Irish Whiskey Society’s President Sarah Finney: “It’s Refreshing to See the Changes Happening”
My love for whiskey comes from a slightly unconventional introduction to bourbon when I was a small child. You see, my father had the inclination to have a Maker’s Mark on ice every evening after work when I was growing up, and as a small curious child with a fascination for ice, I asked him for a cube. This became a ritual, not every evening but on the regular. Flash forward, to my second year of college in a bar trying a friend’s whiskey sour when it hit me – nostalgia, something so very familiar. So here I am, 17 years later and President of the Irish Whiskey Society; who’s to say our younger years do not shape where we end up?
I grew up in the States and in 2011 came to Ireland to study Veterinary Medicine. I immediately fell in love with Ireland, but being 12 years older than the majority of my classmates, I lacked for a social life. Surprisingly, Facebook ads delivered with Whiskey Live. I signed up, attended, met the IWS lads and, as they say, the rest is history.
The Irish Whiskey Society
The Irish Whiskey Society was launched in 2009, with the first official meeting in Bowes Pub. At the time it was a very small group of whiskey enthusiasts who wanted to share their love of Irish whiskey with as many people as they could. Since its inception, it has grown to over 250 members.
The society strives to hold unique, informative whiskey tastings (often of rare whiskey) on the last Thursday of every month, to have at least one single cask bottling a year made available exclusively to our membership, and to buy casks we feel are a good investment to lay down for future bottlings. Our last bottling, Marrowbone Lane 2016 Centenary Edition, was the winner of Best Irish Single Cask Whiskey at the Irish Whiskey Awards 2016.
Whiskey Lovers: Getting Younger and More Diverse
I joined the Irish Whiskey Society in 2011 and not long after was asked if I would like to be on the committee for the following year. At the time when I joined, there were a token 1-2 females at tastings. The demographic of the society at the time was older and male-dominated. In the over 5 years I have been in the society, there has been a noticeable change in the demographic to a younger audience with many more females attending the tastings and also becoming involved behind the scenes.
It’s refreshing to see the changes happening throughout the whiskey industry in Ireland in this regard. I think whiskey for a long time had a stigma as an old man’s drink, and that stigma is slowly dying out, at least here in Ireland.
Irish Whiskey and Craft Beer’s Common Traits
Also, as an avid lover of craft beer (or as I call it class beer), I find a lot of parallels between the growth of the two industries. They both started to explode around the same time in Ireland, craft beer being a new industry and whiskey being a re-emergence. I find that people who enjoy good whiskey have refined palates, which is the same for those who love craft beer, so often people will enjoy both without realising it.
There is an opportunity for the industries to market together because of this – through pairings, festivals, etc. The main differences in the two industries, is that whiskey has a lot more technical restrictions placed on it, but also has increased opportunities for export due to size and government backing. Craft beer, on the other hand, can only be exported if the brewery has the capacity and money needed. Craft beer has very few limitations, which is great for experimentation, but can allow for technically bad beer hitting the marketplace.
There were also the same stigmas surrounding beer as around whiskey – that it was a man’s drink. But with the rise of the craft beer industry and the Irish whiskey industry, we are seeing women in key roles from owner of a brewery/distillery, brewer/distiller, master blender, head of marketing… the list goes on. A lot of these roles have been held by women in the past without a second thought, but I think with the focused attention on the industries at the moment, there is more of a highlight on it now.
Being a “woman in whiskey” is something that I struggle with, as a title. I am really just a person who loves and volunteers a lot of time around whiskey. It is often a speaking point for people to say that I am the “first woman and youngest president” of our society, but I find it an odd thing to focus on. I take pride in my position, as I have worked very hard to get here, but I would prefer to be recognised for my work and not necessarily for being a woman.
A Growing Industry Spreading its Wings
Moving on, Irish whiskey has seen a massive growth in the last couple years with 16 distilleries in production now as opposed to 4 in 2013, and there are 13+ in planning! The Irish Whiskey Association was established in 2014 to support the growth of the industry, ensure technical guidelines were up to date, and ensure that “Irish whiskey” could only be used for whiskey produced in Ireland. They also recently set up a mentorship program, so that new distilleries could get guidance from the well-established distilleries in the country, to help ensure the success of Irish whiskey.
I think in the next few years we will hopefully see Irish whiskey start to spread its wings a bit more. There will be more innovation with cask use, perhaps moving away from the typical oak barrel. Variation in cask finishing and playing around with the grain bill can achieve subtle flavour nuances. The sky is the limit, and I believe many distilleries have the resources to continue to innovate.
Someday, I hope to distill my own whiskey, but that may be years down the line, seeing as I don’t own a distillery. I really enjoy blending whiskey and I think I have a fairly good palate. If I did I make my own whiskey I would start with innovation right off the bat. I couldn’t just do a single malt aged in Bourbon barrels and call it a day. That’s why I brew beer: I can challenge myself which each batch to create something different and play with ingredients to my heart’s content.
A President with a Plan
That leads me to my plans as President of the Irish Whiskey Society. It is important for me going forward to push the boundaries a bit and take people out of their comfort zones a little. I would like to hold some tastings and events in the next two years that can open people’s minds to different ways to drink and enjoy whiskey. I would also like to bring about a more social aspect of our society, so members can get to know each other better.
I plan to continue to push the limits on our bottlings, so that our membership has access to rare single cask whiskeys! It is, of course, important for me to listen to the membership’s input and put those ideas into play and hold unique tastings with really good whiskey at the very least!
In the end, what’s most important to me is to share my passion for whiskey with those around me. Finding the Irish Whiskey Society five years ago helped me find my place within Ireland and led me to meet so many incredible people within the whiskey industry and drinks industry who share my same passion. As President of the Irish Whiskey Society, I hope I can help promote the growth of the whiskey industry and also offer a welcoming atmosphere to the world of whiskey through our events!
For more information on the Irish Whiskey Society visit irishwhiskeysociety.com
I am President of the Irish Whiskey Society, vlog 5 Minutes of Finney all things whiskey & craft beer.
I am craft beer and whiskey obsessed… I spend what little free time I have seeking out the newest craft beer, reading about the latest distillery, and brewing my own crazy concoctions at home.
To say I am passionate is an understatement.