SB meets… Aisling BeaBy Melita Kiely
Aisling Bea is best known for her work as a comic and actor, and can now add ‘ambassador for Jameson Irish whiskey’ to her sparkling CV. We caught up with the This Way Up star to learn more about her whiskey journey.
On an unusually warm summer’s day in Cork, Ireland, the Midleton Distillery is booming.
The visitor centre is welcoming swathes of Irish whiskey fans, while in the cool shade of the cooperage comic and actor Aisling Bea co-hosts a masterclass with Jameson Bow St craft ambassador Kieran Keane.
Under Keane’s watchful eye, Bea and the media group present are shown how to create a perfectly balanced, Irish-flag-influenced Jameson Whiskey Sour.
After much hilarity, largely due to the pond-water-esque coupe glasses lining the tables, The Spirits Business editor Melita Kiely sat down for a one-to-one with Bea, to talk comedy, acting, writing and, of course, whiskey.
Do you have a first memory of when you had a moment of ‘I actually really like whiskey’?
When you’re drinking when you’re younger, your memory is not having any memory. Then, as you grow older it’s like learning to appreciate coffee or good food. I do think whiskey came to me through hot whiskeys, and going on stage. Sometimes when you’re doing stand up, the reason you might have a drink or a pint – a lot of stand ups do have a drink – is because to be funny is such a silly state of being, and what you’re trying to create is an atmosphere where you’re not at work. That’s very hard when there’s 1,000 people looking at you, it’s hard to keep that playful energy.
So sometimes when I would have a drink [before going on stage], I try and remind myself that it’s all silly. And the sillier I am, the sillier people will feel. It shouldn’t feel like a formal environment.
In the winter for your voice, a hot whiskey – honey, lemon and whiskey, and some hot water – is a lovely thing to have. So that was my way into whiskey. Then my younger sister and I really enjoyed drinking it together. We would go for a whiskey together, it was something the two of us accidentally liked.
And then I lived with my grandad for two years during university and he had parkinson’s, was really frail, and every single night before he went to bed, he’d have toast with honey on it and a hot whiskey, and that was his little treat for himself. So in our house whiskey was a nice drink you’d have, not a drink to get drunk, necessarily.
So they’re my memories around the drink itself. In Ireland, I do think the alcohol itself has a different association; it’s not old men in the back of the pub, full of regret kind of drink, it’s a nice drink with nice memories.
We just made a Whiskey Sour together. But besides a cocktail, what is your favourite way to drink Jameson?
I do love a Jameson, soda and ice. I like to taste the whiskey so that’s important to me. So I like a Jameson and soda, and one of the ways I got into whiskey was through hot whiskeys. And as a performer for your throat, I’d have a little drink before I go on stage. With hot whiskey it’s really good for your throat, so a honey, lemon and whiskey would always be something I’d have before I’d go on stage.
What attracted you to the Jameson brand?
I get a lot of requests in to associate with different things and I’ve always said no to them because I think Instagram, and being famous for want of a better word, is a sort of ‘wild west’ place at the moment. You constantly have to ask are you a public body, where are you as a person, where do you have a responsibility to the people who are looking at you and taking your words for a living? I have quite a high code of what I will and won’t say. I tend to shut down if anything feels a bit fake. I need some sort of genuine spark to work with anything, even if it’s a subject matter on a panel show.
So when Jameson came along it felt like a fit. And then Chris O’Dowd [actor and comic] is a really good friend of mine. We drink Jameson in LA and around the world; we’ve always sat down and had drinks like that, and Jameson was always in the house. And then when he was doing his work with Redbreast, he’s always had a really good experience. Chris is like a big brother, so it feels like a family thing for me to now be with Jameson as well. That feels nice. And working with him is just really lovely.
[Irish Distillers, part of the Pernod Ricard group] is a massive company but it doesn’t feel like it’s a massive company, which is really important to me. I’d run away from something that feels like they’ll tell you how to speak or exactly what to say, and I think that if I was just an actor that might be fine. But as a stand up it’s really important that your freedom of speech is protected, and that what you’re allowed to say is preserved because there’s no real price on that. So that’s not just the initial what brought me to Jameson, it’s why I love working with the brand, to be honest.
How did you find working on the Widen the Circle campaign?
I think it was quite prevalent coming out of lockdown, something about reconnecting and I think part of the lockdown that I definitely missed was the idea that you’d bump into someone quite naturally. That part of the campaign is lovely even if you take away the alcohol part of it. The idea that we’re all trying to reconnect again and to widen our circle, our little bubble that we’ve been existing in with the same people. The idea that you might bump into strangers again and it’s not so dangerous or going to cause a million diseases, but that idea of actually bumping into people in the pub and having a chat, that is something very essential to being human and the bits we miss.
I remember I had a friend who was like I don’t actually miss my close friends, they’re the ones I’m on a million Zooms with; I miss the sort of friends who I don’t even totally know their surnames, the random people in the pub, on a night out or at a party, and that’s one part of the campaign that I like – the part of reconnecting after the crazy-ass two-and-a-half years we’ve had.
How do you and Jameson work together to ensure you’re promoting messages of responsible drinking?
In my show I have loads of nights out where I’m drinking, and in my stand up I have lots of stories about nights out when I’m drinking – as I said, I literally have a drink as I go on stage. I’m not a nurse or a government official, so I don’t have to have the same responsibility. I have a real responsibility to my audience, but it’s not like me being associated with an Irish drinks company, that’s all glass bottle and not covered in plastic, would surprise them. It really does actually fit quite well.
I’m actually helping with the team helping to write the new ‘Jameson Drink Responsibly’ adverts, and what’s been really exciting about that is I don’t think any sort of Ted talk of ‘don’t be drinking that’ works.
One of the things Jameson was really conscious about was that a lot of the over-drinking happens in a home where people don’t measure stuff properly, which is quite interesting. So we have to see how we can show people how to use the jigger, and try to change how people drink and measure properly, and know how much they’re drinking. I’m terrible for that, like you saw me earlier with maths, I’m really bad.
In America they do free-pouring all the time and it’s really hard to know how three drinks are going to affect you in America. I’m often surprised by by how much they drink and drive there; there’s no culture shift of when you’re supposed to drink and not drink. But in Ireland and the UK, you know what three drinks are. Jameson is really conscious of that, but they’re actively making an advert and working me into the advert to kind of talk to people who are like me, to make them think ‘OK, how would I drink responsibly?’
Most of that is cultural pressure, social pressure, feeling the need to get a round in, fear of being perceived as ‘scabby’ if you don’t get another round in, and that’s been really interesting as I write the advert, to investigate weird things like that; like how do you have one drink? How does a drinks company that wants to sell its drink talk about responsibly with using its products. It’s actually silly for people to binge drink a product. First of all you don’t appreciate it, you could be drinking anything, and second of all it’s not a way of keeping people happily associated with your brand in the long run, and that’s actually so important to keep your drinkers happy and healthy. So that’s the key thing that sits in my head.
With the Widen the Circle campaign, in terms of your acting and writing side, will you be more involved in the campaign?
I’ve been so touched that Jameson asked me to be involved in the Widen the Circle campaign. With adverts you have to get a huge message across in a small amount of time, and that’s the same with comedy: you have to get a joke in a small set, or sketch comedy, which I used to do a lot of writing for. You’re trying to work out what are the main points that connect people.
And in my show, This Way Up, a lot of the things that I’m trying to work in, if you hit people over the head with it, people are like ‘OK, OK, I get it’. So even with adverts, what’s been nice about them slowly but surely involving me more, and me wanting to be involved more, has been marrying those skills together and getting to see if that message came across, and if not, why not? And then how do we get it in quicker?
In TV, my show is 21-and-a-half minutes, and that’s a lot to get in with advert breaks, so I’ve learned the hard way that you have to sometimes make the set, the branding, the symbolism in a scene, the costume, how the character’s hair is, all work at once to tell a story. That’s the same in adverts; you put the bottle, the glass, the symbolism all in one little space to make a message come across quickly. So that’s something I am excited about getting to do more because you forget it’s actually in your wheel house, and the two crafts and skills marry a little bit, which has been interesting to do. I’ve felt quite empowered by it.