There are a surprising number of theater majors in the whiskey business. We recently caught up with one of them, Mary Allison, who is the Head Distiller at Virginia’s Reservoir Distillery.
BW: At what point did you decide to become a distiller?
MA: I do not think there was a particular “aha!” moment for me. I came to distilling in a roundabout way. I went to college for theatre. I was a professional actor for a few years. Then a professional musician for several years. I ended up at Reservoir after some chance meetings with Jay and Dave (the distillery’s founders). They were at a point where they needed to expand and bring in some more hands. They offered me a job and I accepted. I learned our process and system hands-on, by working on the production floor every day. Over time, I took on more and more responsibility until I was running the show.
BW: What does a typical day in the distillery look like for you?
MA: I am the first one at the distillery every morning. The first few hours of my day are spent starting the physical production: setting up the stills, preparing to mash, checking the ferments. Once everything is up and running, I will have some flexible time to tackle any of the other various tasks on my plate. This can be anything from receiving shipments, ordering, planning, compliance and reporting, cleaning, or maintenance, all interspersed with regular checks on production to make sure everything is running smoothly. As my day winds down, I will transition to barreling, cleaning, and preparing the production floor and machinery for my second shift distiller.
BW: What is something you wish people understood better about distilling?
MA: While being a distiller sounds exotic and glamourous, the day-to-day can be anything but. It’s a lot of cleaning. A lot of sweat and elbow grease. Don’t get me wrong, if you are doing it right the final product and the pride it brings make it all worthwhile. But getting to that point takes a ton of effort.
BW: What advice do you have for women who would like to become distillers?
MA: It can be daunting to think about breaking into the industry, but you do not have to know everything or have 20 years of experience to get your foot in the door. There is truly no right or wrong way to go about it and you never know where opportunity will present itself. Learn as much as you can wherever and whenever you can. Seek out opportunities close to home. Get to know the makers around you. Sometimes it only takes a few small encounters with the right people to start you down the path.
BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in Richmond, VA.
MA: Saturday, I would start the day outside, whether that is at the farmers market, spending some time on the river or just going for a long walk or run. Early afternoon, I would head toward the neighborhood where Reservoir is located, Scott’s Addition. While we are the only distillery in the neighborhood, there are 8 breweries, 3 cideries, a winery and a meadery, as well as a handful of restaurants within about a 10-block radius. For dinner, I would head to McCormack’s Whiskey Grill for some great food and the best selection of whiskey in the state. After dinner, I would find some live music to enjoy. Sunday would start with brunch, then some more outdoor activities or perhaps taking in a local sporting event if it’s in season. I would end the evening with friends around a backyard bonfire with a cocktail or some pours from my personal collection.