– by Wendy Morley, Publisher –
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Kristiane Sherry has a truly enviable job. Just 28 years old, she manages an editorial staff at arguably the top liquor industry magazine in the world: The Spirits Business. At 23 she began working for a publication that included traveling and writing about the liquor industry and, oh yes, she gets flown around the world in order to taste various spirits, tour distilleries and take part in other fun and wonderful events. You think a job like this would be perfect for you? Here’s her story and advice.
Wendy Morley: Can you please tell me your position and what that actually means?
Kristiane Sherry: My title is Editor, The Spirits Business – I manage the editorial team to produce a daily e-newsletter, monthly print magazine, host blind tasting events at least once per month and regular “virtual” cocktail competitions. Day-to-day that means lots of planning, writing, scheduling, commissioning, meeting people, chairing discussions, tasting, reading and researching and interviewing – all about spirits and the people who work in the industry.
WM: You’re a young woman who actually gets paid to travel around the world tasting different liquors. Can you imagine how many people would kill for a job like this? Do you feel lucky?
KS: I feel incredibly lucky. I fell in love with Scotch whisky in 2012, and got to know the wider spirits industry after that, so I’m very aware that in terms of years in the trade I’m a relative newbie. I work with a fantastic team – I think that’s the most important thing with any job, so combining the spirits subject matter with the people I work with on a daily basis makes me feel privileged indeed.
In terms of my actual role, the fact that I get to speak to so many interesting and experienced people in the industry means that I’m always learning. The spirits industry is inherently global, and meeting and working with people from around the world in all kinds of varied roles is absolutely one of the best aspects.
The Spirits Business organizes the Global Spirits Masters tasting competitions, so I get to taste a lot of great spirits – which is of course another high point. I’m more familiar with some categories than others, so the opportunity to refine my nose and palate while hearing from other drinks professionals is both incredibly fun and a great challenge.
Travel is undoubtedly a high point – I’ve always loved adventures and I never take for granted the opportunity to travel for work. A highlight so far in 2016 has been visiting Angostura – the bitters and rum producer – in Trinidad during Carnival, a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
WM: That is the glamorous side of your job. I’m sure there is a less glamorous side. What do you do when not attending tastings?
KS: Anyone who works in publishing will tell you about long hours and deadline pressures. I’ve also got a pretty long commute, which isn’t much fun. But the perks more than make up for it. The magazine production side of things certainly isn’t glamorous but it’s still enjoyable. Planning, commissioning features and proof reading aren’t necessarily exciting, but it’s essential and contributes to the satisfaction of seeing the magazine come together each month. News is quite a large part of what we do; the volume of stories the team produces each day can feel intense, but getting an exclusive story out first always feels great. In this job I’ve learned that time is the biggest luxury. There are only 24 hours in the day and there’s a lot to do – I’m not saying I have the answers here but figuring out how best to manage that time does make life easier.
WM: Tasting spirits, attending events and parties … how do you prevent drunkenness, alcohol dependency or other issues with alcohol?
KS: I think not getting drunk is down to just being sensible. When judging and tasting spirits, moderation is everything, and so is using a spittoon. You just can’t sample 50-plus spirits in a day if you actually drink them!
Unfortunately, keeping healthy while working in the liquor trade isn’t quite so straightforward. I think addiction is a really complex area and as a society we’re too quick to judge and apportion blame to an addict, whatever it is they are addicted to. For me, it’s essential to try and keep a balance, prioritize time for self-care (which should be the case in any profession but is easier said than done in our busy, work-centric lives) and be honest with yourself. Are you simply having a few drinks with friends or is it something you feel the NEED to be doing?
Responsible drinking is crucial, and suppliers and retailers are stepping up and encouraging a healthier drinking culture for trade and consumers. Where I think we as an industry could do better is to foster a more open environment where issues and challenges can be discussed in a constructive way. Bartending – kind of like journalism – can be intense, the hours can be long and antisocial, and it’s easy to feel down. That’s where I think unhealthy habits can creep in, and where that safe, open dialogue can really play a part.
WM: What education and/or training did you need for this position?
KS: This is an interesting question for publishing, as there’s certainly an established academic route into the industry. The team I work with all studied journalism at undergraduate or post-graduate level before undertaking internships and getting work experience that way.
I took a somewhat unconventional route and my career path has been the result of both right-time/right-place coincidence and hard work. I chose not take up my place at university – I’d initially wanted to study social work – and traveled on and off for a few years instead. I then studied for a Cambridge CELTA certificate in teaching English as a foreign language, which gave me a solid understanding of the mechanics of the English language, and I really upped my presentation skills. I taught English for a couple of years before I decided to get a “proper” job, and was incredibly lucky to land a role as a junior journalist on a business-to-business confectionery magazine. It was travel from the word go and I worked my way up to assistant editor level. I then joined a travel retail and duty free title, again business-to-business, which was where I fell in love with Scotch whisky and spirits. I was promoted to editor there, before moving to The Spirits Business. Now I’m 28 and have worked in publishing for eight years – that’s a chunk of experience I just wouldn’t have had if I’d followed the traditional route. That said, I didn’t particularly set out thinking ‘I want to be an editor;’ I was given some fantastic opportunities and ran with them.
WM: What about personal qualifications?
KS: I think the best qualification anyone can have in any role is work ethic – just get stuck in, and be prepared to learn. If spirits is your thing, Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) qualifications are fantastic, whether you’re thinking about bartending, writing or the corporate side of the trade. Ultimately I think formal qualifications open doors, but life experiences can teach you just as much and progress you in your career, just in a different way.
WM: If someone wanted a job like yours, what would you recommend they do?
KS: If you want to write, write! Whether it’s your own blog, a student publication or your local newspaper, get your thoughts down on paper, hone your voice and don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. We live in a culture where unpaid internships have unfortunately become the norm – I don’t come from a background where I would have been able to afford to work full-time for free to get experience, so I understand the challenges aspiring writers face. Find a way to work writing into your life – and once you feel ready, put yourself out there, network, make connections and go for it.
If spirits is your thing, take a similar approach: taste everything you can! Find your local whisky, Tequila, rum, gin – or whatever – club and get involved. Decide what you like and don’t like, and most importantly, why. Listen to people more knowledgeable than you, ask them questions and discuss what you’re tasting. Read up on distilleries, production methods, ingredients, and then taste some more. The spirits industry is super sociable, and – for better or worse – word-of-mouth tends to be the way most jobs are advertised. So again, get out there in the industry and make sure people know your name. Spirits people are almost evangelical about what they do, so many of them have been super generous to me with their time and knowledge. Show up, be interested, say thank you, don’t be an arse, and then see what happens.
WM: What are a few of your favorite experiences as a spirits writer?
KS: There have been so many highlights, it’s difficult to choose! I mentioned Trinidad earlier – that was an incredible rum and bitters experience, and the Angostura team are such a wonderful, welcoming, vibrant group of people! Similarly, traveling to Mexico with Patrón and Herradura was unreal. Horse riding through the agave fields one day followed by the most decadent, opulent lunch imaginable – words could never do that experience justice! One of my first Scotch whisky press trips was to Orkney to visit Highland Park in 2012 – that will always stick in my mind. I learned a lot on that visit and probably for the first time felt properly immersed and welcome in the world of spirits. There are so many experiences I could list here – visits to Islay, Cognac, Kentucky and some of Singapore’s best bars, to add just a handful – I just feel so lucky to have experienced such wonderful hospitality in some of the most beautiful places in the world. Looking back, it doesn’t seem real.
WM: What is your least favorite part of the job?
KS: At the moment, the commute! Seriously though, the lack of work/life balance can be challenging. It’s difficult to exercise or even eat properly sometimes when you’re traveling lots or out at events multiple evenings a week. But that’s not to complain – my life is rich in other ways right now.
WM: What goals do you have in this career?
KS: This is actually a really difficult question – I think because I in no way expected to get to do this kind of job I’ve not quite got to thinking beyond that yet! I’d love to really develop my knowledge of Scotch whisky and Tequila in particular. While I am genuinely fascinated by all spirits categories, I feel kind of emotionally involved with Scotch and Tequila and enchanted by the liquid, how it’s made and the people who make it. There’s so much more I need to learn! Oh – and I guess that mythical work/life balance could be a goal, too!
WM: What advice do you have for someone wanting to get into this line of work?
KS: First and foremost, practice and hone your writing skills. You likely already have an area of interest – in this case spirits, but it might be sports, cars, beauty, travel or any number of others. Read, learn, form an opinion, find your voice. At the same time, connect
with people and really get to know the sector. For spirits writing, this might be identifying a niche of the industry that’s not really being covered, and then chatting to editors about it. Whatever sector you’re in, editors are time-poor, and are always looking for reliable, clean writers with strong ideas to make their lives easier. If you can deliver that, pitch it!
Also, really consider what you’d like to do day-to-day. Writing roles are really varied: feature writers, news writers, commissioning editors (also called managing editors), sub-editors … they all do different things with different skillsets, and there’s space for them in every industry, so have a think and then go for it.
I’ve mentioned it before – qualifications will help open doors, whether that’s a degree, NCTJ, or other professional course. That said, when I’m recruiting I care far more about the quality of a candidate’s writing, and most importantly, their attitude and whether or not they’ll fit with an existing team. Be awesome, brim with ideas and show you’re the best person to make your manager’s life easier – whether or not you’re a post-grad with myriad letters after your name or straight out of high school looking for your first job, those qualities always shine.