The first time Sherlyne Muita tasted whisky, she was about 20 years.
“It was at a party in New Zealand where I was studying for my Bachelor’s degree in business management, before moving to Italy to do a Master’s in Brand Management and Communication,” she says, seated on a high stool bar at Sankara Hotel in Nairobi.
It is about 4.30 pm on a Tuesday and Sherlyne is not about to wind down her day. She has another meeting to talk more about alcohol, before planning another one the next evening to teach drinkers how to appreciate the single malt Scotch whisky and differentiate the taste of an 18-year double cask from a 12-year-old triple cask and the amber honey-coloured double cask 15-year-old.
She is among a new generation defying whisky-drinking stereotypes and making a career out of alcohol. After graduating at 23, she worked with international alcohol brands like Campari, and Diageo.
“And now I’m at Macallan under Edrington,” she says of her new job at Macallan as a brand ambassador.
A whisky and wine collector, she says she does not collect just for personal pleasure.
“I just started collecting whisky. I don’t collect it for myself. It’s for my daughter; she’s turning five in March. I’m collecting every bottle created in 2017 because that’s when she was born,” says Sherlyne.
Her love for alcohol started from her travels.
“When you go to a whisky bar, like one I visited in South Africa, you see different whiskies from different years, and I found myself saying ‘I want to try that one!,” she says.
She tasted many different whiskies brewed over many decades ago, and that is the whisky wealth she wants her daughter to grow in.
“If I get her a bottle today, by the time she turns 18, it will be worth so much. I’m a single mum, so I must think about her future. It’s a long-term [investment] plan for her,” she says.
But why whisky and not wine? When she was working in Dubai, she says, she felt left out of the boy’s club because she was young, in management and female.
“The men used to be like, ‘we’re going for whisky, the ladies are more about the wine.’ And I’d refute that. Part of trying to fit into the boy’s club in Dubai got me in this journey of sitting with the big boys, discussing deals on the table while enjoying a glass of whisky, neat,” she says.
A few years ago, if you asked most people to envisage a whisky drinker, chances are female, 35, married or single mother of one, with university degrees and a taste in fine clothes, would not be it.
But now women are becoming whisky aficionados. Sherlyne is part of a club of Women Who Whisky in Kenya, where female drinkers meet to enjoy a tipple or learn about alcohol.
The Women Who Whisky group is becoming popular that for one to participate in virtual tastings, few slots are available, and they fill up in 30 minutes.
“I always tell women, walk into a bar and ask for your glass of whisky, it says a lot about you. It’s different from a woman who’ll get into a bar and says, ‘I want a glass of wine- red, white, rosé,” she says, adding “If you walk up to the bartender and you're very specific about what you want, ‘I want Macallan 12, not on the rocks. People will look at you differently, as a woman who understands what she wants. The confidence puts you on a separate level.”
Sherlyne may have tasted many whiskies, but her favourite right now is a bottle of Macallan No.6.
“It’s very strong. It contains about 43 percent ABV [alcohol by volume]. I experienced it for the first time in South Africa and Thami Banda [South Africa’s Macallan brand ambassador and her mentor] looked at me and he said ‘girl you’re drinking this neat, you’re not even putting ice.’ And I was like ‘I love the taste!’ The moment I put ice in it, it’s going to spoil the whole texture of the No. 6. It’s a series, edition one to six,” she says.
Loving whisky is different from abusing it, and few people know the difference. So how does she control her intake, especially if her favourite is 43 percent alcohol by volume?
“Once you’ve had a double, drink two glasses of water. You know your body, so stop at two glasses or two doubles…,” she says.
Overindulgence has been a problem for some during the Covid times, as they work from home.
“We know we’re going through hard times, but you are not trying to get hooked onto alcohol. You drink to enjoy it, feel relaxed. There are times you’ve had a long day, and just pour yourself a double shot, sit on a couch and listen to Frank Sinatra. No disturbance. You are not overdrinking,” she says.
As a Macallan brand ambassador, she is hoping for a good year and to court new drinkers.
“My goal is to make people understand the whisky more, enjoy it more,” she says.
How should one drink a Macallan? “First you must nose it. Put a drop on your hand, once the alcohol rubs off, smell the ingredients like the citrus, to understand the flavours. If you sip whisky and cringe your face, you missed a step. What you need to do is take it, sip it, swirl it, swallow it and exhale with your mouth. That takes out the harshness so you can enjoy what’s left in your mouth, the fruity flavours of the whisky. It's not just about swirl a glass to swirl a glass,” she says.
It is interesting the way she talks about alcohol, like it is a person. It is even interesting how she talks about Macallan like she has known it for years, yet she joined the company only two months ago.
“It’s my job, it’s my passion and it’s me,” she says.
As a female brand ambassador, she is aiming to woo women drinkers, and the reception has been good.
The Macallan 12 triple cask, she says, is an easy entry point especially for women and it is also perfect for cocktails.
“Once you set tastings for them in their favourite outlets then they become your loyal fans because they’ll be like finally a woman is teaching us about whisky,” she says.
Although she is among the few in Africa, Macallan ambassadors are female. Out of five, the women are three in Africa.
“It’s a world dominated by men but as a woman, you have to step up to the plate and say ‘look I’m also here, I also have a brand I want to talk about,” says the 35-year-old.
Does her family cringe at her career?
“No. Occasionally, I drink with my dad. My mum has been with me through this journey. I guess because they are in the business, they figured I was following in their footsteps,” she says.