IWA’s Rachel MacNeill Offers Fresh Perspective On Whisky And Education

By Fred Blans |

Islay Whisky Academy (IWA) Director Rachel MacNeill has been busy during the pandemic months. IWA just launched Whisky Affinity, an online whisky course. The organization is also planning a May 2021 move to the mainland to spin up the Independence Academy and work with independent distilleries like Daftmill. Plus, she’s currently working to move the annual Fèis Ìle event online. Amidst these many projects, the whisky woman from Islay found some time to sit down and chat with about it all.  

All Things Islay

Rachel MacNeill was born on the Isle of Colonsay, just fifteen nautical miles North of Islay. The MacNeill family moved to Daill Farm in the heart of Islay, when she was only a baby. During her childhood there, she drank her first drams–whisky for toothache, sipping from her parents’ glass. Her love of Islay and it’s signature beverage only grew from those early moments.

“The first stunning single malt I ever tasted was when I was about 15 years old, from a private cask at Bruichladdich. It was nectar. The whisky was much older than myself,” MacNeill told me. “…I worked for myself for many years [after college], before taking the plunge into focusing on Scotch whisky.”

Cutting peat in Islay [Courtesy IWA]

Eventually, she started a business called ‘Whisky for Girls’. Just a year later, MacNeill travelled to North India. She described the trip as an opportunity to experience a genuine enjoyment of scenery and connection with nature. Returning home inspired, she then created ‘Wild and Magic Islay’ a program geared towards immersion in the life of Islay.

In the years since, Rachel successfully parlayed her overlapping loves of whisky and Islay into a seemingly endless list of successful projects. Her umbrella organization, The Islay Whisky Academy (IWA) includes the whisky blog Whisky for Girls, the educational Washbacks to Slingbacks Whisky Tour, the Theatre of Drams symposium, the Wild and Magic Islay Travel Company, Islay Whisky Tours, and the Five Day Residential Diploma course.

Learning Opportunity

The Diploma course is growing into Whisky Affinity Online. And, the timing couldn’t be better.

“Being the founder of the IWA, I have been working on Whisky Affinity online course for the last two years,” explained MacNeill. “It is only now, due to the impact of corona virus and the shutdown of the distilleries, leading to no visitors to the island, that I have had time to finalize details and move forward with the project.”

Listening to Rachel, I learned that the new online course is an extension in name and concept. “Knowledge about the ins and outs of whisky making is something that you engage with over years of smelling, tasting, comparing, analysing and working to understand what is happening. This is the same thing you will do whilst studying with Whisky Affinity online course.”

Naturally, I also felt obliged to ask about the plans for samples.

“If we do send out whisky, it will because we have chosen to highlight this whisky for a reason. This is not a course where you have six whiskies and we sit and talk about what we get from them,” Rachel clarified.

“Whisky Affinity and The Islay Whisky Academy are totally independent. We are beholden to no one. All knowledge is presented because I think it is authentic and valid. Not because we are pleasing a corporate sponsor.”

Independence

The virtue of independence extends beyond MacNeill’s pedagogical approach into all aspects of her life.

Rachel was an active member of ‘Yes Scotland,’ a grassroots organizations campaigning for an independent Scotland. She has no doubts about the viability of Scotland. While the petition failed in 2014, she saw success in the staggering voter turnout of 85.3% and impressive 44.7% “Yes” vote.

To Rachel, supporting her beloved Islay—supporting Scotland—is a deeply personal matter—even when business is involved. 

To this end, the Islay Whisky Academy created a competition offering a free enrollment in the 2019 Residential Diploma program. The application asked competitors how their participation would benefit both Scotland and Scotch. Then, the global entries were judged by Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland.

But there’s more activity on a personal level. Rachel is also involved in W-Power Arctic Network, a network of female entrepreneurs. “Anything that supports women in business is a good thing. The revenue generated by female driven companies is grossly underestimated and Scotland is ahead of the game in focusing on this interesting powerful demographic.”

“We never stop learning”

Rachel’s view of whisky is holistic. She believes independence and inclusiveness are inseparable from whisky. To her, whisky is about living the spirit and the land. Learning should be the same.

Whisky learning! [Courtesy IWA]

“The whisky knowledge offered at IWA is second to none. Our lecturers, teachers and presenters are people working in the industry and are all expert in their field. I also know whom to ask when I need someone to elaborate on specific points. This is the professional, technical, and theoretical side.” But there’s more to it than that Rachel continued, “We are loyal to the heritage and history of this land; and land the world over. This is the underlying ethos of IWA.”

I wondered if this immersion will make one more than complete as a whisky enthusiast. ‘As everyone in the distilling industry will concur, there is no such concept as ‘qualified’ in the sense of having finished learning’, Rachel explains. “In Scotch – as in life, anyone who thinks they know everything, really knows nothing. We never stop learning.”

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