Due to toast its 20th year on the shelves in 2024, Penderyn Distillery has changed the notion of whisky production in Wales from a Victorian-era relic to a viable business. Three of its current staff – Penderyn master blender Aista Phillips, distiller Bethan Lewis and general manager Laura Davies – are also puncturing the spirit’s blokey image. They spoke to Amy Wild about it.
Aista Phillips, Penderyn Master Blender
The number of women working in the industry is growing – as distillers or blenders as well as brand ambassadors, sales, marketing – and it’s clear the view of whisky as a man’s drink is changing. There are many women appearing on the scene as consumers and enthusiasts, exemplified by our all-female distilling team at Penderyn. The growing presence of women in key positions within the whisky industry also has a kind of snowball effect, breaking down traditional barriers in the industry both for producers and consumers. From the viewpoint of the consumer, the growing visibility of women helps to open up the whisky category to a wider audience.
There are so many historical women in whisky, starting from Mary The Jewess, an alchemist who lived nearly 2,000 years ago: if not for Mary, who invented distilling technology, we would not be drinking spirits at all. Helen Cumming was, in the early 19th century, the first female founder of a Scotch company, and one of the most important women in whisky. Bessie Williamson was the only woman to own and run a distillery – Laphroaig – in the 20th century. The list goes on, and all of them are inspirations to many women including myself.
Bethan Lewis, distiller and manager of Penderyn’s Swansea distillery Copperworks
When I was approaching the end of my studies, I decided to start job hunting and noticed Penderyn were looking for a trainee distiller. Part of the job description mentioned assessing the quality of whisky by nosing and tasting; I’d recently studied a sensory analysis and food quality module at university and thought that experience may help. I’d also been brought up just minutes away from the distillery in Hirwaun, so decided to apply. I’ve now been with the company for almost seven years, have had the experience of commissioning two distilleries, and am currently Distillery & Visitor Centre Manager at Swansea Copperworks.
I think it has taken a while for some contractors to take me seriously – I don’t think my age has helped this, as I was quite young joining the company, coming straight from university – but this soon changes when you start discussing the technicalities of how the still works, which is quite a complex system. From my experience, this is one of the most welcoming and friendly industries to be part of, and female roles in distilling are becoming more common. If you see an opportunity in the distilling world, go for it – you won’t regret it.
Laura Davies, distilleries general manager
I joined in 2012, fresh from university with no prior experience or knowledge of the whisky industry. If you advertise vacancies at a distillery, you’re inundated with applications, so Penderyn posted an anonymous advert using a PO Box address. It was quite a surprise when I arrived to see what I’d let myself in for! My early time was spent learning the fundamentals of mashing and distilling, although we were such a small team back then, I’d also answer the phone and work the till. I became distillery manager in 2016, then general manager when we opened our Llandudno distillery in 2021.
There are people who, intentionally or not, make eye contact with and speak directly to my male colleagues, or simplify technical details for me on the assumption I won’t understand. I usually try to take the lead, but I’m supported by men in my team who are very proactive in pushing those people back to me, and calling out biased comments that they hear.
Be open-minded and say yes to any opportunities that come your way. My role when I first joined Penderyn was nothing like what I do now, but without it I wouldn’t be anywhere near as well equipped for today.
words AMY WILD