Vanessa Wilton
Vanessa Wilton

Welcome back to The Shout’s Industry Women Spotlight Series. In this series, we share the stories of women from across the industry, raising awareness for the challenges they face and passing on their advice for the next generation.

Through one profile each week, we aim to hero the visibility and inspiration that is common on International Women’s Day, supporting the voices of women in different sectors of the liquor and hospitality industry. It’s important these conversations happen more frequently than just once a year.

We’re back this week with the story of Vanessa Wilton, Co-founder and Marketing Director at Sydney distillery, Manly Spirits Co., and a big advocate for believing in yourself and taking chances.

Throughout Wilton’s career history, she always liked being her own boss. After completing a business and design degree she initially began working as a marketing manager for an advertising agency, but realised she wasn’t really cut out for corporate land and started her own business instead. Wilton opened a design studio, and also had a surf wear business for a while too, and the thing she most loved to do in these entrepreneurial spaces was create physical things.

The Manly Spirits story began when Wilton married chemical engineer, David Whittaker. In Wilton’s words, “when you put a chemical engineer with a branding designer, you get booze. It’s like the perfect combo.”

The pair saw an opportunity in the market six years ago for a locally manufactured Australian spirits brand, and leapt to fill it. Wilton said when they were building Manly Spirits, there were around 30 distilleries Australia-wide (whereas now that number is in the hundreds). Neither Manly Spirits, nor Wilton, have slowed down since. 

“I love finding a hole in the market in the alcohol industry, then developing a product to fit that hole… I love new product development, from the flavour profiles to the bottle, to the personality of the product and all the packaging,” Wilton said. 

Since the distillery officially opened in 2017, Manly Spirits has created a strong and varied range of gin, vodka, RTDs and now whisky too, all of which embody the local area both inside and outside the bottle. This includes the specially crafted sandstone bottle stopper, which Wilton said was an industry first and an incredible challenge to create.

The importance of backing yourself

When Wilton looks back on her journey in the liquor industry so far, she picks out several highlights as defining moments.

Some of the highlights include: “the first time that someone in a bar served me a martini made from my gin – it was quite unbelievable to think, ‘I made that’. And also the first time a retailer made an order to get it into a bottle shop, that was pretty epic.” 

Another key moment came from proving her mother wrong when she said ‘who is going to buy an $80 bottle of gin Vanessa?’ Wilton said she’s never let her mother live that one down. 

But it’s also been special for Wilton to prove herself right. All of her highlights combined show the importance of backing yourself, believing in what you can do and going out and making it happen. 

“Quite a defining moment of self belief happened because of how we decided from day one that we would have a bespoke bottle, so I designed the bottle. I remember the shipping container arriving with about 40,000 bottles in it, and opening the lock I was quite beside myself thinking ‘I’ve either got something fantastic or the biggest and most expensive mistake of my life’,” Wilton said. 

“I was very fortunate that our gin bottle has been great and really well received by the industry. That moment stands out in my mind because it [shows how important it is] to back yourself as a person. We didn’t outsource any of this, everything is done in house by Manly Spirits… I’ve used the skills I’ve accumulated in my previous careers.

“The final highlight for me was when my adult kids said they were really quite proud of me and what I’ve achieved… I’ll always treasure that.”

Maintaining self belief through challenges

Wilton said there have been plenty of challenges along the way in the creation of Manly Spirits, to grow it into the successful business it is today. One of the biggest challenges she noted was something she believes many women face. 

“It’s a bit of a challenge to keep that self belief, as a woman and the owner of a business – a lot of the time you’re battling against yourself,” Wilton said. 

This can intensify other challenges that are common across the industry such as training and retaining good staff, an issue which Wilton said many Australian distilleries are facing as more and more entrants come into the market looking for strong distilling talent. 

Wilton said for women in the industry dealing with this challenge, there is the temptation to just do everything yourself, which is not a good approach. 

“Challenges for women in our industry include learning to delegate well and not just be the ‘do-ers.’ By nature, we just roll up our sleeves and get on with it. I’ve had to learn, as we get bigger and have more staff, to move more into being a leader, not always being the do-er,” Wilton said. 

“There’s nothing wrong with delegating, it’s not like you’re being a princess, it’s just growing a business. There are only 24 hours in a day and you can’t do everything yourself.”

Having that ability to thrive in that top role instead of trying to do everything at every level is key for Wilton. It also helps overcome challenges that women experience with bias, both in the industry and in general in business. 

Wilton explained she has seen unconscious bias around females behind the bar, where people assume they “must just be the bartender” instead of an owner or manager. She has seen the same kind of situation happen in meetings if she is with her husband, in that people see a female in the room and often assume they are taking a supportive role rather than a managerial one. 

“Women tend to only do something once we’re absolutely perfect at it, and then we’ll put up our hand and say ‘I can do that.’ Whereas men tend to fake it ‘til they make it a bit more,” Wilton said. 

“We women often take a backseat until we’ve dotted our i’s and crossed our t’s. Maybe we need to let go of a bit of that perfectionism and run with the pack. You might surprise yourself.”

The way forward

While there are many issues that women in the industry still face, Wilton said she is pleased to see how the future generation is helping to change things as they enter the industry. She described how both young men and women entering businesses are dismantling things like long held unconscious biases and championing equality and diversity in business opportunities.

Wilton’s advice for the next generation of industry women is to surround yourself with those types of people, as well as the ones who are experienced and positive forces in the industry, and keep your vision front of mind. 

“When you’re starting off a business, invest in good people, because you’re only as good as your team. Make sure they’re on the journey with you, because if they are, then you can conquer the world,” Wilton said. 

“Trust yourself when you want to do something. You will get knocked back along the way or put down, but don’t take it personally.”

In terms of messages for how the industry can work together to create a better environment for women, Wilton said she would like to see the end of the sexualisation of alcohol, which she called “a step backwards in our industry.” 

She’s talking about using things like sexualised imagery of people’s bodies to sell alcohol, whether that be via influencers, advertising or venues.

Wilton said: “I know sex sells, but haven’t we passed all that?”

Catch up on all the previous profiles from our Industry Women Spotlight series here.

Brydie Allen

Brydie Allen is the Editor of National Liquor News. She has been with Food and Beverage Media since 2019, when she joined the company as a journalist across National Liquor News, Bars & Clubs, The...

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