Johanna Welter, Journeyman Distillery, Co-Founder/Brand Curator had her introduction to whiskey next to another woman drinking it, and hasn’t looked back. Her background in hospitality informed the “customer-first” culture she’s nurtured at Journeyman Distillery. Our favorite quote about working with a partner: “you need to establish expected roles and define parallels. Discover the strengths of each other. It’s important to realize that compartmentalization isn’t always easy. While it’s hard to not be a nurturer and to take care of things in every aspect, releasing those expectations allows you to regain control and promotes growth.”

BW: How did you end up working in the industry?

JW: In the early 2000s, after college, I lived in Chicago during the “Cosmo era” when most cocktails had a sweeter profile, and were rarely whiskey-based. I was with a friend one night who happened to be sipping on whiskey and water – I’d never drunk it that way and loved it! Recognizing another cool woman doing it moved me away from the sweeter drinks and into the world of whiskey.

BW: What was your previous background – and how do you use your background in your role today? How did you background prepare you for your position in the industry today?

JW: Before Journeyman, I was in the luxury hotel hospitality industry, namely the Four Seasons and Ritz in downtown Chicago. When working in hospitality, you’re assigned to one department but end up part of every aspect, wearing multiple hats and working closely with food and beverage teams. I grew to appreciate all that goes into not only the customer-facing interactions but also the full experience. That higher level of appreciation gave me a broader understanding of business ownership and engaging the “customer first” approach that became one of our core values at Journeyman.

BW: What similarities and differences are there between your former career/position and this one?

JW: Along with being Co-Founder, I’m also currently our Brand Curator – I know the brand inside and out, so I’m essentially helping bring our ideas from concept to fruition. Luckily, we’ve been able to embrace all of the challenges so far and continue to grow. When I was working in hospitality, it was the same thing. New team members come in, so workflows change and improve. We as women specifically evolve in every role in our lives – whether that’s with our partner, incorporating a family, our businesses, etc. The ebb and flow of owning and running a new business in addition to the standard female roles as a mom and wife.

BW: After working in the whiskey/spirits industry for all this time, what are some of the changes you’ve seen?

JW: In general, I think the spirits industry is always evolving. People are more inclined to try new things: cocktails, pairings. People want to know the process, why certain spirits taste the way they do, and appreciate the details that differentiate them. And good, knowledgeable mixology, simple or not, has really become a standard. Specifically, the typical whiskey drinker profile has changed – the demographic and range of access has increased and allowed for more exploration and exposure. There seems to be a lot less pretension and rules for drinking whiskey nowadays. The “American way of drinking whiskey” has now become “you can drink whiskey the way you want!” and openly speak about it and share it.

We believe transparency in the product and process is important. Starting Journeyman was based on the grain-to-glass factor – knowing where we get the grain and why we seek the organic and Kosher labels, etc. So often, brands were sourcing ingredients for quantity and cost, whereas now the conversation is more open.

BW: What’s something in your role and/or company that inspires you or gets you going in the morning? 

JW: My role has certainly evolved over the last decade-plus – at the beginning, as co-founder, I was in charge of retail, I was a bar back, restaurant manager…I had to wear many hats. With any startup, it’s always an evolution. As our company has grown, we’ve been able to bring on lots of people who are great at what they do, allowing me to really focus on the business and what I do best. We’re ever-changing and growing!

BW: What advice do you have for women who want to step into a similar role or carve a similar path?

JW: I work with my husband, but whether you’re working with a business partner or spouse, you need to establish expected roles and define parallels. Discover the strengths of each other. It’s important to realize that compartmentalization isn’t always easy. While it’s hard to not be a nurturer and to take care of things in every aspect, releasing those expectations allows you to regain control and promotes growth.

BW: What do you see for the future of Journeyman? What are you thinking as you plan for what’s to come?

JW: The focus from day one has been legacy, not just family-owned, but as an organization. We are still a “mom and pop” while building into our 100-year plan in everything we do. Even as we built out the new Valparaiso location – we made sure to always ask, “Is this going to last 100 years”? Longevity is always in consideration. In the industry, one of the realizations we’ve come to is that lots of the larger companies are buying up smaller distilleries and with that comes some loss of the hands-on, day-to-day. Our focus is staying small, independent, and home-grown. Grinding, wanting Journeyman to last beyond us.

BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in your state/city:

JW: My perfect whiskey weekend? They’re usually all perfect! With a busy life, a whiskey weekend starts with work, in whatever way it may be that day, then evolves into a journey of bottle discovery, tasting, different labels, nips of each, and landing on a favorite one. For us, it’s neat that we have such a wide range of whiskey within Journeyman. So you can go on a whole Journeyman journey or discover something new. I love collecting different bottles. As we continue to find new flavor profiles or brands, we then associate bottles with memories and stories of when we enjoyed them. It’s all about that storytelling!

Lately, snow days have been a big thing! We’re in Michigan and being outside with our daughter Islay and the dog, Mash, is a great way to begin a weekend. Then you get home, everyone sheds their snowy clothes, and my husband Bill and I sip on some whiskey. We’ll end up doing snacks for dinner, something very low-key and comfortable. In our area, we’re lucky to be surrounded by breweries that often age in our barrels. If we’re not at home, we can be found sampling some of those – to see our brand collaborations within the community.






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