exciting to me.
Barlow: I actually applied for the Whisky Auctioneer & Nc’nean Scholarship which was available to women wishing to study brewing and distilling. As a result of fortunately receiving this scholarship, the internship at Nc’nean was included.
I think I was selected because I have a background in science and have skills that are applicable to many situations. Additionally, I believe that I was chosen as the internship would be highly beneficial and introduce more skills to me which will be great when progressing further in the industry.
What did you specifically want to take away from the internship?
Fenton: I wanted to find a way to bring together my love for whisky and passion for environmentalism. Whilst I love drinking whisky there’s a huge conflict for me because it is such a resource-intensive industry and innovation in sustainability lags behind many other industries. Nc’nean has shown that you can care about climate and the environment without compromising on the quality and taste of the whisky that you produce, and the internship showed that there could be a role for me in a competitive industry.
Webb: I wanted to take away a new perspective on the industry and dive into the brilliant minds behind the company. It was amazing to actually experience that, and I definitely came away with a new viewpoint on the inner workings and day to day experiences that make the company as amazing as it is!
What did you learn about Nc’nean during your week, and how do you think the brand differs from other whisky brands?
Fenton: For me Nc’nean stands alone in the industry, leading the way in promoting sustainability as part of being a responsible business as well as championing diversity and inclusion in an industry that has been slow to respond to global movements.
I learned about the history of the distillery, where their name came from and why the Quiet Rebels series celebrates the people who have worked to make the distillery the success that it is today.
Barlow: I have learnt that despite the production of whisky being a very traditional process, the industry is still changing to improve the drink itself while also reducing the impact the distillery has on the environment and climate change. Nc’nean is a very unique distillery which is doing very well in terms of reducing waste and having a minimal carbon footprint, all while trying to reduce their impact further.
Webb: I learnt about the process of making young whisky of a high quality that I didn’t really consider before. This was a cool process that I found gave the final product great body and not anything in the way of strong taste present in lots of younger whiskies.
What did you learn during the internship that surprised you?
Webb: I would really love to consider myself an enthusiast/semi expert on the sustainability front, but this internship taught me there is much more to it that I need to learn. It also surprised me just how much is required of the industry to even scrape past the ambitious climate goals we have in place – these really aren’t being considered by many distilleries other than Nc’nean.
Barlow: What surprised me in this internship was how ‘hands-on’ the entire process was. At other distilleries, most of the stages in production are automated and controlled by computer systems, however Nc’nean relied on the distillers having a very manual approach and the whisky being bottled and labelled completely by hand. I believe this adds to the character of the distillery and makes their whisky so much more special.
Fenton: One of the most surprising things for me I actually learned from the other interns – how few women enrol on brewing and distilling courses at university. It just goes to show that the pipeline for talented women to enter the drinks industry starts being constrained from much earlier than I had expected.
Has the internship affected how you’d like to go forward with a career in the drinks industry?
Webb: Of course, yes. I always planned on going down the more sustainable focused side of the industry and this gave me the insight I needed to decide on that.
Barlow: I have come home knowing that I definitely would like to pursue a career in this industry and that it is possible to do so without having a large amount of previous experience. The internship confirmed that this is a suitable career path for me and that I will enjoy it. I think I do need to find more experience in other distilleries as well, to aid in finding a position within a distillery.
Fenton: The internship has confirmed that there could be a future for me in the whisky industry that would help me to shape the environmental or climate commitments that distilleries or the industry could make.
Do you think the drinks industry as a whole is doing enough to promote careers for women in whisky, and if not, what more do you think the industry can do to change that?
Barlow: The drinks industry is still very much a male dominated industry, however several companies appear to be actively looking to employ more women. Despite this, most roles carried out by women still tend to be at a desk rather than within the distillery itself.
Fenton: I think that sort of education and encouragement needs a more comprehensive view of careers in the industry. Thinking specifically about the whisky industry (as I often do), that means careers in distilleries, front of house, in bars and everything in between. The ideal offering would be a wider educational programme that gave women a grounding in brewing and distilling, distillery experience, bar management experience and a qualification or diploma in the whisky industry.
For me the industry could collaborate to give cohorts of women experience in rotation through different positions in the industry to improve their employability.
Webb: I personally feel the drinks industry is still not doing nearly enough for women and other minority groups. From other work experience I completed I was surrounded by only men in the physical distillery or brewery and women were more in the admin side of things, it was so refreshing seeing more balance at Nc’nean. I think the industry on the whole really needs to encourage more women in the physical production side.
What is next for you?
Barlow: After completing my postgraduate degree I am planning on reaching out to various distilleries to enquire about a role being made available for a junior distiller as this is what interests me the most. I enjoy jobs which are very physical, so I believe this would be a great position if any are available.
Webb: Going forward from the experience I am entering my fourth year so I’m hoping to complete my degree and possibly go on to a master’s research. During the immediate summer period I am being employed by the Brewing and Distilling remit of my university as a scientific researcher and will be completing two projects which is very exciting.
Fenton: I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for opportunities to bring climate and sustainability expertise to the whisky industry.