women in whiskey

Covering both the science of distilling and the history of women in whiskey is less like a boring lesson and more like a great conversation over whiskey.


Chatting with Chelan Finney: The “Other” Single Malts 

April 2020

In our May edition of whisk(e)y network, Allen Brody introduced you to the world of Single Malt Scotch. This segment is the driving force behind the projected $3.43 billion by 2025 for the Single Malt Whiskey Market (Adroit Marketing 2019). Recent globalization has led people to discover Single Malts from other countries such as Ireland, Taiwan, and the United States.


For this month’s Women in Whiskey, we feature bartender Chelan Finney, who has not only represented Single Malt Whiskeys, but has a wide breadth of experience in different whiskeys (and other spirit categories) across different markets, are introducing them to “newbies”,  “nerds”, and everyone in between.


On a crisp Autumn Day at New York’s First Irish Whiskey Festival with a view of Lady Liberty in the Harbor, Chelan introduced an Irish Single Malt to one of those “nerds” a.k.a. my boyfriend. A self-proclaimed whiskey snob who couldn’t recall the last time he had Irish whiskey, Charles attended as my plus one. When asked to name a favorite whiskey, he replied “I’d say Gordon Macphail Linkwood 15 Single Malt...or maybe a Weller 12... if I’m in the mood.”


When we walked up to Chelan, she smiled warmly and offered us Knappogue Castle Single Malt 12 (Bourbon Cask), 14, and 16 (the last two matured in Bourbon casks followed by Oloroso sherry casks)


Fun fact: Founder Mark Andrews named Knappogue (pronounced Nah’ Pogue) Whiskey  after a castle he bought and restored with his wife and translates to “hill of the kiss” in Gaelic.

At most whiskey events, some guests are there “to drink” and others  “to taste”. Within the “tasting” group are those who revel in every technical detail, possibly scribbling notes in a well worn mini-notebook.


Chelan covered the Knappogue brand history (once cheekily described in by Flaviar as “Texan buys castle. Makes Irish Whiskey, Wins at life.”) and adeptly determined that this lawyer/scientist whiskey nerd was in the “taste” category with questions that would go beyond “What’s the proof?”


Chelan chatted about the distillation methods and wood management (science) and pondered the legal definition of Single Malt and its positioning against Single Malt Scotch (law). Then back to science geekdom, comparing whiskey production versus that of other spirits such as mezcal and brandy. Afterwards 3 hours of and 30something whiskies later, the lawyer-scientist-whiskey snob declared that Knappogue had been a favorite and that Chelan’s whiskey knowledge beyond the brand she was pouring had been outstanding. 


For Chelan, in addition to introducing newbies to whiskey in general, introducing the “Other” Single Malts to those who generally favor Scotch is rewarding. 


Chelan’s palate and spirits knowledge foundation began in Washington State, where she developed recipes at a vegan/raw food place. Then, at an Asian fusion restaurant, she discovered the world of cocktails and was recommended for promotion to the Bar Team. But when that didn’t materialize, Chelan was determined to show them what she could do...literally. She threw a house party and set up her home bar styled to mimic that of a restaurant, showcasing both her homemade syrups, tinctures, bitters and fusions alongside her ability to make craft cocktails for a crowd. This bold move impressed one particular guest, the General Manager, and she was promoted. 


Chelan continued to educate herself on spirits, especially whiskey. A Seattle native, Chelan understood that the craft whiskey scene was growing, fueled by the tech geeks on the lookout for niche, novel,  and most importantly, native to the area. (While not a Single Malt, it should be noted that while not a Single Malt, she mentions Woodinville as one of her favorites.) 


It would turn out that “native” would be key to the whiskey scene. Research from the Washington State University Research and Extension Center show that its agricultural climate is similar to parts of Scotland. It’s this that prompted Matt Hoffman, co-founder and master distiller of Westland Single Malt to partner with their Bread Lab and local farms to experiment with barley to create a Northwest flavor profile. Their innovations include using Oregon oak (Quercus garryana) as part of a “Native Oak” series of whiskeys and a peated expression using peat from a bog in the Olympic Peninsula.


But Chelan’s need for professional experimentation would take her to the East Coast where she fell in love with New York City. She relocated just in time to “weather” Hurricane Sandy (which left 8 million people without power, costing $70 billion worth of damage) and eventually broke into fine dining at Del Posto, which she describes as “F&B [Food & Beverage] Bootcamp”. She ran a few of their staff education Masterclasses, and ended up at the John Dory Oyster Bar, when the cocktail program was led by the renowned late Sasha Petraske. [Sasha Petraske is known in the spirits industry as having reinvented cocktail culture worldwide and known for such iconic bars including Milk and Honey (NY, London), Dutch Kills, Middle Branch (NY), The Varnish (LA), and Everleigh (Melbourne).]


Chelan then moved on up to the [Upper] East Side as a Beverage Director and Bartender at The Jeffrey. Her knowledge and skills were recognized by two bar patrons who asked her to help them bring the New York craft cocktail bar culture to the first speakeasy in Taiwan, named Ounce Taipei. It ranked among the 50 best bars in Asia and was celebrated for being a leader for bespoke cocktails. 


Chelan continued to absorb local spirits knowledge from Hong Kong rum to, of course, Taiwan’s own Kavalan Single Malt, whose Solist Vinho Barrique won World's Best Single Malt Whisky (2015).

Kavalan Pioneering and Award Winning Spirit

Kavalan’s founder, Lee Tien-Tsai, dropped out of school at 11 to help his family sell vegetables at market then sold insect repellent as a teen. As an adult he was told he would never realize his dream of opening a distillery because of the Taiwanese climate. In 2006, his King Car Distillery began production and in 2012, Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible named their  Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry Cask “New World Whisky of the Year”. To date Kavalan has earned over 250 gold awards including 8 times world whisky winner and 4 times Spirits Producers of the Year. 

Kavalan ("flatland people") whisky is named after the original group of aborigines in modern-day Yilan County, where the distillery is located near the cold spring water of Snow Mountain and the salty Pacific Ocean air. 

Upon her return to New York, Chelan landed at Cecconi’s in Brooklyn and repped for Calvados Brandy as she continued to expand her knowledge in whiskey and other spirits including gin, and mezcal. One of her mezcal cocktails - “Heart of Fire”- was featured in the “One Bottle Cocktail” book by Maggie Hoffman and she has worked multiple events in addition to signing on as a Brand Ambassador for Arran Single Malt and Knappogue SIngle Malt.


Isle of Arran Distillers

Originally founded by  Harold Currie, a former director of Chivas, Isle of Arran Distillers is relatively young. Its first distillery opened in Lochranza on the north end of the Isle of Arran in 1995, the opening delayed due to golden eagles (a protected species) nesting near the construction site. Its second distillery on the south end in Lagg opened just last year.

Interestingly enough, the Isle of Arran has been home to over 50 illegal distilleries throughout the years. 


Since March, when NYC went into quarantine, Chelan has been taking the time to relax and paint her apartment and continues to do events [virtually]. She was the first bartender for Cocktails After Dark for Dani & Jackie’s Virtual Happy Hour, which has been featured in Barron’s, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. 


Or if you’re feeling bold, try your bartending skills at her original whiskey cocktail, 


Lucid Absinthe Supérieure, as rinse

1.75 oz (52.5 ml) Michter’s US 1 Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey

.75 oz (22.5 ml) Byrrh Grand Quinquina

.5 oz (15 ml) Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao

2 dashes Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6

1 dash Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s Orinoco bitters

1 orange twist, as garnish

1 lemon twist, as garnish


Rinse a chilled cocktail glass with absinthe. Stir over ice, and strain into the glass. Squeeze the twists over the drink and add as garnish.


Suggested “Other” Single Malts (i.e., Not Scotland)

England: Penderyn, Cotswolds 

France: Brenne Penderyn Welsh Gold Single Malt Madeira Finish

India: Paul John, Amrut

Japan: Yamazaki 12 Year, Hakushu Single Malt 12 Year, White Oak Akashi Single Malt

United States: Balcones, Few, St. George, Hillrock 

Sláinte until next month’s Women in Whiskey!