It’s time to step into the shoes of one of whiskey’s unsung heroes
Written by Peggy Noe Stevens
Sometimes it’s all in the name. After my years of working in spirits’ corporate America, you learn the importance of a title. Blasphemy in our industry is not having an enduring respect for the title of master distiller. We color outside the lines with the title(s) of ambassador, or steward, as they tend to evolve to someone who has a mix of production knowledge and brand and sales savvy. Qualifications for such a position vary between experience, technical and academic skills, yet sometimes it is purely on-the-job training. Possibly I’m jaded, but no matter the title, we as consumers need to understand and appreciate the important role of the ambassadors and stewards behind the brand. No disrespect to the famous rock star master distillers – these spirit warriors are boots on the ground, spreading their whiskey gospel, integrally involved in the whiskey’s success story. They showcase herculean efforts to achieve success for the brand. Regardless of title and training, my true clarity regarding roles and positions in this industry is that I recognize talent and passion when I see it.
So, when you have a fiery, blue-toned brunette with a tattoo and a sass that matches, into a brunch at an elite boat club of more than 100 women, you kind of notice Ingrid Rodriguez. Hallelujah, someone with style and whose wit and knowledge of whiskey was created in her own way and time. Her depictions of the tasting profile of several of the WhistlePig offerings was gorgeous and her expressive and appointive way of speaking to this illustrious group of consumers was enlightening. A born entrepreneur and zealot for WhistlePig, Ingrid showcases the passion and business savvy needed to accelerate a brand while her fans curate the ‘mother hen’ and ‘organizer of chaos’ persona she has earned. Enjoy her story – it’s not often that a girl meets a pig and they fall in love.
Peggy Noe Stevens (PNS): How did you begin your journey to WhistlePig (WP) and what was your original role?
Ingrid Rodriguez (IR): My story starts in Bronx, NY in an apartment off Claflin Avenue with my parents, older brother and twin brother. My middle and high school years put me in Cortlandt Manor, NY (near West Point), but the city was in my blood so it was back to Manhattan where I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering, specializing in engineering management systems. During college I worked at various positions within the hospitality industry, the most character-building being a hostess at Tavern on the Green during the holidays. For the next few years I cut my financial chops working for Belle Fleur, New York’s premier boutique florist, where I was the controller extraordinaire at 23.
In 2000 I had had enough with snowy winters and the subway, so with Yankees spring training in Tampa Bay, I decided to move to where palm trees live. Within a short few months I started my career in restoration construction, becoming a state-certified general contractor and CFO for JSS Property Professionals. In 2013 my entrepreneurial spirit and need to learn led me to start me own construction business, Ingrid Shawn Corporation, which I still own today.
This was the same year that I was recruited to be the treasurer for the United States Bartenders’ Guild in Tampa Bay, which brought me back into the hospitality industry. As a consumer, it was fantastic to hobnob with the who’s who in the industry. I became fascinated with all the facets of the industry. It was this partnership which introduced me to Dave Pickerell, an icon in the whiskey world. He thought I’d be amazing as a whiskey ambassador; I thought he was crazy. In 2015 he called me and said, “Do you want to work for WhistlePig? Send your resume by Monday.” When the master distiller of the world’s most-awarded rye whiskey tells you to do something, you do.
Without any sales experience or even whiskey experience (outside of consuming), WhistlePig took a leap of faith and hired me in July 2015 to be their part-time steward (keeper) of the brand for North Florida. In October 2016, after extensive growth in FL,
I became the full-time steward of the brand for the state. In 2018 I received a promotion which increased my territory to Florida and Georgia, then in June 2019 I stepped into my current role as southeast senior steward of the brand covering South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. I now manage a team of two other full-time stewards and six Florida-wide PiggyBack Piglets.
PNS: What does a senior steward mean? What is your day-to-day?
IR: There are so many titles in the spirits industry. WP chose steward because we are the keepers of the brand. Everyone at WP, no matter their title, is a steward. My senior status refers to the territory one covers. All senior stewards cover more than one state. Our responsibilities are trifold: distribution/sales management, consumer- facing engagement and trade development. It is my great honor to educate and serve this amazing spirit to the world and I’m lucky to do so.
PNS: Why was working with Dave Pickerell so wonderful and what was your relationship? What did he teach you?
IR: Dave was an icon in the spirits industry. Although he was known primarily for whiskey, he was equally versed in all spirits. Dave made everyone feel like the most important person in the room. He was not only my mentor but one of my best and closest friends and a confidante. He championed diversity and understood we are stronger together than apart. My favorite lesson from Dave was, “Value is perceived; in every 750ml bottle of WhistlePig, you have 12 opportunities to share a dram and create a memory greater than the value of the juice in the bottle.” Whiskey is meant to be shared.
PNS: As a woman working in the industry, what experiences have you taken into the world of spirits?
IR: As a woman coming from the construction world, I was prepared for many of the challenges I’ve been presented with. There are so many talented women in the spirits industry, from marketing through to bottling. My advice to all is when you see a woman behind the bar or behind the table, respect her knowledge, ask her the questions – she’s earned her space.
PNS: What do you love the most about the industry and your job?
IR: My biggest joy is when someone says they don’t like rye and I find just the right one for their personal palate. I’ve got about a 95 per cent success rate. We are the keepers of moments and I’m glad to play my part.
PNS: How were you trained, speaking about the brand?
IR: It was all on-the-job training. I drank WhistlePig before working for them and had the great honor of having Dave as my educator. As for my palate, Dave would take me off brand and we would try whiskies I’ve never had, to learn their tasting profiles and elevate my own palate. I still do this at times, especially with emerging brands. The more educated I am, the better equipped I am to enlighten my guests.
PNS: In terms of the industry, what do you see? Which changes are hurting or helping and what are your predictions for the future of WP?
IR: WP is on fire and our growth trajectory is substantial. When it seems stagnant, boom, we drop a new product like PiggyBack or Boss Hog. WP is always innovating and might have a few surprises coming soon. In general, there is still room in the sandbox for more grown-up spirits. Our consumers are better educated and love the challenges presented by new products. Collaborations, finishes and blends are coming and I am so excited to see how all the whiskey houses develop.
PNS: What does this brand mean to you?
IR: What’s not to love? I travel the world, drink the best rye whiskies, elevate people’s whiskey palates and make new friends. I make whiskey dreams come true. I always ask, where was this job at career day?
PNS: Lastly what is your favorite whiskey to drink?
IR: WhistlePig 15-year straight rye. It represents my duplicity. Three different barrels being aged represents the three different phases that brought me here. The complexity of Jelly Bean, cotton candy and marshmallow with rye and winter spices of clove and nutmeg and it’s fantastic!