As part of International Women’s Day at Savora we wanted to celebrate the incredible women that inspire our team. We sat down with UK Patrón Perfectionist winner Kat Stanley-Whyte to talk about her career journey, Tequila Sangria and the future opportunities for women in the drinks industry.
Tell me a little about how you got into the industry and what it was about it that was so attractive to you?
Oh gosh, it’s almost twelve years ago now! I went out to Australia to work as a sailing coach (I used to be on that professional sailor path) and then during the Winter season I was out of a job and in need of money. I ended up working behind the bar at the hostel I was staying at, and that’s how I got my start. It was crazy and wild; lots of free pouring tequila everywhere and you’re thrown into this mad nightlife, meeting these people and having so much fun on shift. And then when I came back to the UK to study at Aberdeen University, and I ended up just, again, looking for a bar job to pay bills and everything else. I ended up as part of the opening team at Knox and that’s really shaped my understanding of the amount of work that goes into drinks venues, behind the scenes management and my outlook on the hospitality sector itself.
I then moved to Edinburgh and started at Basement Bar; an amazing, crazy little Mexican restaurant and Alex Duncan (GM) took me under his wing and really showed me what I could achieve with my career. You know I had my degree, but did I really see myself going down that route and sitting in an office? I need to be on my feet, around people, and I’m just really fortunate that Alex saw that spark. He pushed me to my limits and knew exactly how to bring out my skills and my weird, wonderful take on cocktails. I worked my way from waitress to General Manager within the space of about a year and we took Basement Bar from being this cute little Mexican, to one of the go-to spots in Edinburgh.
And then how did this affinity with tequila and all things agave come about?
So Megs Miller (brand ambassador for Altos Tequila) came in to do some trainings and I completely fell in love with agave. The second she started talking about the passion behind the production, the flavours and the emphasis on community and family values; there was just something that sparked within me. And then I started thinking about how we could bring that into the Basement Bar and we worked really hard to get it listed as Scotland’s only Agaveria, we had the largest selection of tequila and mezcal in Scotland.
And time went by and I found myself more and more back of house, doing the general manager side of things and missing out on the craziness and creativity at the forefront of the bar. I started chatting with Sian Buchan (then GM of Panda & Sons), a woman who I’ve always looked up to and we got on like a house on fire. I was in awe of her; her work, her ethos, everything – I decided that wherever she is, I want to learn from her. So, she agreed to organise a trial shift for me and eventually times goes by, and I’m wondering when this trial is going to be and she says she’s been holding off because she’s opening a new bar and wanted me to be her Bar Manager! I immediately forgave her for the trial mix up – totally fine by me!
And we just threw ourselves into Uno Mas, building it from the ground up – we stained every single individual slat of wood on that roof.
Blood, sweat and tears in that place then!
Literally, I’m not even joking, I’m pretty sure there’s still my blood on those splinters. But being part of that opening team, that core family unit has been such a whirlwind, but so rewarding.
It seems to me like the key to your success has been understanding what you’re best at and focussing on nurturing that creative element within your work. What would you say your USP is?
I like to break the mould. I don’t like to conform to established beliefs about what people think bars, cocktails or flavours should be. It’s all subjective, and it all depends upon the individual customer. I think being adaptable is definitely one of my strong points and especially post-pandemic when we saw a big switch in what people were drinking, that’s been really important.
Speaking of the pandemic, (it was inevitable it was going to come up) how was that period of lockdown for you? Did you learn anything about yourself or your craft?
Honestly the pandemic, as much as I hate to say it, was really good for my personal development and career. I was able to have over a year at home experimenting with flavours, pushing myself and my competitive side. Coming from that sporting background with sailing, it’s a huge aspect of my life and during this period I had the chance to really test myself. And so I decided to get back into competitions – I had the time to develop my photography skills and read every single cocktail book I could get my hands on! And just learn, because at the end of the day, there’s so much that I still don’t know.
Congratulations on winning the UK round of the Patrón Perfectionist Cocktail Competition (’21-22)! That must feel amazing to be recognised by such a giant within the industry, can you tell me a bit more?
So I first entered the competition in 2019, made the Scottish final and met some incredible people. Patrón as a brand is one who’s ethos I’ve really resonated with; how keen they are to teach people more about agave is quite different to other brands. And then with this year’s competition, they changed it slightly to include a more consumer focus. They wanted to showcase the stories and people behind the drink which I think was absolutely fantastic and again, sparked my creativity.
I knew I wanted to do something with wine. I know it’s weird, but I remembered how, in Australia, everyone drank wine out of bags, goon bags, I wanted to do that! Tequila Sangria! The whole concept and finalising the drink itself probably took about 6 months.
You’re definitely someone who inspires us to make the drinks industry as exciting and inclusive as possible, what would you say is the key to encouraging a new generation of women to get involved in the booze biz?
I think it’s a little bit about perception, the way that the government spoke about the hospitality industry during lockdown didn’t help. Also seeing this as a completely viable and respectable career pathway for people, one where you get the opportunity to be really creative and meet the most exciting, passionate people. There are more female bartenders in the industry than you’d expect, who are doing incredible work but they deserve more recognition. Women like Anna Sebastian who focus on celebrating the women in the industry, ensuring that they are celebrated for their work, are helping to change the reputation of the industry from just a ‘boys club’.
What about the prevalence of male harassment in the hospitality industry?
It’s the sad truth, but as women in the industry you do have to deal with a lot more harassment than your male counterparts. But its taught me to build a very strong backbone and having management support us and really call out bad behaviour is so
important. People need to be much more aware of what happens and not just shove it under a rug because its uncomfortable to speak about. But change is happening and we are calling it out.
I definitely agree that seeing women in positions of authority who are able to make those changes really provides a point of hope and inspiration for those looking to move up the ladder.
Obviously at Savora, we are very much ‘Team Tequila’ and I was wondering what your thoughts are in the increased popularity of the spirit?
There is just so much opportunity for growth! Especially in the UK, we are seeing a huge influx of tequila sales, especially during lockdown when people were realizing just how easy it is to make a Margarita at home! On the more professional side, there’s so much information out there: we’re changing the way people talk about tequila and how best to train people on its versatility and opportunity. We’re actually hosting the next Academia Patrón Seminar on the 14th of March at Uno Mas – come along! I’m so excited to scream and shout about tequila and how amazing it is – it can literally be anything you want it to; I’ve even used it in some cooking recipes recently. And at the end of the day, it is so important to work with brands like Patrón that really give back to the local community and provide a connection between us and the locals producing the product.
Quick fire round: If you were a cocktail what would you be?
Tommy’s Margarita – good any time of day and I’m sorted.
Apart from Uno Mas, where is your favourite bar to visit in Edinburgh?
Bramble. The guys are incredible in there, they’ll make you anything you want. Their spirit range and knowledge is insane and the service is always absolutely fantastic.
What is the best meal to pair with tequila?
Obviously Mexican food is the go-to, but I would also say the spiciness and saltiness of Asian flavours pair fantastically well with the notes in tequila.
To finish off, what would you like to leave behind as your legacy on the industry?
I want it to be viewed as a true and legitimate career path that people take pride in and that others value as a genuine mark of skill and creativity.
Thank you so much to Kat for zooming with us and chatting all things Tequila. We wish Kat all the luck at the Patrón Perfectionist global finals in Mexico at the end of May! Make sure to follow all her updates on Instagram @whyte_tales and go visit her in Edinburgh at work in Uno Mas.