Whisky is undoubtedly steeped in tradition – but that doesn’t mean the future has to look like the past. Kristiane Sherry meets the industry disruptors changing the whisky game and stirring up others to do the same. Prepare to be inspired
For too long, whisky innovation was a field dominated by men – it’s only in recent years that women and other under-represented genders have been able to step forward and lead. But with diversity comes momentum, fresh perspectives and innovation. What every industry needs to thrive.
In celebration of change, progress and dynamism, we wanted to shine a light on some whisk(e)y mavericks driving profound change. Some of them you may know already, others work more behind the scenes. But they’re all pushing the industry in new directions and inviting us to go with them. With these folks at the helm, the future of whisky is in safe hands.
PICTURED: Spirits writer Kristiane Sherry
Partner and master blender, Hidden Barn; owner and perfumer Oduoak Fragrance
Anyone who loves to explore whisky will understand the importance of the nose. For former Old Forester master blender Jackie Zykan, innovation is about taking her expertise in scent to aromatic new heights. Alongside serving as master blender at Kentucky-based Hidden Barn Whiskey, she’s also founded whisky-based fragrance house ODUOAK. Yes, you can now wear bourbon as well as sip it. Jackie holds degrees in biology and chemistry, and with more than 16 years of alcohol industry experience under her belt, she’s changing the game. “My goal is to create and work alongside brands who are prioritising quality and integrity to the bourbon category,” she says. How is she working to bring innovation to whiskey? “Balance is key, as is humility and hospitality. I intentionally channel my energy and focus to share the love across partners in the category who are maintaining these standards.” We can’t wait to see where her flair for sensory analysis and blending talent takes her next.
Dram Attic founder and editor
Bengaluru native Priyanka Blah regularly tops drinks industry most-influential lists, and with good reason. She’s a craft spirits consultant and writer, and her website, The Dram Attic, is a sumptuous atlas charting the global drinks experiences worth travelling for.
“To a lot of us living in South Asia, the world of whisky has often been shrouded in mystery. But it’s a world that we have bullishly pursued due to our love for it,” she says. Priyanka founded The Dram Attic, a place to document the whiskies she discovered on her travels – either neat or in cocktails. “I think I started seeing a change when my non-whisky drinking friends began enjoying whisky when it was presented to them in a cocktail. I saw that as a gateway.” Before long, she’d created a whisky community. Today she consults for spirits brands and is a fierce advocate for the spirit, across Asia and beyond.
“I’m happy to see a fair bit of snobbery has been washed away from the category over the years and the on-trade has a huge part to play in that. They have been instrumental in making whisky more approachable and, most importantly, inclusive.”
Content manager, Master of Malt
What makes an effective whisky communicator? One that reaches new audiences, bringing people in and reassuring them that whisky really is for them. Jessica Williamson is one of the most talented to emerge in recent years. At online retailer Master of Malt she writes features, manages the Pour & Sip subscription club, and presents weekly whisky tasting videos.
When she’s not in front of the camera or laptop she’s exploring whisky and food pairings, bar-hopping, or taking to her roller skates (although she assures that only happens before the whisky). What really drives her is a passion to engage with Gen-Z folks. “I’ve spoken with too many younger drinkers who don’t tend to enjoy whisky for fear of having to drink it neat, or worrying they don’t know enough about it,” she says. “Whisky communication needs to diversify through all channels; rather than preaching to the converted and gatekeeping through technical language and complex tasting notes, we need to emphasise that whisky is fun, it’s delicious, you can mix it, and you don’t need to know anything about it to enjoy it – but it’s even better if you do.”
Master taster, Old Forester
Kentucky has long been hailed as a hotbed of American whiskey excellence. And today, at Old Forester, it continues with Melissa Rift at the helm as master taster. She started her career as a tour guide, educating visitors about all things bourbon. She’d held senior leadership positions with a particular focus on casks, before joining Old Forester in November 2022. Founded in 1870, the distillery is steeped in tradition, but she’s always seen it as avant-garde. “Innovation has been at the heart of Old Forester since the beginning – they were the first bourbon to be sold in a sealed glass bottle,” she says. “That is revolutionary innovation for the early years of the industry.” It’s a message she takes with her in the brand ambassadorial side of her role, speaking to retailers, bartenders and whiskey lovers across the country. “Ultimately, innovation matters to me because it’s the way we connect the incredible history of our industry and our brands with the modern landscape of bourbon in the 21st century.”
Siponey Spritz Co. founder
Still not sure about canned whisky cocktails? Step in Amanda Victoria. A spirits industry veteran, Latina and mother with a sustainability passion, she’s now bringing Highball culture to fresh audiences with Siponey Spritz Co.
“I got my chops in whisky provenance and flavour proudly working as the communications director to the SMWS in the US!” she opens. “The best part of my role, aside from access to delicious, one-of-a-kind whisky, was getting to know the members around the world. Whisky culture is largely driven by community, which is my inspiration for innovation.” And today that looks like boldly championing rye whiskey cocktails – in a can.
“I wanted to create something that whiskey-lovers could recognise at a gathering and think, hey, this was made for me,” Amanda explains. “In short, community and flavour drive innovation to me within the vast world of whiskey.” Inspiration indeed for anyone looking to launch their own whiskey venture.
Other whisky mavericks to watch
Our world of whisky is more dynamic than ever – and here are more faces propelling it forward from the world of Scotch, Irish and American drams. Jenna Ba is championing Diageo’s Malts portfolio around the world with verve and vibrancy. Andrea Montague (pictured) is Edrington Beam Suntory’s Head of Advocacy, bringing 15 years’ experience into storytelling and education for the likes of The Macallan and Highland Park. Lora Hemy is head distiller at Dublin’s Roe & Co, bringing all kinds of technical innovation to life. Louisville-based Eboni Major is credited with being the world’s first Black female whiskey blender and has just sold out her first independently-released expression. Nicole Sykes is the UK brand ambassador for Maker’s Mark, bringing the brand to life across the country.
Kristiane Sherry is a specialist spirits writer, journalist and communicator. Her career has seen her lead the creative content team at multi-award-winning ecommerce site Master of Malt, edit The Spirits Business and Frontier magazines, and serve as Head of Brand at luxury wine and spirits platform FINE+RARE. Whisky is her first flavour love, and she’s followed her nose into judging and education as well as writing. When she’s not immersed in the world of spirits, she can be found trail running across her local South Downs National Park.