The whisky industry is an ever changing scene and it is a pleasure to sit down and chat with the next generation of industry people.. Today’s guest is a lady who is building a very impressive career in the blending scene.
Ashley is part of the team working at Loch Lomond, this is a company that very much goes under the radar ! So it was a pleasure to pose some questions and get the chance to highlight the career of someone who is helping shape the future of the industry and shape the releases we will sit down and enjoy..
Hi Ashley, Could you please introduce yourself.
My name is Ashley Smith. I have been working in the whisky industry for a little over 8 years. I began my career at Beam Suntory before moving to Spirit Quality within the Blending team for Chivas Brothers. I joined Loch Lomond Group in 2019, where, as Whisky Blender, I am responsible for maintaining the consistency and quality of our whiskies, the development of new whiskies and the management of our single cask programme
Can you explain a little about your journey into the whisky industry?
My first role within the industry was through a Graduate Internship Scheme with Beam Suntory. Part of the role involved assisting the Master Blender in their day-to-day duties. I discovered that I had a sensitive nose and aptitude for picking up flavour differences in whisky. I wanted to learn where these aromas and flavours were coming from, and quickly became fascinated with the intricacies of whisky making and flavour creation. From there interest became obsession, and I’ve never looked back.
Do you feel you have been treated differently because you are female? If so, how?
Whisky is still seen by many as a ‘man’s drink’ or a man’s domain. I had someone tell me once that ‘it’s so progressive’ to see a female employed as a blender, which they probably thought was a compliment. I’m far from the first whisky maker who just happens to be female, and we’re here because we’re good at what we do, not because of our gender.
The question that grates the most is: ‘Do you actually like whisky?’. My male counterparts rarely get asked that question, if at all!!
How can we start to tackle the issue of sexism in the industry?
Within the short time that I have been working in the industry progress has been made to change these perceptions. Representation is one of the key ways that we can challenge stereotypes, and showcase that whisky is inclusive; that it’s for everyone.
What made you want to get involved with whisky?
Growing up I was always aware of whisky. It was drunk at special occasions, whether weddings or Hogmanay, and I definitely took it for granted that it was so much part of our culture. When I studied abroad in Spain it opened my eyes to how far-reaching Scotch whisky is, and the high regard it’s held in. When people found out I was from Scotland, one of the first things they would ask about was whisky and, to be honest, at that time I knew very little about it. That’s when I began to look at Scotch whisky with fresh eyes – how it connects people, and its rich history – and really start to appreciate it. That was when I made the decision to pursue a career in Scotch whisky.
What is it about whisky that you enjoy the most?
With whisky you never stop learning, it still surprises and intrigues. With all the in-depth knowledge we have of the chemical processes of whisky making, there is still an element of unpredictability. We still can’t fully explain why whiskies taste the way they do.
When I am experimenting with different cask types or bringing different whiskies together, I have experience and understanding of how they combine and what flavour profile will develop. But a recipe on paper and a recipe in the glass are not the same, and this is where the creative process is just as important as the science. The best part of being a whisky maker is experimentation, playing around with different flavours and balancing them together to create something new.
What experience / advice would you offer others wanting to get involved in the industry?
Absolutely do it. It’s such a diverse and welcoming industry. There is no traditional route into the industry, but I would encourage people to learn and develop their knowledge as much as they can. Visit distilleries, read all the journals and books you can get your hands on, and for formal qualifications look to educators such as WSET and IBD.
Also, seek out a mentor. When I realised my ambition was to become a blender, I got in touch with people across the industry in those positions to understand what the role involves, and what it takes to progress, and the feedback was incredible. You will find people are extremely encouraging and willing to share their experiences.
Can you tell us about your day-to-day job and what is involved?
My day starts with reviewing operations, undertaking sensory evaluation of vattings, and selecting casks to meet bottling demand. Then I look to new liquid development and customer demands, which involves requesting cask samples from warehouse, trialling different recipes, and then preparing samples for customers.
I also manage our single cask programme, so I am constantly reviewing our inventory, and evaluating cask samples and trials that are underway. I can be assessing between 50-100 samples in an afternoon.
What is your favourite dram?
The first whisky I ever tried will always have a special place in my heart. It was a Laphroaig 10, and I remember I was blown away by its intensity, thinking ‘how do they capture smoke, fire and embers in liquid form?’.
So I always gravitate towards peated whiskies, and Loch Lomond Inchmoan 12YO is my go to. It has an unconventional peat character, and I love the balance between sweet medicinal peat, smoke and spice.