SOCIETY WOMEN MAVERICKS
Triple AAA: powering the Society
Women have been instrumental in making the Society what it is today. The three As of Anne Dana, Anne Griffiths and Annabel Meikle came from different backgrounds and hadn’t planned to have a career in whisky. But driven by a thirst for knowledge, an encouraging environment and an openness to new ventures, these women ended up shaping some of the most recognisable parts of the Society. Who better to speak to them than three women shaping the future of the Society today? Read on for a flavour of the interviews and then listen to our podcast, Whisky Talk, to take in each conversation in full
ANNE DANA PHOTOS: MIKE WILKINSON
PICTURED: Anne Dana at The Vaults, Edinburgh with Mads Schmoll
THE SOCIETY – BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT
ANNE DANA MEETS MADS SCHMOLL
When Anne Dana started with the Society, it was as an interior designer tasked with the development of a very run-down Vaults. The premises had previously been occupied by JG Thomson as their main office – complete with a twice-a-day drinks trolley making the rounds. The Society was in its fledgling days. There were just a handful of members, no Members’ Room, and four casks of whisky. That was all about to change. “There was a lot of time that I was just waiting for estimates, et cetera, to come in,” says Anne. “And so I said, because the directors always had the idea of the Whisky Society, let me just check up on bottles and what we can do and the costs of things, and I never imagined it becoming a job. I was just filling in the time.”
Anne would go on to look at production and materials, “the bottle certainly, the research, the bottling plant, and then the buying of the casks,” she says. “I just got kind of sucked into it bit by bit by bit, keeping thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll leave next year.’” It wasn’t long until she was hitting the road and building relationships with the distilleries themselves, not only to source casks but to lay down new ones – with an aim to futureproof the Society.
“I thought it was giving something back to the whisky industry. We couldn’t go continually along picking out the best casks,” she said.
“My idea was just to build on that distillery by distillery, and also for the future, we would then have a supply of very good whiskies from good barrels…the barrel is crucial.”
PICTURED: Anne at The Vaults bar
While it was an unusual role for a woman to be sourcing casks, a good palate and a willingness to learn worked in Anne’s favour. “Maybe because I’m a good cook, I could tell the differences in the taste. So I would reject some things and ask for others,” she says.
“The whisky industry is so generous. The people are just absolutely wonderful to work with, and I think because I didn’t pretend that I knew more than I did or that I was versed in it, they took me under their wing.” Inside the Society, the gender split was a different story. “There were more women than men initially,” says Anne. “There was a very tight group of women, but I think that’s probably been true from all I know about the Society, and certainly that’s who the members know often because they’re front of house.”
Anne was also key in building out membership. “We had the original people that used to buy from Pip Hills when he bought the  casks,” she says, “so I then contacted them and said, could each of them give me 10 names.” With those names and the help of Society secretary Sally Lamont’s husband – membership was well on its way.
PICTURED: Anne remembers a time when Society women outnumbered the men
PICTURED: Anne Griffiths raises another Society dram
SPREADING THE WORD (AND THE WHISKY)
ANNE GRIFFITHS MEETS MONIQUE TEN KORTENAAR
When Anne Dana left the Society, she had begun the process of taking Society tastings outside of Edinburgh. Under Anne Griffiths (then Cooper), this programme became larger, spanning the UK, Europe and beyond. “When I walked into the Members’ Room, it was just amazing. I was completely overwhelmed,” says Anne. “[Denise Neilson] offered me a job because it was Christmas and they were really busy taking orders.” She started on the phones but it wasn’t long before she was involved in every aspect of the Society. “I used to walk into the Members’ Room and talk to members,” she says. “We even used to cook the tea, the lunch on Friday, if there was nobody else there, fish and chips. Everybody mucked in. It was fabulous.” Before long, a colleague of Anne Dana’s asked if she was interested in helping with the tastings. And when he retired, she took over the role.
Initially, it was Douglas McKay, one of the directors, who helped with her whisky knowledge, but when Richard Gordon started as managing director, another piece of the Society’s flavour focus fell into place. “He’d heard about Dr Jim Swan and Sheila Burtles, who set up the Pentlands Whisky Research,*” she says. “Richard went to one of their original courses and he was great because to him there were no barriers. Anybody can do anything so long as you know what you’re doing and you’re willing to learn, go for it. So then he said, “I think you would benefit from it.” So I went to Jim Swan’s I think about the fourth or fifth one at the Pentlands Whisky Research.”
It was a big moment for Anne. “It’s mind-blowing in a way because you think you know what you’re doing and then, you know you don’t know what you’re doing,” she says.
“You can talk about whisky, you can talk about its history, but actually being able to encourage people to nose and taste whisky properly was quite difficult. And I thought it would be difficult, more difficult being a woman, but in actual fact it wasn’t.”
The tasting programme was fully underway in the early 90s when a call from the Scottish Tourist Board led to a sit-down with a journalist which in turn led to a huge amount of interest in the Society. There were trips to Geneva, Madrid, Australia and Singapore, along with Chicago and New York to help set up the US branch of the Society in 1993.
In 1996, she was made a director and began to look at options for bringing tastings to London more frequently. When she met Robert Wilson, owner of the Bleeding Heart restaurant, he had just taken over the marketing of the crypt in St Etheldreda’s Church. After hosting tastings there for two, then three, then four nights, the time for a Members’ Room was right and it was Robert who suggested the present-day location. “We took on the premises at Bleeding Heart, and that’s when the London Society, the London membership was born,” she says. “There wasn’t a day in my working life with The Scotch Malt Whisky Society that I couldn’t wait to get to work. I loved it,” she says.
“And I also have to say that although I gave a lot to the Society, I got a lot back because as a single parent, it gave me a purpose, it gave me a career and it gave me confidence.”
* Now the Scotch Whisky Research Institute
PICTURED: Monique at Glasgow Bath Street
NEW IDEAS: BIG IMPACT
ANNABEL MEIKLE MEETS REBECCA HAMILTON
That confidence would go on to inspire a young artist named Annabel Meikle, who would play a key part in the development of the Society’s next Members’ Room, Edinburgh’s 28 Queen Street. “I went to work in a very famous deli in Edinburgh where I met James (Freeman) the chef, and another friend who then went to work down in The Vaults, who persuaded me to come down,” says Annabel. “And I walked into that fabulous building and thought: ‘This is where I want to work.’ They didn’t have a job, but they said, well, could you start on the bar?”
Annabel had no whisky experience when she joined the Society, but a place at the Society Whisky School, which was run by Charlie MacLean and the late Dr Jim Swan revealed a new talent. “I trundled onto that, not knowing anything,” she says. “And halfway through the morning, Charlie said: ‘Do you know you’ve got a very good sense of smell?’ I didn’t really know that. And so he said: ‘Well, I’m going to teach you’. And he really took me under his wing and brought it on to Tasting Panels.” For Annabel it was the start of a lifelong career in whisky. “I just fell in love with it, and it was a very embracing world. And what I found was that everybody was very keen to ask questions, answer my endless questions, and really just support me as a young woman. That was 22 years ago.”
When she began looking after the corporate programme at the Society, it was clear that there was a need for a new location with a different feel from the Vaults. “We came and looked at this building [28 Queen Street] as it was just about to start to be developed for flats,” she says.
“And we thought this is the ideal place for a different style of venue. The day we opened it, the members came up from Leith and they all went: ‘Oh, it’s not like The Vaults, is it’? And we were just like, nope!”
ABOVE: Annabel at a Society event
ABOVE: Rebecca Hamilton, Artisanal Spirits Company
The new Members’ Room offered new experiences, with Annabel introducing food into tastings. It was a new idea and one that had a transformative effect. “Immediately the demographic of the audience shifted and people came as couples or groups of friends rather than just being rather a male-orientated experience.” Equally, it paved the way for doing things differently with events such as a Girls Burns Night. “It created an environment where women could not only appreciate the whisky and the food but the poetry and the love of Burns, which has always been a very male bastion,” she says. “And it just took all of that away from it and it was quite a different experience in terms of the presentations and the singing.”
Reflecting on her time at Queen Street she says: “The Society has always been particularly open to this, which I think is very encouraging. When I said: ‘Why don’t we do a cheese and whisky tasting?’ Nobody said, well, we’ve never done that before. It was like, great, go and do it.”
“We also were given a huge responsibility. Now I look back on it, I think of running The Vaults, as I was doing at one stage, and then coming up here and organising the whole programmes and Jan [Damen] looking after the restaurant and the bars, what a huge amount of responsibility,” she says.
“I think that made us all quite brave and ready then to go: ‘All right, well, what’s the next thing?’ And then see a lovely generation of new people coming in and finding the same sort of hunger to learn. That’s been one of the Society’s greatest strengths.”