Why you should care
Because scotch isn’t (just) for old men in smoke-filled libraries.
Carin Luna-Ostaseski had never been a scotch fan, until a co-worker invited her for drinks after a stressful day at work. That evening, Luna-Ostaseski had a change of heart; today, she is the founder and CEO of SIA Scotch Whisky — and the first American woman to make a scotch.
Before that outing, Luna-Ostaseski had tasted the spirit just once and found it “too smoky.” But when her co-worker persuaded her to give it another try and ordered a flight of five small pours, a 14-year-old Oban was all it took to change her mind — and the course of her career.
Soon, Luna-Ostaseski had turned into a zealot, driven to introduce others to her new favorite spirit. She quickly realized that most people, like her, try scotch once and never order it again. “That’s like drinking a glass of red wine once and not liking it,” Luna-Ostaseski tells OZY. “You can’t dismiss the category as a whole because you tried one glass.”
Then, when a long-term relationship ended, Luna-Ostaseski channeled the money she had been spending on couples counseling into building a serious scotch collection, and invited friends over to partake. Like a seasoned sommelier, she would ask guests to name spirits they enjoyed, flavors they preferred and cocktails they typically ordered — and then matched them to a scotch that suited their profile. She even started to make her own scotch blends in her kitchen.
Sipping a glass of scotch encourages people to slow down, Luna-Ostaseski says. When she first started curating her scotch collection, she was working at a tech startup in the Bay Area, developing smartphone apps. It was hectic and stressful work, but sharing a glass of scotch with a friend, she found, was the perfect antidote to staring at a computer and smartphone all day.
Her objective was to create a spirit that would appeal to someone who had never tried scotch before as well as someone who adored it.
In 2012, Luna-Ostaseski stumbled across a Kickstarter campaign raising $10,000 to open a craft brewery in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. The seed was planted, and that November, she launched her own Kickstarter campaign looking for $39,000 to complete production of her first batch in Scotland and to import it for distribution in the U.S. As Luna-Ostaseski sat down for Thanksgiving dinner, she had raised $27,000; by the time dinner ended, that number had reached $37,000. Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress, a friend of a friend and a huge scotch fan, had kicked in $10,000. As result, the first run of 1,500 bottles had “Mullenweg Edition” printed on the label below “SIA.”
The more difficult task, however, was finding a distillery in Scotland to produce SIA. Luna-Ostaseski contacted more than 80 companies before she found one willing to help her. That was thanks to Lauren Shayne Mayer, vice president of operations for Spirit Imports Inc. in Sunrise, Florida, who introduced her to a master blender in Scotland after Luna-Osteseski had emailed Mayer asking for help.
Mayer is a fourth-generation scotch aficionado: Her grandfather and great-grandfather were active in the industry, and her father owns the Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America and the Classic Cask brand. Lauren and her sister, Gabby Shayne — together they’re known as the Whisky Sisters — organize tastings and events across the country to encourage younger consumers to try blended Scotch whisky. They were impressed by Luna-Ostaseski and wanted to support her efforts to demystify scotch for younger drinkers.
“She is breaking barriers,” Mayer says. Luna-Ostaseski, the daughter of Cuban immigrants, challenges the stereotypes associated with scotch. “Blended scotch is perceived as the scotch on the rocks that old men drink,” Mayer tells OZY. Luna-Ostaseski says she “wanted to create a scotch with a modern, sexy appeal that you could drink with friends and colleagues.”
Even the name SIA (pronounced SEE-ah), which means “six” in Scottish Gaelic, is welcoming. “A lot of scotch names are complicated and hard to pronounce,” Luna-Ostaseski says. “I wanted to make it an accessible scotch in flavor profile and in the name.” In terms of flavor, her objective was to create a spirit that would appeal to someone who had never tried scotch before as well as someone who adored scotch. First-time tasters “can be turned off if the nose is too smoky or peaty,” she says. “By the time they taste it, they’ve already decided they don’t like it.”
SIA, by contrast, is “very smooth on the nose with a lot of the vanilla and caramel notes,” Luna-Ostaseski says. Experienced tasters looking for those familiar smoky, peaty notes will find them in the finish, she insists.
Alex Renshaw, founding partner of the Dogma Group, a boutique beverage marketing and event agency, and a Scotch whisky expert for the San Antonio Cocktail Conference, says blended scotch is experiencing a resurgence in popularity. And many of the newer brands are feeding the wave through innovation, hipper packaging and flavor profiles that appeal to younger palates.
Last year, SIA received 96 points in the Ultimate Spirits Challenge, beating out such well-established brands as Oban 14 and Johnnie Walker Blue. That level of recognition and approval explains why SIA can now be found in 260 restaurants and bars in nine states, plus 391 grocery and liquor stores.
Meanwhile Luna-Ostaseski — married and living in San Francisco — continues on her evangelical mission to introduce more people to scotch, whether in her home, at corporate tasting events at Facebook and Twitter, or public tastings in stores throughout Northern California. “I love meeting people and telling them my story firsthand,” she says, “and seeing their reaction as they taste it.”