INDUSTRY INSIDER: RACHEL MACNEILL
An island academical
Islay is full of whisky characters, but they’re not all necessarily employed by the island’s distilleries. One such individual, SMWS member Rachel MacNeill, has dedicated herself to preserving Islay’s traditions and culture around whisky through her Islay Whisky Academy. Lee ‘Connas’ Connor caught up online with Rachel to find out more about the Academy and what makes her tick
MAIN PHOTO: KONRAD
LC: Hello Rachel, thanks for joining us!
RM: My pleasure, Connas, it’s great to be here!
LC: I suppose, being that you’ve lived on Islay for most of your life, asking if you can remember a time before whisky was in your life is a bit pointless?
RM: Yes, you’d be right! It’s always been around one way or another. I remember my first real interest was sparked many years ago, when we used to go to see the folks at the distilleries after dances and nights out on the Island. A warm glass of wash and a dram to keep the cold at bay was always fun.
But for me, it was more than that. I was fascinated by production; I’d have the guys on shift take me round the distilleries and explain the nuts and bolts of whisky-making and how it all worked.
Looking back, it was somewhat of a privileged whisky education, that sort of thing isn’t allowed anymore!
LC: Did you consider a career in the industry back then?
RM: Not really, back then there was no real concept of a “career path” in whisky. So, I left to study architecture.
Even then, I found myself applying architectural ideas to potential distillery builds. I could literally walk onto a field and have a whole new distillery planned in my head within a matter of minutes. I guess it’s just in my blood.
LC: What set you on the road to whisky events and education?
RM: Well, I was asked to put someone up over the Fèis Ìle week, a German fellow. We were sat one night, and he asked me: “Do all of the girls on Islay drink as much whisky as you?” After I gave him a telling off for his cheek, it seemed obvious there wasn’t anywhere encouraging women into exploring whisky. So, the next day I set up a homemade website called whiskyforgirls. It was a hobby at this point really, I’d have a barrel top at a distillery and ask women if they wanted to join my club. At that point there wasn’t any kind of introduction to whisky that wasn’t in a generic, dumbed-down way. I wanted a platform that would explain esoteric terms and aid learning for women.
LC: And I hear that a certain Jim McEwan had some advice on broadening the site’s appeal?
RM: That’s right! At this point it was literally a hobby. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of a professional business endeavour at all. One day I was at Bruichladdich distillery and Jim said to me: “You do realise, I’m excluded by your website?” He was pulling my leg at the time, but he was right! So, I added ‘and guys’ to the name. To be fair I had engaged with men too, you’d be surprised how many gents want to know about whisky but are afraid to ask. I’m pleased Jim pointed that out, it was literally just an extension of who I was at that point, but the thought hadn’t crossed my mind!
LC: Was this the foundation of what became Islay Whisky Academy?
RM: Very much so! The whole idea now is that people come to Islay and experience how whisky is made. Not only inside the distillery, but through the geology, the water sources on the island, the individuality of the place and how whisky comes from the elements of the earth. It’s not all classroom learning, we take them to distilleries for a hands-on experience of what they’ve learned. Whether it’s coopering, peat cutting, marketing or advertising – there’s practical exposure all the way through.
Most important to me is that there’s intrinsic kinship at the heart of the ‘Whisky Affinity Diploma’.
It’s very little to do with me, but people make friendships, go out into the world and continue the conversation about whisky. In doing so, the whole whisky landscape is richer.
I believe this speaks to the whole philosophy of the SMWS too – learning and community around the concepts and ideas in whisky. Without the conversation, there really isn’t much!
LC: Hear hear! And what’s next on the agenda for Rachel MacNeill?
RM: Well, as well as various events all through the week, we have an Open Day at Fèis Ìle this year. I’m very excited as it’s the first we’ve had. We’re going to be at the Rhinns Hall in Portnahaven from 10am to 7pm on Thursday, 2 June.
I can’t wait – it’s great to bring Fèis to a part of the island that’s often overlooked. It’s going to be brilliant, we’ll have whisky tastings, food pairings, music, an all-day ceilidh, basically. A real taster of what ‘whisky affinity’ is all about.
After such a challenging time during covid, I think the island is especially looking forward to Fèis Ìle this year.
Online events have been great, but there’s just no replacing in-person events. Let’s face it, it’s overdue!
To find out more about the Islay Whisky Academy and Rachel’s Fèis Ìle events, visit www.IslayWhiskyAcademy.scot
Rachel celebrating the opening of Ardnahoe distillery on Islay