How This Woman Is Slaying It In The Whisky World

how this woman is slaying it in the whisky world
how this woman is slaying it in the whisky world 1

With a history that dates back nearly 1,000 years, whisky (or whiskey, as it’s known in some parts of the world) is one of the most popular drinks on the planet. In fact, sales of whisky and whiskey will nearly double worldwide over the next decade to reach $108 billion by 2031. What’s fueling this massive growth? Women—who now account for 30% to 40% of consumers. And as more and more women are starting to drink whisky, the beloved spirit is drawing them into the industry in unique and unexpected ways.

Meet Katy Fennema. This former classical musician in the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is now a Whisky Ambassador at the new Bertie’s Whisky Bar in Scotland’s Fife Arms Hotel, a landmark property in the Highlands that’s known for its whisky programming and its world-class art collection with pieces from Pablo Picasso and Lucian Freud. In her new role, Fennema brings her knowledge and expertise of whisky to create unique drinks, host regular tastings and guide guests through Bertie’s collection of 365 fine and rare whiskies (one for each day of the year). 

Besides her position at The Fife Arms Hotel, Fennema is also a consultant for the Edinburgh Whisky Academy and co-owner of Braemar Highland Experience, where she introduces guests to the history, folklore and nature of Scotland on luxury bespoke guided tours.

Here, Fennema tells what she loves about her scenic homeland, explains how she got into whisky, shares details about what it’s like to be a Whisky Ambassador and reveals her biggest career regret. 

Love at First Sip: When I was young, my father would often finish the evening with a glass of Glenmorangie whisky. I always loved smelling it—it felt like such a grown-up drink, with such a vast array of flavors. A birthday treat was always an Athol Brose dessert, which is a mixture of toasted oats, cream, honey, with a dash of whisky. As I became older, I enjoyed evenings with my father, drinking Glenmorangie and spending time together. Actually, Glenmorangie had proved rather pivotal in securing a business deal for him in Japan. A glass of whisky had been lined up at a bar after a long day of meetings, and the challenge was set for my father to identify it. Luckily for him, he correctly identified it as Glenmorangie, the only brand of whisky he really knew—after which he could do no wrong.

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There’s No Place Like Home: I spent some of my childhood in a village outside Glasgow and the rest in Braemar, which is where my mother grew up. My mother has traced our family in Braemar back 300 years, and since travel was rare before then, I think it’s safe to say my family has lived here for a long time. One of the things that I love about whisky is that it’s so rooted in this area, its landscape and its history. From the 1650s, for around 200 years, whisky smugglers were making illicit whisky in the remote glens across Scotland. They evaded the tax man, making their product slowly, and with great care. As a result, their whisky was regarded as the finest available, and by the 1820s, 14,000 illicit stills were being confiscated each year. During lockdown, I set myself the challenge of finding 45 whisky smugglers’ stills in the hills over 45 days. I found my lockdown challenge fairly straightforward—maybe I was a whisky smuggler in a past life. I love showing clients the remains of some of these stills in the hills around Braemar when I’m guiding and explaining why and how whisky was made in such a remote location.

My First Job:When I left home to go to London, I was incredibly excited to be living life in the city. After studying at the Royal Academy of Music, I stayed in London, working as a freelance musician, playing in orchestras and working as a soloist and session musician. I tremendously enjoyed these years, and the opportunity to travel the world, although as time went on, I began to miss the mountains of Scotland. In 2001, I was awarded the position of Associate Principal Oboe at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. It was great to be closer to the hills, and once again I was able to head out for long runs with my dog.

Changing Careers:In 2014, my husband and I decided to change careers and began looking for a small hotel where we could combine our love of whisky and the outdoors. We both still enjoyed our careers, but we were looking for a new challenge. When a small hotel came up for sale in Braemar, it felt like fate: We quickly established a reputation for our extensive whisky collection. Over the next few years, we developed our whisky tastings and welcomed many wonderful guests, some of whom we still call friends to this day. I didn’t entirely leave my musical life behind, though: I still do education work in hospitals, hospices, prisons, schools and care homes and I am very lucky. It allows me to interact with, to learn from and to hopefully have an impact on the lives of some of the participants.

From the Casks to the Countryside:While we were running our small hotel, a local gentleman asked us if we would be interested in taking over his business. He offered off-road tours in the area, and at the age of 80, he had decided to slow down a little. It didn’t take long for us to discover how fulfilling it was to introduce people to this wonderful landscape. From the start, we offered whisky on our tours, but this soon evolved to whisky tastings in remote locations. At some point, we had to make a choice between our two successful businesses. We sold our hotel to focus on Braemar Highland Experience and now offer on road and off-road tours, guided walking and whisky tastings and whisky experiences across Scotland. This business was awarded five stars by Visit Scotland a year after we launched. We love that no two days are the same, and that we can combine our passions with our working life. 

Sharing My Passion: I am a podcast host for the Edinburgh Whisky Academy and in the last year have recorded several different series with whisky specialists from around the world, looking at World Whiskies, The Rise of Single Malt in 1970s Scotland and Whisky Production. I know my podcast is enjoyed by whisky lovers and whisky beginners alike. It’s lovely to have the opportunity to introduce people to whisky—its stories, how it is made and the people who make it.

Spirited Stereotypes:I think it would be correct to say that a fair proportion of whisky drunk in the 1960s was enjoyed by men. But times are changing—more and more females are joining the industry, and I think this is linked to more women drinking whisky. There is a small but growing number of women that are Master Blenders in the industry. In addition, women are opening distilleries, and some of them are very innovative in their approach. Whisky is being demystified and it is becoming more accessible, celebrated in a highball or cocktail and with a new, fresh approach. A good example of this new approach is Annabel Thomas, who opened Nc’Nean distillery on the west coast of Scotland in 2017. Her distillery is a 100% renewable energy distillery. They use organic barley and even their bottle is made from recycled glass. Their whisky is light and fragrant, with gooseberries and grapefruit on the nose—the perfect introduction to whisky. 

Day in the Life: My role as Whisky Ambassador at Bertie’s is wonderfully varied, but the key element is to provide whisky tastings for guests staying at The Fife Arms. We offer scheduled tastings or something more bespoke if our guests are wanting to explore whisky in greater depth. I design and deliver training for The Fife Arms staff, and work on Bertie’s social media presence. I’m also really enjoying working on a series of podcasts. We will offer one podcast focused on whisky; another podcast will introduce guests to the landscape of the area on their drive to Braemar. No matter which direction you arrive from, the scenery of this area is stunning, and it’s great to be able to share a local insight. Mark Shedden, Bertie’s Manager, and I work closely together. We believe that Bertie’s is more of a whisky experience than a whisky bar. It is possible to have a quick dram in here, but our guests like to take time to relax in Bertie’s welcoming atmosphere. It is an intimate setting, and our back-lit bottles give a wonderful amber glow over the room and over our guests. Whiskies are arranged like books on a shelf, offering the opportunity for guests to actively browse and discover. Our whisky experts give guests the chance to nose the bottles, answering questions or making suggestions. 

Unlikely Pairings: I really enjoy matching whisky with food—fish, cheese, chocolate and cigar pairings will elevate a whisky even further if paired well. But for me, the best pairing of all involves enjoying a whisky outdoors. You don’t have to walk far, but for me, whisky tastes at its best while enjoying the sounds of a mountain stream that supplied an illicit still of the past, or on a hill watching the sun set. 

My Biggest Regret:I wish I had kept a whisky tasting diary earlier in my life. I’m constantly amazed at how my tastes evolve—I go through phases of favoring smoky whiskies and at other times I look for something softer. I think my perception of flavor has also changed as I have got older, and I would have loved to have documented this in a journal. I’ve started one now though, and it’s got some rather interesting entries in it from Bertie’s whisky bar.

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