Holly Seidewand’s love for whiskey began with a neat pour of Lagavulin 16. Most people, wanting more, would go out and simply buy a bottle. Holly bought a plane ticket. This is her story.
Love at First Nose
Born and raised in Saratoga Springs, NY, Holly grew up playing tennis and softball and earned an MBA in Business Administration at Alfred University. She moved to New York City and worked at a company specializing in watch and jewelry store design.
At a work event, she was given a glass of Lagavulin 16, neat. First the smell hit her; it was different but not unpleasant. (“Peat was not an aroma I was familiar with at that point in my life; we weren’t a camping family.”) After taking her first sip, she knew that peaty, smoky Scotch was now “her thing”. And soon, everyone else knew it as well. Holly recalls going to the bar after a softball game where everyone drank beers while anyone nearby could catch a whiff of her signature Scotch.
After a move to California where she ended up in a similar job role, she often enjoyed sips of Scotch with her roomie while watching Downton Abbey. But sipping Scotch wouldn’t be enough and she began to explore where she could learn more.
Holly’s Google search found The Wine & Spirit Education Trust (“WSET”). She took a weekend course and felt that she had wasted her money; Spirits took up only about 30 minutes with 30 seconds worth of Scotch. (This was prior to WSET offering a Spirits focused version.) But the passion and background of her teachers inspired her to want to learn more.
Holly Goes East
Since whiskey school or Scotch certification didn’t exist, Holly decided to create her own mini “Masters in Whisky” program, sitting down and outlining a “course” for her to follow. Over the next few months, she sold items, saved money, and stored items. Then she quit her job, hopped into her car and drove back East to New York.
Her plan was to spend a year learning about whiskey by traveling to where it was made. She kicked off her journey near her birthday, first staying with friends in London. While it may seem odd to not have gone straight to Scotland, Holly’s research had led her to the IBD (Institute of Brewing & Distilling). Established in 1886, the IBD is a respected educational charity committed to professional training for those in the industry headquartered in London.
Holly decided to stop by to pick up a brochure. The door was locked but then a gentleman heading out to lunch asked if she needed help. He turned out to be Jerry Avis, their CEO and he took time to sit down and chat with her. Holly credits him with getting her placed at an in-person class and certification through Midleton Distillery shortly thereafter.
Then off to Scotland she went where she and her 70-liter backpack would spend the next 3 months in a few hostels, mostly AirBnBs and about 70 distilleries. She started her travel blog, Her Whisky Love. Unlike many today, its purpose was less “influencer” and more “documentary” so that she could keep a log of her trip both for her own education and so that her family wouldn’t worry.
One of her memorable visits was at Knockdhu Distillery in Aberdeenshire that makes An Cnoc. When she emailed them, they had just opened up the public tours. She arrived midweek and as she was walking around with her notebook, she met Distillery Manager, Gordon Bruce, who jokingly asked if she was “stealing secrets”.
Holly replied that it was for her blog and she was scheduled to sit for the IBD Certification in Distilling? His response? “Well, you’re not going pass that…unless you come work here.” She ended up interning a 6 am shift for a week and is grateful for the experience. She maxed out her visa with almost a month at Inverness.
Next would be Ireland (including Dingle, Teeling, and Bushmills), then back stateside for two months in Kentucky and Tennessee followed by a month in Japan (including MIyagikyo, Yoichi, Yamazaki, Mars and several Sake Breweries).
It’s Not What You Know….
While Holly had planned to return home, it seems that life had one more trip for her: Tasmania.
Holly’s advice for any whiskey travel is to “stay with the locals”. She credits her AirBnB hosts (a few of which she’s still friends with today) with being the reason behind most of her serendipitous experiences (such as visiting a dark grains plant). Most of her hosts in rural Scotland would know someone “in the industry”.
She was introduced to Wemyss Malts, an independent bottler, and through them met a former Glenkinchie employee who moved to Tasmania to make whiskey at Lark Distillery. So, she spent another month with time both there and mainland Australia.
Back in the US she moved to Boston to run the whiskey programme for Gordon’s, a chain of Boston shops; they had contacted her on Instagram while abroad. This was followed by repping Bacardi Single Malts (Aberfeldy, Craigellachie, Aultmore, Royal Brackla & The Deveron)
for a few years in NY until she decided to return to her hometown.
Holly founded the First Fill Spirits whisky shop with her friend Charles Grabitzky (whom she had met in Kentucky.) One of her goals is to shine a light on whiskey being made in areas that might not be as well-known through their inventory and store tastings.
While shop tastings are generally more introductory or category specific Holly also supports the more geek oriented Saratoga Whiskey Club founded by Charles. Annual membership is under $100 USD and features 2-3 tastings a month.
Today she continues to share her love and knowledge through the shop, tastings, and also as a Brand Director for Discovery Bottles, a small, boutique importer.
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Holly’s story and encourage you to visit her shop if you’re in the area!
Author’s Note: I’ve had the pleasure of first meeting Holly out and about in the New York City whiskey community at both industry events and specialty consumer tastings through FineTobacco NYC and the Manhattan Whiskey Club.
One of those events to note paired Aberfeldy 12, 16, 21 and Royal Brackla 21 with Aging Room Quattro Nicaragua Maestro (Cigar Aficionado’s #1 Cigar of 2019) and the Romeo y Julieta Reserva Real Nicaragua including cigar industry legend Rafael Nodal.