Emma Cookson uncovers her role in the world of whisky

Emma Cookson

Like many people in drinks, Emma Cookson’s first foray into the industry was bartending, a means to an end while she studied at university. From traditional nightclubs to restaurant bars and finally cocktail bars, exposure to industry events sparked her interest, and one particular GlenDronach event represented a real turning point in what would become Emma’s career.

“I heard a story about the founder, which may or may not have been true, but it didn’t matter, it was narrated with such conviction by Linus Schaxman that I realised drinks were about more than just their taste, they all have a story behind them,” she said.

Uncovering these stories is what drew Emma in, and it is what keeps her going today.

Most of Emma’s career has been thoroughly Melbourne-based, including three years spent at Whisky & Alement, which she believes laid the foundation for what she would go on to do. As she learnt more about whisky, Emma often hosted in-venue whisky tastings and broadened her own understanding of the category.

“Whisky & Alement not only fed thirst for knowledge about whisky but it also instilled an ability to identify seemingly identical whiskies, a harder task than you might think.

“Working in bars, particularly a specialty whisky bar, really concentrated down my skills and got me to that next stage.

“That was what got my foot in the door at The Whisky List and I’ve been fortunate enough to be given the opportunities to expand what I do and utilise more of my skills,” she added.

It was never just about whisky, but it did become the field that Emma most resonated with.

“My first love is whisky, and then my mistress is chartreuse. I’m very enamored with chartreuse and it has a really rich history to it. I love and appreciate all spirits, tequila, rum and amaro are other interests of mine, but I’ll never say that I’m an expert in those fields. Whisky is just where it clicked for me,” she told Bars and Clubs.

While studying at university, Emma majored in creative writing, literature and applied mathematics, which led her to pursue the communication avenue of drinks.

“I find that everyone sees the world in a different way, and so being able to share how your eye perceives the world around you is really special. Every writer is different, and being able to capture what you see, particularly around a brand, distillery or place, is really cool,” she said.

Now, working as a Whisky Specialist at The Whisky List, Emma hasn’t strayed far from whisky tasting events, which she holds weekly, only now in a virtual format. In addition to that, she says: “I write almost all of the editorial content on the website which gives me an amazing outlet to tell these brand stories.

“I’ve tried to build a great resource for people of all levels to learn more about these whisky brands from all over the world.”

Emma is passionate about learning, and at The Whisky List she is appreciative of the freedom she is given to dive into topics that she says “no sane person would think of”.

“Being able to write things like ‘a history of casks’ and talk about aspects of whisky production that are so fundamental but also overlooked is really exciting to me. And having that research spiral supported by my co-workers and the people who read my articles means the world to me,” she said.

Beyond the creative nature of her role and her love of education, Emma is also driven by the connections she has formed with her colleagues at The Whisky List.

“It’s so cliché to say we’re like a family, but I feel like I work with people that I genuinely adore and get along with, and I think that’s vital to any business. At the core of it all, we’re just a bunch of people who truly love whisky and love sharing that with consumers, that in and of itself is a really rewarding feeling, connecting people to a drink they love.”

Not only does Emma have the support of her team surrounding her, she is also well-recognised in the industry and has received numerous accolades for her contribution.

In February this year, Emma was announced as the IWSC’s 2024 Emerging Talent in Spirits Communication winner, praised for her accessible writing style and her ability to immerse herself so deeply in a subject that she brings it to life.

Being announced two days before her birthday, Emma says the win was the best present she could have asked for.

“I had prepared myself for another miss like the previous year because all the other shortlisters are so amazingly talented, seriously, look them up.

“I’m a lot more old-school in my approach to communications, social media is not my forte and long-format published articles can often be a daunting or time-consuming form of media for consumers, so to have that recognition from the IWSC told me that my style of writing and research-driven content is still a valuable medium in this day and age.”

As the recipient of this award, Emma also received a bursary which she is using to fund a visit to the UK to acquire research and connections to fuel a book that she hopes will be a learning tool for both consumers and industry members.

Speaking about her upcoming trip, Emma said: “My curiosity and research has always been primarily Scottish-focused, as much as I love Australian whisky there are already amazing writers and educators in the space, and I’ve always wanted to delve deeper into the history of Scottish whisky and hopefully dispel some of the marketing sheen that we’re often inundated with.

“There are some whisky industry heavyweights that I’d really like to get the chance to meet and talk to, as well as some people outside of the whisky sphere too. I plan on hitting up every library and historical museum I can get to, since a lot of the information contained in them isn’t accessible online sadly.

“It’s definitely a big goal that might take a while, but I really want to write the book that I wish I’d had when I was first dipping my toes into whisky.”

Although Emma pours her heart into Scottish whisky, she also offers some observations of Australian whisky.

“Even though I leave the realm of Australian whisky research to people who have been at it much longer than myself, cough cough Luke McCarthy, it’s been incredible to see the growth of the industry during my career in the whisky sphere. I think the industry is starting to really mature in the way that we approach releases and what consumers are looking for.

“Of course there’s the endless struggle between excise, price point and profitability that we still continue to work on and improve for craft distillers around the country. But, beyond that we’re seeing a really exciting time for Aussie whisky with more $99 entry single malts being released, a move toward core range expressions and more high-aged stocks hitting the market now that we’ve got just over 30 years of whisky production under our belt.

“It’s been phenomenal to watch some of my favourite distilleries – Fleurieu, Amber Lane and Furneaux – strike that balance between Australian ingenuity and creativity, while still crafting a traditional style of whisky that resonates with consumers already familiar with malts from across the pond,” she concluded.

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