Starting a Career in Whiskey: 5 Things I’ve Learned So Far

Back in 2012 I began taking my general love of bourbon, cocktails, and spirits from a private hobby to a public one. I started a podcast with the guy who is now my husband.

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Back in 2012 I began taking my general love of bourbon, cocktails, and spirits from a private hobby to a public one. I started a podcast with the guy who is now my husband. The Charlie Tonic Hour is our own little “alcohol infused culture podcast” where we talk about whatever is interesting to us each week. But booze has always been our one constant. It is low budget, self produced, and has never made a dime and I love it. Doing it caused me to begin researching and reading more about alcohol. How it was produced, the history, the drinks, the trends. I had to learn to describe tastes in a way that someone listening at home would find helpful. That podcast lead to me writing for a number of blogs before eventually finding a home here at Bourbon & Banter.

I continued to grow my knowledge of all things boozy but specialized in bourbon and American whiskey. I’ve interviewed distillers, attended whiskey festivals, reviewed products, and wrote about it all while maintaining my day job as a high school teacher (hence the pen name.) Eventually, I even began a side hustle hosting bourbon tastings at private events.

For awhile I thought that this was the way it would always be for me. I may not have made my living in the field of my passion. But I considered myself blessed to have found my passion and to have made a small, regional name for myself in the industry. That would all change. In May 2016 I completed my last day of school as a teacher and began my new life as an employee for two different distilleries. I am currently a part-time tour guide at New Riff Distilling in Bellevue, Kentucky and I am the Souther Ohio Sales Manager for Middle West Spirits in Columbus, Ohio. Today I thought it would be fun to share with you a few things I have learned about starting a career in whiskey during my first few months on the jobs.

Don’t wear heels to your interview at a distillery. I am not a heels person. I am pretty tall for a woman anyway and generally value comfort over fashion. But being a liquor sales rep seemed to me like the kind of job that called for style. I bought a nice pair of slingbacks for my interview with Middle West Spirits to prove to them that I knew how to dress like a professional adult woman. Then they took me for a tour of their newly expanded distillery and I immediately saw the error of my ways. Heels and the metal mesh floor of a distillery don’t work well together.

Things you think are common knowledge about whiskey are not. For the past four years, most of my interactions around whiskey were with other whiskey lovers. Now that I am giving tours to the general public at a distillery I realize how much institutional knowledge I take for granted. I’ve learned not to take anything as a given because I have had people take tours that didn’t know the difference between gin and bourbon.

You might get into the business because you love whiskey, but you better learn to love clear spirits too. Whiskey has all the romance and complexity that causes people to fall in love easily and can be a goal for new distillers. Most distillers get into the business because they want to be pulling juice out of barrels one day. There is no escaping the fact that to get going you are probably going to be spending most of your first several years making something that doesn’t have to be aged.

Middle West Spirits was at the forefront of the craft movement and has been making spirits since 2008. They do have a three excellent whiskeys in their lineup but even eight years is a blip in time compared to the big distilleries. Their OYO vodkas are still their bread and butter.

New Riff began production two years ago but won’t have any bottles of their bourbon on the market until 2018 at the earliest. In the meantime they have O.K.I. Bourbon, which comes from MPG in Lawrenceburg, IN. It is their Wild Kentucky Gin, in addition to rye and bourbon new make, that they are currently making and selling. Luckily for me, both distilleries have done excellent work with their unaged spirits. They are bringing products to the market that are high quality and great reflections of the brand. Frankly, I am almost embarrassed to admit how much I like the OYO Vodka.

The micro-distilling boom is creating dream jobs. As challenging as sales can be at times, I wake up every day knowing that I am working in my dream field for two great distilleries and the crazy thing is that I am not the only one. I have had three other friends get jobs with small distilleries or liquor brands in the past year. In addition, I know of at least two other people who are hoping to start a micro-distillery soon. Many of these individuals took a paycut to be able to pursue their dreams of working in an industry they love. Starting a distillery, or leaving a steady paycheck to work for a small distillery, is a huge risk. But the risk of passing up this opportunity was far greater. I can already say that it was totally worth it. As more and more craft distilleries open up, more and more people will get the same opportunity that I had.

Just because you love whiskey doesn’t mean you should make it. When people imagine an ideal job in the world of whiskey the first thing that comes to mind is becoming a distiller. If you love something you must want to make it right? When I read trade magazines about distilling it is the sales and marketing side that I find fascinating. I love thinking about creative ways to tell our story, dreaming of events and ways to create customer engagement. Even analyzing trends and wondering what the next hot product will be gets me excited (as long as it’s not more flavored whiskey). When I get to the articles that discuss yeast and start featuring a lot of chemistry equations my eyes glaze over. If you are interested in a career in the alcohol industry it is important to do your research and know your strengths. One of our distillers at New Riff was hired as a tour guide but quickly realized that she hated public speaking. Luckily she was able to transition to the production side where she is much happier and on her way to building her own dream job.

I am still in the very early stages of this new career. I have learned so much already but I still have even more to learn. I plan to keep checking in and sharing this knowledge here at Bourbon & Banter in regular articles. Afterall, one day you might have the same chance I did and be able to trade in your nine to five for a job with a little more spirit.