As the first woman to open a whisky distillery in Scotland in 200 years, Heather Nelson is breaking barriers in her home country. But her relationship to this major accomplishment is complicated.
The Toulvaddie micro-distillery will open this May at the Fearne airfield. Once the distillery is up-and-running, Nelson wants to produce 30,000 liters of alcohol per year in her two traditional copper stills. By comparison, a grand old brand like Macallan makes 8,000,000 liters a year.
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Though she hasn’t worked for a distillery before, Nelson was drawn to the industry by her roots, growing up on a farm, where she learned to herd cattle and drive a tractor from an early age. But she is also intimately aware of how deeply ingrained whisky is to Scottish culture.
“Whisky was probably the first alcoholic drink I was aware of, as in Scotland any celebration of any kind is celebrated with a dram. Having tried several different whiskies, the fact that they all tasted so different really spiked my interest,” she wrote to me in an email.
While Nelson does acknowledges that she's making history as the second woman to open a distillery in Scotland (the first was probably Helen Cummings, who founded Cardhu in 1824), breaking down gender barriers wasn’t behind her motivation for starting her business.
“I did not decide to open a distillery because I am a woman—gender never came in to it,” she explains. “I wanted to do it for the same reason as anyone who wants to open a distillery: a passion and desire to create a great whisky. However, to be the first woman to do it is an accomplishment I am proud of.”
Nelson’s upbringing taught her gender should never stop her from pursuing her goals. She told the Independent that in her household “your gender made no difference, you were treated equally.”
Nelson thinks that there’s a “misconception of whisky being a man’s drink.” She hopes that perception will start to change with her presence in the industry, not only as a woman, but as a person who sees the process of making whisky as overly mechanized. Although she’s never worked in a distillery before, she’s confident that her vision will set her small operation apart from her competition.
“Many distilleries still claim to be made by hand, but they are just so big this is not possible. They have computers taking the readings and operating valves, whereas Toulvaddie will be small enough to have full human interaction,” she says.
Nelson thinks of having a small distillery as an advantage: She’ll have complete control over how the whiskey is created—from the “cask, barley and yeast selection”—unlike at bigger distilleries, that have decades of experience over her.
But even though she is a bit of an outsider to the world of professional distilling, she has only received support and words of encouragement from her new colleagues, “from other small craft distilleries who have opened recently, right up to one of the oldest operating distilleries in Scotland.” But even if Nelson had received some misguided backlash for her new business venture, it probably wouldn’t have phased her: she never thought of this industry as one she couldn’t enter because she’s a woman, and she intends to carry on that legacy to new generations of young women, including those in her own family.
“My daughter will also be joining the business, and will continue to operate it as a family run distillery,” she says.
Nelson’s perspective is one that is welcome in Scotland’s quickly expanding whisky industry: Right now, it’s worth around 4 billion pounds, but only a quarter of the distilleries in the country are actually owned by Scottish companies.
If Nelson stays true to her ideals, she could add a breath of fresh air to the industry, hopefully encouraging others to bring new ideas on how to keep scotch whisky Scottish along the way.