Shelley Sackier is a writer of novels on top of being a whiskey educator at Virginia’s Reservoir Distillery. Her passion for whiskey was ignited on a trip to Scotland, and these days she is passionate not only about educating consumers about whiskey, but also about learning everything there is to know on the subject.
BW: When did you realize your life’s path was leading you to whiskey?
SS: My first sip of whisky was in Scotland where I’d been handed a dram of Oban to try—whisky from a distillery situated on the frothy west coast. I immediately became the female doppelganger of the green Mr. Yuck face and declared this liquid foul, poisonous, and had needlessly dirtied a previously clean glass. I was 22. The next day, the barkeep from my hotel asked if I’d like a wee dram before dinner, and my then-husband explained how it would be a wasted pour, as my palate was rebellious to the drink.
After a few dramatical heart-clutching moments, the barkeep discovered what I’d tried, exclaimed I had been erroneously placed onto the wrong end of the whisky flavor spectrum as a newbie, and proceeded to explain the various “flavor camps” that existed within single malt scotch. My first taste of feisty smoke, oak, and cloves was replaced with a glass of something delicate, sweet, and custardy—a whisky he described as a “Lowland Lady.” It was head-spinningly delicious.
From that moment on, I fused every new adventure with whisky onto the people, their stories, the distilleries, their landscapes, and the pervasive tastes and scents that permeated throughout that country. I recognized that whisky was not simply a drink, not just a highly potent liquid, but an elixir that held the deft skills of craftsmen and the magical elements of countless distinctive times and places. Learning about it and working within it was a magnetic pull I could not ignore.
BW: What does a typical day as a whiskey educator look like for you?
SS: Working within a small craft distillery means every employee will be outfitted with several hats. Mine happen to fall within the circles of both outward and inward facing education. The first is where I school sales teams and distributors about our processes and our products, and I teach classes to our consumers from the common to the complex in terms of whiskey nosing and tasting, the process of creating it, discovering where flavor comes from, or simplifying the science behind whiskey-making’s complexities. The second is where I work with new employees developing the technical manuals they’ll be utilizing to execute their jobs.
The exceptionally fun parts of any day are where I work as the distillery’s arm of research and development, meeting and interviewing scientists, biochemists, farmers, or engineers to study more about our own individual distillery’s methodology as well as learning about how the direction of distillation is shifting with time and new discoveries. All of this info is translated into usable data for our team or put into practical experiments we execute to further our knowledge.
And finally, the best part of my work is when we are doing collaborations with people from other sectors of the spirit industry—whether with vintners, brewers, or coopers right here in Virginia or with cognac makers across the pond. The time we spend together, learning about one another’s procedures and operations is blissful to me, as I’m not only educating others about us, but I’m being educated by them as well. Big bonus.
BW: Tell me about the book you have coming out soon.
SS: Make it a Double: From Wretched to Wondrous—Tales of One Woman’s Lifelong Discovery of Whisky is a memoir both humorous and fateful, penned in a novelistic style, and threaded throughout with history, folklore, science, and mythology. It stakes no claim to authority over any subject matter apart from perhaps how not to file for a drug label with the FDA when making hand sanitizer for a global pandemic, how best to survive the quicksand swallowing of any ancient peat bog, and how come yeast fart.
As a woman whose first sip was ill-fated from the get-go, I could not envision traveling two-and-one-half decades into the future to meet a forthcoming version of myself as someone who now writes, researches, and lectures on whisky, but one who also sells it, and equally importantly, makes it. But getting to that point was via a path often brutal and merciless.
The book not only focuses on my determined efforts to respond to a deep and growing ambition, but also the barriers and hurdles women must face—now more than ever. It’s equally candid and humorously encouraging, as I am convinced stories that share common tribulations allow people to feel supported and inspired to move forward with their own difficulties. From that first taste of scotch to the position I now hold within a booming bourbon industry, I strive to entice the reader to pursue, cultivate, and nurture a love for whisky as I reveal the story of realigning my stars to fit the future I’m chasing. Equally important, I aim to claim readers as a kindred spirit.
BW: What advice do you have for women who want to work at a distillery educating consumers?
SS: I would suggest they get their hands full of grain, yeast, and water by apprenticing at said distillery—or any distillery that will give them the opportunity for the necessary and valuable education they will need to perform within that position.
My history proved time and again that I needed the hands-on experience to fully absorb and understand everything Reservoir does. I am also relentlessly dogged in cold-calling individuals with even a shred more knowledge than I possess to explain the complexities of a subject I’m hungry to understand. I put aside a lot of internal embarrassment and march right up to the door of discomfort, knocking on it and announcing I’ve got a lot to learn.
Once I’ve amassed the necessary knowledge, the thing I’ve found people are most grateful for is someone’s ability to “distill” complicated information into useful and impactful content. The goal is to enlighten, not confuse. No one has ever complained when I made something easy for them to understand.
BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in Richmond, VA.
SS: It’s Friday afternoon, the sun is drooping low, I’m sitting on the front porch steps within an old area of Richmond called The Fan, and I’m surrounded by at least four bottles of whiskey and several Glencairn nosing glasses. The weekend evenings are reserved for what’s called “stoop culture,” where, as I bide my time sipping beautiful bourbons, sultry scotches, and otherworldly whiskies, it never fails that within minutes, someone stops to chat. An unknown soul, but of the curious temperament. Sixty seconds in, I have offered them a sip of something new. I have told them a tiny tale about that potion in their hands. I’ve taken them somewhere they may have never traveled. We marvel about the liquid gold and part as newfound admirers, grateful for the simple shared moment of delight.
Rinse and repeat.
Photos Courtesy of Shelley Sackier