On International Women’s Day every year, the voices and stories of women across the world are celebrated, as we address the issues that cause gender inequality and diversity. But despite these issues remaining, such voices and stories take a backseat once the day is done.

We think it’s worth doing the opposite and actively challenging the issues that create these gaps in our industry. So, we’ve launched this weekly series, Wednesday Women, where we’ll profile the story of an inspiring female in this great and wide industry.

Today we speak with Vanessa Wilton, Co-Founder of Manly Spirits. Although Wilton founded Manly Spirits with her husband David Whittaker, to many people she is the image of the brand, and is responsible for everything from marketing and brand identity to the unique bottle design.

TS: Could you tell us how you got into the industry, and what kind of places your career has taken you?

VW: Venturing into this industry stemmed from a strong desire to craft premium Australian spirits tailored specifically for our local community. It struck me as odd that despite having all the necessary resources in Australia – the raw materials, the expertise (thanks to a well-established brewing industry), and the talent – we were heavily reliant on imported spirits.

That’s when the idea took hold in my entrepreneurial mind: why not establish a boutique urban distillery right here on the vibrant northern beaches of Sydney? My goal with our whisky production under the brand Coastal Stone was to infuse it with an unmistakably Australian character. That’s why I decided to introduce red wine barrels into our maturation process. Not only does it impart a unique flavour profile, but it also allows us to repurpose resources from our esteemed wine industry, reducing our carbon footprint in the process. It’s a win-win situation – creating exceptional spirits, celebrating local ingredients, and championing sustainability all at once. Our whites champion botanicals found all around the coast.

TS: Have there been any highlights or really defining moments of your career so far?

VW: The journey has been filled with countless highlights. One that stands out is the joy of connecting with people worldwide who’ve savored our spirits. It’s always a pleasant surprise to hear stories of our bottles finding their way into suitcases, becoming cherished tokens of Australia shared with loved ones in far-off lands we’ve never even reached.

Another memorable aspect has been the reactions I receive when I reveal that I’m the owner and producer of our liquor brand, especially as a woman in an industry largely dominated by men. The mix of fascination and respect is palpable, perhaps reflecting the rarity of female leadership in this field.

TS: Hospitality and liquor are known to be fairly male-dominated – what are some of the common challenges that you think women face in these industries?

VW: As a female business owner, you’re not just a cog in the machine; you’re the one calling the shots, with your neck on the line and your mortgage at stake every time a decision is made to propel your business forward. Balancing your time and energy as our industry “happens” a lot in the evenings and weekends.

It’s widely acknowledged that women excel in initiating businesses, yet may grapple with self-confidence and navigating financial risks to scale their ventures to the next level. It’s a delicate dance between managing cash flow and embracing calculated risks—a challenge I’ve encountered firsthand. Many of us have a natural inclination to create a secure ‘nest,’ which makes the notion of discarding it in pursuit of a potentially larger one quite daunting. Perhaps it’s the nurturing instinct that many women carry from their personal lives that flows into their approach to business. Interestingly, this nurturing quality can also serve as a tremendous asset.

TS: Do you think there are issues with gender gaps in hospitality and liquor, whether that be pay gaps, ratio gaps, gaps in opportunity, etc? Have you personally experienced these?

VW: On a personal level, I’ve been fortunate not to face this dilemma directly, having dived headfirst into entrepreneurship as a startup owner. I personally do not discriminate gender when it comes to pay.

TS: If we take a step back and think about women in general who are entering the industry and want to further their careers – from your point of view, what advice would you have for them about doing that and getting into the kind of space you’re in now?

VW: Ensure you’ve got solid cash flow projections spanning at least a decade. Opening up a distillery or venue might seem like the exciting part, but the real challenge and grind lie ahead. It’s crucial to have a clear grasp of what sets your brand, venue, or product apart from the competition and be prepared to broadcast this distinction loudly and proudly.

Recognise that in business, standing still isn’t an option. There’s always someone gunning for your spot at the top, so staying vigilant is key. Factors beyond your control, such as excise hikes, shifts in distribution channels, and evolving drinking preferences, will inevitably throw curveballs your way. The key is not just to adapt but to thrive in the face of these challenges.

Above all, whatever you undertake, do it with unwavering excellence and boundless passion.

TS: The theme for this year’s IWD is Inspire Inclusion – what does this mean to you?

VW: For a woman business owner, being inspired and fostering inclusion go hand in hand. Drawing inspiration from your own experiences and those of others can fuel your determination to break barriers and create positive change.

At the same time, promoting inclusion within your business not only helps to create a more diverse and dynamic team but also strengthens your ability to innovate, adapt, and succeed in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. Given that a significant portion of the consumers purchasing my spirits are women, it only makes sense to have women involved in both the production and marketing processes. Who could understand and cater to this audience better than women themselves?

TS: What do you think we can do as an industry to value and encourage women’s inclusion?

VW: Let’s be real. As women, we’re often tasked with juggling numerous responsibilities, from excelling in our careers to being present mothers setting an example for our children, all while maintaining a strong connection with our life partners and somehow managing to stay ‘hot as hell.’ Just writing that out is exhausting. Perhaps a bit more acknowledgment and appreciation for the heavy load we carry would be truly amazing.

There’s a definite need for greater recognition of the skills that women naturally excel in – emotional self-awareness, empathy, conflict resolution, adaptability, and teamwork. These qualities aren’t just nice to have; they’re essential for effective leadership in any workplace.

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