Some people have jobs that are incredibly cool: supermodels, international spies, astronauts. And some people have jobs that seem enviably cushy, like mattress testers or chocolate tasters. Into the center of this Venn diagram of desirable careers step the whisky ambassadors of the world, a cadre of spirits-savvy professionals whose life’s work is to teach you about the wonders of whisky.
They represent single malts, blends, Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey and more. We talked to four of them. Each came to their ambassadorships in different ways, but they now have one thing in common: jam-packed, multi-city schedules loaded with account visits, staff tastings and trainings, launches, sampling events and high-end, chef-driven “whisky dinners” that highlight their products.
Their daily work routines vary, but it’s usually a mix of administrative paperwork and research, planning for events, attending events, meeting with current and potential customers and traveling. They work from home offices, on planes and at their hotels, with occasional trips to distilleries or headquarter facilities a few times a year.
Their job is to be the go-to expert on everything pertaining to their brand, and to interest, engage and entertain everyone with whom they interact. They stay up-to-date on their industry as well as the wider world of food and beverages, find ways to promote the unique qualities of their products and do it all while remaining fresh, cheerful and “on” whenever they’re working (which is a lot of the time).
Here’s what it’s like to live the life of a whisky ambassador in Edinburgh, London, Minneapolis and New York.
Mark Thomson: Glenfiddich
If James Bond could ever be talked out of switching from martinis to whisky, Mark Thomson might just be the guy to do it.
The ambassador to Scotland for Glenfiddich Single Malt Whisky, Thomson rivals 007 in his expertise, sophistication and well, does anyone say “suave” anymore? He is many, many times suave.
“In addition to everything else, an ambassador is the face of a brand, so your lifestyle needs to match that,” the 44-year-old told HuffPost. “I’m known for wearing sharp, three-piece tweed suits that I have custom-tailored for me in Scotland. Either that, or it’s jeans and a black V-neck T-shirt that shows off my tattoos.”
Beyond representing Glenfiddich face-to-face, Thomson, whose home base is Edinburgh, keeps an active presence on social media (@singlemaltmark), trying to create at least one post every day.
“There’s no time zone for digital contact, and when people ask questions, they want an answer right away.” And while his Insta posts may seem enviably glamorous, there’s another side to this life: “I’m sitting here now in my pajamas, doing expense reports, and I won’t be posting a photo of that anytime soon,” he said during a Skype interview.
Thomson estimated that he works 80 to 90 hours a week, including most weekends. In a typical week, he might be planning a few events, arranging his own flights and accommodations for upcoming trips, consulting with a chef about the menu for an upcoming whisky dinner at a Michelin-star restaurant, sitting in on conference calls with other members of the marketing team, seeking out and purchasing older bottles of Glenfiddich at auction to use as a comparison for tastings and keeping on top of his administrative duties and expense reporting.
Still, he said, it doesn’t always feel like work. “If I’m working a show, for example, my back and feet may hurt from standing, and my throat may be sore from talking all day, but I’ll have seen lots of friends and caught up with people I haven’t connected with in a while, too.”
The company that produces Glenfiddich ― William Grant & Sons Distillers Ltd. ― is still owned by the family that established it in 1887. “That’s a rarity in the world of whisky today,” Thomson said.
He began his career managing the restaurant and lobby bar at London’s One Aldwych Hotel, moving from there to create Dramatic Whiskey, a company that did private events and whisky tastings. “Every time someone would ask a question, I would do my own reading and research and learn a little bit more,” he said.
In addition to completing mandatory media training with his employer, he recently studied for and received his General Certificate in Distilling (GCD) from the Institute of Brewing & Distilling (IBD), the world’s leading professional body for those working in brewing and distilling. “It proves to people that you know what you’re talking about and have a deeper knowledge of tasting, chemistry and biology,” he said.
He said it’s important to note that his job is distinct from that of direct sales conducted by salespeople and reps. And while his role is different, it’s also absolutely necessary, in his opinion. “We ambassadors are needed, because nothing sells itself,” he said. “I am a whisky educator. I take people — consumers, bartenders, customers — on a journey into the whisky world.”
While he’s often lifting a glass with customers, it doesn’t often lead to a swallow.
“You’re the host, and at these big events you have to keep your head on,” he said. Here’s a trick of the trade: “As everyone else’s head is tipping back to drink, I might be exchanging my full glass for a half-full one I keep in front of me.”
After an event is over, he said he might have a couple beers and a couple whiskies. He tries to have two no-alcohol days each week, and said he averages a beer and a couple drams of whisky on his drinking days.
Thomson said his income keeps him comfortable. “My salary allows me to wear nice clothes, eat good food, live in a good house and take the occasional holiday.” And there are plenty of fringe benefits to consider: “Whisky ambassadors eat in the best restaurants in the world, drink some of the oldest and rarest whiskies and have friends who are happy to do it with them.”
Alwynne Gwilt: The Balvenie
As one of the few female whisky ambassadors, Alwynne Gwilt said she’s hopeful that the industry is changing: “I’ve honestly encountered more sexism from consumers than from those in the whisky industry,” she told HuffPost. “I’ve had a few face-palm moments over the years, but it’s getting better and I’m seeing less of it.”
After she realized there were no women in the United Kingdom writing on the topic at the time, she focused her love of whisky into a blog that she started in 2011, eventually converting her following to Instagram (@TheMissWhisky). She’s now the U.K. brand ambassador for The Balvenie, a single malt whisky distilled in Scotland’s Speyside region.
Gwilt studied theater and music growing up in Canada. She studied broadcast journalism in college and she worked as a journalist before making the move to ambassadorial work. Theater and journalism were excellent preparation for her current career as an ambassador, she said: “Just about every part of my job involves public speaking. It might be a two-hour tasting, where you are in the center of the room the entire time, all eyes on you. That’s a long time to be on your feet, holding your own and being interesting.”
The schedule can be taxing: “It’s not a nine-to-five life by any means,” she said. “It’s usually nine to nine if I’m lucky, or ‘nine until whenever I get to sleep.’” There are days, she said, “when you are so tired you don’t think you can do it, but you need to find the persistence. It helps to be truly passionate about whisky — that’s what keeps me energized.”
Then there’s the question of how to survive in a work environment that’s laden with incredibly delicious food and drink. “It helps that I’m not 22 anymore,” she said. “I know there will always be another opportunity to have a cocktail. You need to be confident and say, ‘I don’t need another drink right now, I’ll just sip some water.’”
Gwilt said her role is a necessary one: “So many people don’t know anything about whisky. It’s an uneducated category, and people are unaware of all the styles and flavors.”
Part of her job is embracing whisky’s rich history while helping it move into the future. “This industry is so dynamic and has so much energy,” she said. “It’s not all pipes and armchairs.”
Kieran Folliard: Kilbeggan
Even though he’s lived away from his birthplace and in the U.S. for 30 years, Kieran Folliard still is the quintessential “Mayoman,” which is how the Irish refer to those born in western Ireland’s County Mayo. He’s central casting’s version of an Irishman, with twinkling eyes, a lilting brogue and a bottomless gift of blarney.
As the global Irish whiskey ambassador for Kilbeggan Distilling Company, he uses that gift to tout the products of Ireland’s oldest licensed distillery, established in 1757. One of the Irish whiskeys produced at the distillery is 2 Gingers, which was created by Folliard and named for his red-haired mother and his aunt, Mary and Delia.
“When people find out what my job is, they often tell me how they’re uniquely qualified to do the same thing,” he told HuffPost. “But that’s usually related to the amount of whiskey they drink, which is not actually one of the qualifications.”
Folliard said the role requires, first and foremost, a significant amount of empathy: “You have to understand your own company and its products, and equally important is to be able to understand the people you are talking to and doing business with. If you can’t understand them, you can’t build long-term relationships, and that’s what the work of an ambassador is all about.”
Based in Minneapolis, Follaird travels across the U.S. to support Killbegan’s team of Irish emigres, mostly recent college graduates, who are brand ambassadors for key regions and accounts. “The interest in brown spirits has grown exponentially in the past few years,” he said. “Most of the brands, and certainly all the Irish whiskey brands, have a number of ambassadors.”
He said an important part of his job is bringing the “truth” behind a brand directly to the marketplace. “What beats a face-to-face meeting? Nothing! The human connection is so important. You can have all the analytics in the world, but it’s vital to have troops on the front line, where the rubber meets the road, or where the whiskey meets the lips, I suppose I should say.”
And even though Folliard’s favorite quote on the topic is Mark Twain’s remark that, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough,” he said self-regulation is part of the job description. “It’s still work at the end of the day. You do drink a little bit more than the average bear at times, sure, but if you sat around drinking all the time, you wouldn’t be in the job for very long.”
Simon Brooking: Laphroaig, Auchentoshan, Bowmore, Glen Garioch, The Ardmore and Teacher’s
As mission statements go, Simon Brooking’s is impressive: “World peace through whisky, one dram at a time.” The purpose of his job is equally lofty: “Educating and enlightening the drinking public on the history, geography and benefits of Scotch whisky, especially for the brands I represent.”
Brooking is proud to be an immigrant, having moved with his family from Scotland to North America when he was young. “It’s an honor for me to represent my homeland and perhaps in one small way inspire people to explore all that is good and beautiful about Scotland,” he told HuffPost.
While he said that many competitive brands of Scotch have between three to five ambassadors for the U.S., he is the only national Scotch ambassador for the Beam Suntory Scotch portfolio. That requires the New-York based Brooking to be on the road a majority of the time, with many work days running 12 hours (or longer). One major asset he’s cultivated is learning how to rest up while in midair: “I can pretty much fall asleep anywhere when needed,” he said.
The job is more than just a matter of stamina, since it also requires a passion for the products and their stories. That’s something Brooking can deliver by the tartan-covered barrelful, since his products are an iconic part of his Scottish roots.
“Our whiskies represent the people who produce this amazing elixir that brings people together. Each distillery exudes the character, the history and the mystery that each sip of whisky possesses,” he said.
His training has been extensive and hands-on: “I have been trained and made whisky with the master distillers, blenders, stillmen, mashmen, warehousemen and women in Scotland and Kentucky for the last 22 years,” he said.
He’s learned that Scotch drinkers are an amazingly loyal group. “For example, Laphroaig and Bowmore drinkers travel thousands of miles to visit the distillery on the island of Islay, off the west coast of Scotland. Nobody does that for vodka!”
Even with all his enthusiasm, he counseled, “This job is not for everyone.” His typical day includes office work in the morning at his home office, hotel or on an airplane, a lunch presentation with clients, a staff training for a bar or restaurant, a dinner-hour consumer event (either a whisky dinner or a liquor store bottle sampling) and after-hours visits to key accounts.
Brooking’s biggest challenge is that there’s no downtime during the day. “In other jobs, your meals are your breaks, but for whisky ambassadors, presentations often happen during lunch and dinner.”
And then there’s the challenge of doing your job while surrounded by world-class spirits.
“If I tasted all the whisky I presented during a typical day, I would be consuming approximately a bottle of whisky per day. Needless to say, Beam Suntory, my job and my liver do not permit me to consume such high amounts of alcohol on a daily basis.”
He’s figured out a number of ways to reduce his intake. “At consumer events, for example, the glass is being raised and liquid is brought to my lips, but I don’t actually drink,” he said. “Consumers want to ‘party it up’ with the Scotch ambassador. The challenge is that I have to wake up the next day and do it again ― and again and again.”
Brooking mentioned that he’s known ambassadors who filled their own “personal” whisky bottles with apple juice. “They would drink only from their own bottle during events.” He added: “Pacing yourself and learning to say no are the keys to success. I have a family and home life beyond my job, which I would like to be present and accountable for.”
He believes that Scotch whisky is in serious need of ambassadorial representation. “Ninety percent of Americans broke into their father’s liquor cabinet when they were 12, drank a bottle of Scotch and swore never to touch it ever again. As a whisky evangelist, I have to change that perception.”