Candice Baker, brand ambassador for The Macallan, Highland Park and Famous Grouse in South Africa, is a busy woman. Recently I was lucky enough to get a slot in Candice Baker’s hectic schedule to find out a bit more about her, her role and thoughts about whisky and the whisky industry.
This is the first of hopefully many posts where I spotlight those folks who work tirelessly in the whisky industry to bring us our favourite drams.
The transcript of our conversation reads as follows:
WTF: Tell me a little about yourself. Who do you work for and what does your job entail?
CB: I got into the industry about 3 years ago when I was working at Cape Grace hotel. A position opened up to assist the Bascule whisky bar on the whisky side of things and basically be the junior whisky sommelier. At that stage I didn’t know a thing about whisky – you couldn’t quiz me on the difference between a blend and a single malt. Nonetheless I quite happily took the role to learn and understand more about whisky. I started reading and talking to people and literally fell in love with the world of whisky. From working in the bar and being very privileged to taste literally hundreds of whiskies over a number of months ad be exposed to the most amazing people in the industry by being at Bascule I literally developed an amazing passion and love for whisky.
At the end of last year RGBC approached me to take on the Edrington portfolio as their brand ambassador. So my job entails basically being the face of the brand – so communicating to the public whether its staff at a restaurant bar, waiters teaching them about the brands or doing corporate tastings with some of South Africa’s top CEOs or interviews and the PR side of things. My primary focus is that of educating whisky drinkers out there and introducing them to the brands like Macallan.
WTF: What was the first whisky that you fell in love with?
CB: I can’t remember the first one that had me sold, however, I can remember the first one that made me go “Oof! I don’t know if I like this.” and that was Laphroaig Quarter Cask. Because I had to do whisky tastings at the Bascule bar for guests I had to taste Laphroaig as part of the tasting experience and slowly but surely I fell in love with that beautiful peat reek.
Nowadays I’m a big peat fan – such a distinct flavour at the beginning where I just went “Oh my gosh? What is this? I can’t believe people actually like this!” to literally, loving peat whisky with an absolute passion. I went to Islay last year and spent two most magical days there, and I just want to go back. One of my favourite things, which we did back when I was at Bascule, is pairing Laphroiag (or another peaty whisky) with Gorgonzola cheese. It’s just the most beautiful pairing and you just want to eat it and drink it all night long. It’s absolutely phenomenal.
WTF: Is whisky becoming more popular with the fairer sex? From what I’ve seen, definitely.
CB: Absolutely, I agree with you. It is growing in popularity. Internationally its growing a lot faster. It’s lovely to see how many people are focussing, especially leading up to Whisky Live, on the women in whisky element. It’s nice to see that it’s getting more attention. I think there are two broad classifications of the type of women who drink whisky. Women who want to be seen as more strong, “I’m drinking this as a status drink”, to keep up with the men or the women who have an absolute passion and love the flavour profile and it really, really works for them. Whichever side you’re on, as long as you’re enjoying it and its working for you. And I think a lot of women are taking the health element – where whisky is seen as relatively low calorie and better for you than something like beer or wine.
WTF: And flavour profiles? What do you see women leaning towards more?
CB: There’s always the anomaly. From having the opportunity to introduce a lot of women to whisky in Bascule, I would always start with something light – a Speyside characteristic or an Irish whiskey. And the ones I would while at Bascule use were Glenmorangie Original or Macallan 10 Fine Oak, or I would opt for a Bushills 10 if they wanted to go into the world of single malt whisky. Or even something from Japan, like a light Nikka would also sometimes appeal to them. But I would never, and this is the biggest thing, you can’t just put a whisky down in front of someone who has never tasted a whisky before – especially a woman – and just say “Drink it”. They are not necessarily going to instantly love it. It’s about going into the whisky. It’s about talking about it, understanding the flavour and how to drink it. That approach makes women open up a lot more.
WTF: There are more women are in the whisky industry now than ever before – is it still hard to gain acceptance from men? Which women in the industry do you admire?
CB: There is always a degree of confusion when I walk in to do a tasting. Most men, and women too, will come up to me and you can see them thinking “This is weird, what would she know about whisky?”. I did a tasting recently where I was serving up the whiskies and an older gentleman came up to me and asked “So where is the chap who’s going to be doing this thing?” and I replied “Well, I’m the chap”. People have that perception naturally and I don’t take offense because I would also look at a young woman standing in front of me and go “What would you know about Scotch?”. You have to read the crowd – some fire off questions to throw you. In this case, the easiest thing to do is give them loads of knowledge and information to let them know that I do know what I’m talking about. And it works generally. Then you get people who are so interested to find out how I got into it for example, because it is quite strange. Hopefully the more I do them, the more people will come to know me.
In answer to your second question, the ladies from Whisky Live Festival are wonderful because they’ve brought whisky to such a big platform. Karen Chaloner and Sian Neubert are just amazing. And there are one or two international brand ambassadors that also are phenomenal. It’s lovely to meet these women that come down – Karen Fullerton from Glenmorangie is coming and I met her last year. She’s such a down-to-earth woman. This is what is so great about brand ambassadors – these are not marketing people (no offense!) – they are people that are passionate about whisky and it doesn’t matter whether its male or female I can connect with them and it’s wonderful that there are more women getting into it – especially on an international platform.
WTF: What’s your favourite and worst whisky experience and why?
CB: A favourite for me always happens at every tasting I do – it’s that moment when you see someone who hasn’t either tried Macallan or whisky in general before, and there’s that “Oh wow, I really like this” moment. You can see the change in their face and for me that is beautiful, to win those people over, one at a time is absolutely beautiful. And it’s not fake, its raw and its right there and I love seeing it happen. I don’t really have a worse whisky moment.
WTF: What is your approach to tasting whisky? Do you use water, and when?
CB: What I generally like to do and its quite normal and standard, is taste the whisky neat first, obviously at room temperature and then bring in a splash of room temperature still water just to bring down the alcohol and open and release the flavours. That’s the way I like to do it. If it’s a big tasting for a corporate I generally have a welcome drink on arrival where they can drink it as they like, or a mini Macallan cocktail. I like to introduce the new make spirit to the guests too so that they can experience how different and how big the change is from new make spirit to aged whisky.
WTF: What are your thoughts on using ice/mixers/etc?
CB: This is the real beauty about whisky – it’s a very personal thing. And I often get asked the question “How must I drink my whisky?” and my answer is “You must drink it the way you want to”. For me, I drink my whisky as per the season. On a hot summer’s day I add a cube or two of ice. If it’s a cold winter’s night I add a splash of water. If I’m trying to introduce a wide variety of people to the flavour profile of whisky we do a welcome cocktail which purists would cringe at but it’s a nice easy way to allow whisky to touch people’s lips – Macallan 10 on the rocks, topped up with soda water and a nice orange zest twirl that brings out the citrusy aroma.
WTF: Relaxing at home what whisky/ies would you pour yourself?
CB: It sounds quite bias, but it’s not – I love my Highland Park 12. When I was working in Bascule I had 400 single malts to fall in love with and there was one that spoke to me in a big way and that was Highland Park. So much so that my then bosses didn’t believe me when I had got a job as brand ambassador for Macallan, Highland Park and Famous Grouse. One of my favourite whiskies because I love the balance of sweet smokiness. Whether I’ve had had a good day or a bad one, it’s the bottle that I would go for first.
WTF: Which bottle in your collection is your most favourite, or the one you’re most proud of?
CB: I’ve got a few that I appreciate and enjoy but the one that purchased on a trip to Scotland at the beginning of the year. Highland Park boot camp on the Orkney Islands. I bought a bottle of Highland Park Hjärta, which means “heart” in old Norse, is a 12 year old whisky but is cask strength and absolutely phenomenal and is only available in the Swedish/Norwedic regions but can also be picked up at the distillery shop. I don’t open it for many people.
WTF: What’s the one dram you couldn’t live without? i.e. your deserted island whisky
CB: I’m really going to sound like a Highland Park freak now, but I would go for the Highland Park 12 again. Lagavulin 16, Bowmore 12, Macallan 30 Fine Oak, Macallan 18 Sherry Oak are other favourites if I could take more than one whisky.
WTF: Describe the whisky landscape as you see it locally (bars, clubs, events & magazines, etc.)?
CB: Current whisky climate is quite interesting. The market and spend is up in the Joburg region. A lot more people are open to trying whisky. Soweto is a really big market, with the black diamonds. There is also more of an understanding of single malts. Some people drink whisky for image, which is great because Macallan internationally has a phenomenal image, and some just have a great palate for whisky and want to try new flavours. The market is growing – people are becoming more educated and it’s all about education, whether it’s a training session in a bar where people didn’t know what a single malt or blend was or whether its chatting to the guys in Soweto, educating them on look, Johnnie Walker is cool but it’s still a blend. If you want to drink something bolder, move onto a single malt.
The younger market is definitely getting on board. A lot more educated. Every now and then I do tastings with mainly a younger crowd which is great because you get a very diverse range – the guys who are enjoying the malts – Caol Ila, Glenlivet – etc. And then you get those who think Jameson IS THE ONLY out there whisky. It’s lovely to chat to people like that and broaden their horizons. Let the youngsters start on blends , as they mature so will their tastes and they’ll trade up to single malts.
WTF: A lot of whisky brands are engaging with their online fans through various forms of social media – Facebook/Twitter/etc. What is the Edrington Group’s strategy here? And locally, do you think SA representatives are engaging online enough?
CB: The Edrington portfolio consists of a variety of brands and their approaches are different too. Macallan is on Twitter and has a blog, but isn’t that too overt. Highland Park is on twitter. But the beauty of Highland Park is on education and the raw element that is whisky. How traditional it is and how it makes whisky. If you go onto Youtube you can see the most amazing educational videos where Gerry Tosh, who is the international brand ambassador, takes you through literally everything – from the beat bogs to the floor maltings, etc.
Most people never get to Orkney, but to have Gerry show you all that makes it very real and hands on. Famous Grouse is a younger, more fun element online. Locally you can go onto www.famousgrouse.co.za and order a personalized Famous Label which is will be printed off and sent to you at no charge. We don’t have a local Twitter/Facebook profile currently. We will be looking at working with an agency in the near future. It’s important to let people know that its there’s not only an international platform and that you can establish contact locally. So next year I definitely want to push for that and hopefully we can get some budget set aside for that.
WTF: What other whisky trends are you seeing, i.e. what does the future look like?
CB: Whisky is growing at a beautiful rate. Obviously the economic turndown has slowed it slightly (this applies across the board for luxury items in many regions). A lot of distillers can’t keep up with demand for certain markets. A lot of younger people are being drawn to whisky. All the international whisky festivals taking place is helping educate the masses. Whisky is no longer a middle-aged white man’s drink anymore.
WTF: If you could give some suggestions to the distillers out there, what kind of whiskies would you like to see them produce?
CB: A lot of studies have been done on the profile of whisky and understanding it and we’re finally getting to understand the importance of the oak that you age your whisky in. I think a lot of distilleries were quite light-hearted with respect to the source of the wood, where they got their casks from, the type of spirit that had been in it prior. With the Edrington portfolio you really get to understand the importance of wood and sourcing it correctly. I would just say don’t always go for the cheapest option – I understand that whisky making is an expensive process but go for something that is the best quality possible, from sustainable forests, things like that.
A lot of distilleries have jumped on the bandwagon of producing as many expressions as is possible. Personally I feel it dilutes the brand too much and it confuses the consumer. Not everyone understands what a sherry butt or a port pipe is. So keep it simple, and really focus on the quality.
WTF: Can we look forward to any new special releases or products from the Edrington Group’s Whisky Portfolio coming to South Africa?
CB: Yes, later this year, or early 2012 a limited edition Highland Park will be launched. Not an entry-level Highland Park, a little bit more expensive, but I can’t say any more about it yet. And we will also be bringing in Cutty Sark blended whisky next year (no exact date yet) which is doing amazing things internationally and I think it’s going to be a great new player on the blended whisky field locally here in South Africa. It has an easy, light profile and I say that with the utmost respect. A lot of people when trying whisky, that will be the first thing they look for.
WTF: Where is Candice headed in the future? What do you want to do/be in the next couple of years?
CB: This is my first year in this role so I just want to focus on doing what I do for now. Theoretically down the line, global brand ambassador would be phenomenal but locally, the Edrington portfolio has a long way to go with regards to education, tastings and training. So that’s where my focus is right now – educating more people about our brands. If I get that right, then I’ll maybe think of broadening my education path.
WTF: And with regards to how you want to further your own education on whisky?
CB: I’ve been lucky enough to go to Scotland twice now and I just find that is the best way to really get more in-depth knowledge and passion and brand immersion. So if I can do another trip that would be great. Sometimes I lie in bed like a bit of a nerd, reading whisky books. It’s important to keep up with what’s going on and understand more scientific information because you’ll always get some guy asking you what exact sugar level is the wort at or something along those lines. Because I sometimes am judged being a young female, I need to stay on top of my game.
WTF: Any parting words or advice when it comes to whisky?
CB: Most people probably know me for this: whisky is personal. Drink whisky, whether it’s a blend or a single malt, the way you want to drink it. If it works on your palate that’s brilliant and that’s all that matters.
It was a real pleasure talking to you Candice. Next time we need to do it over a couple of drams though, ok?
You can follow Candice Baker on Twitter.