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Meet Carolyn Sellar, the wonder woman of whisky and wild animals

A Seattle woman is among an elite group of international finalists striving to become a Master of Scotch Whisky with The Council of Whiskey Masters. Around ten people ~in the world~ have made it this far in the process and will participate in a series of exams in Scotland in September 2022 for a shot at earning the title.

Carolyn Sellar is wonderfully unique in her scope of expertise. She’s a whisky connoisseur, full-time zookeeper, passionate environmentalist, dog mom and former badass roller derby athlete.

Right now, Carolyn’s world is centered around the upcoming Scotland trip that could change her life, along with the future of whisky. While you’re reading this, there’s a good chance she’s cramming for her final exams in Scotland.

And how exactly does one cram for a distinction like this?

“Read, write, taste whisky… repeat… and repeat!”

Carolyn admits, “I am having a hard time remembering when every spare moment was not filled with reading books, writing notes, and sampling different whiskies from Scotch distilleries in an attempt to remember everything about how each glass smelled and tasted for the blind-tasting portion of the exam. This exam is in the same process and intensity as a Master Sommelier for wine would have to prepare and be tested.”

To earn the rare certification in Scotland this September would be an immense personal achievement, but Carolyn also knows how meaningful it would be to her heritage.

“If successful, I would be the only person in our region with the title, and the only Asian American female to become a Master of Scotch whisky,” she shares.

As Seattle Refined reported in May, Carolyn is proud to represent her heritage as one of the few Asian American female national whisky judges in America. While the spirit industry remains male-dominated, Carolyn is actively working to bring more women alongside her. She is the COO of Women Who Whisky Seattle. She also founded the Seattle Whisky Society and is the Whisky Sommelier of Seattle Whisky Club.

Carolyn also created Adventures in Whisky to “make whisky more approachable to everyone by making connections between adventurer and spirit.” She teaches Master Classes and creates experiences from intimate events to large-scale productions with catering.

“The Scotch whisky industry is still evolving with more diversity and representation,” Carolyn explains. “My roles and achievements are unique in the whisky world, given my heritage and background. In the future, gender, age, ethnicity, and all forms of diversity in the whisky world need to be a very important goal. When it comes to speaking and relating to both new and seasoned whisky drinkers, I find that people want to see others that look, sound, and have the same origin story as they do. This creates another kind of connection, and I want to make whisky approachable to everyone around the world.”

Carolyn’s international travels have had the greatest impact on her appreciation and passion for whisky.

“I feel that the moments when traveling are when I discovered how important this spirit really is,” Carolyn says. “It’s a drink that brings people from all walks of life together. I have traveled to over 25 countries (for work or for fun adventures) and it didn’t matter if we spoke different languages or were of different heritage and/or religions. When we’re sitting in the wilderness by a campfire or in a historic bar… everyone is together, wanting their glass filled with whisky, smiling, laughing, clinking glasses and connecting with each other in a way that can only be created by whisky and no other alcoholic spirit.”

Carolyn is quick to acknowledge the support she’s received from loved ones and industry cohorts, “I can’t even begin to express my gratitude to my family, friends, and the entire Seattle whisky community for their support. Their constant understanding and encouragement as I prepare for the Masters of Scotch exams is priceless. I wouldn’t even be considering this undertaking if it weren’t for their love, dedication, and time.”

“I’d also like to give a shout-out to Women of the Vine & Spirits who awarded me a grant to help achieve this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” She continues, “It is quite emotional to think about how many kind deeds and powerfully supportive words I have received from so many people when I doubted myself the most. I don’t want to jinx myself, but if I succeed in achieving the title of Master of Whisky, there will most certainly be some great thank-you celebration whisky parties in our city!”

We asked Carolyn to solve a debate: is it whisky or whiskey?

“In general (because there are always some exceptions), whiskey with an ‘e’ is used in the United States and Ireland. Whisky without the ‘e’ is spelled this way in Scotland and the rest of the world.”

OK, noted! But of all the liquors… why whisky?

“For me, each glass is filled with a liquid derived from history, science, age, art, and magic,” Carolyn describes. “A barrel of whisky rests and ages, it transforms until it is ideal and ready to be enjoyed, and sometimes that can be 30 years later. What an incredible time capsule and a commitment to perfection! No other type of alcohol has the same appeal worldwide and is so passionately adored.”

As we collectively root for Carolyn’s success in Scotland, we had to know how the idyllic setting plays its own role in the weight of the exams.

“Being at the Rothes Glen Estate in an iconic baronial-style Highland Castle in the heart of Speyside for the exams makes this feel like a dream. The highlands of Scotland are truly one of the most beautiful places in the world. The glens (valleys), castles, fields of barley, and heather-covered hillsides in the area of the Rothes Glen create an iconic majesty. The beauty of Scotland and the emotions created by its beauty is hard to describe. Scotland is a place steeped in history, culture, and such incredible landscapes that it is achingly attractive and comforting. It almost brings a tear to the eye in a ‘there are no words, just an incredible feeling’ sort of way!”

We asked Carolyn to try and put into words what this distinction would mean to her.

“This would be an achievement and a title I would not have even dreamed about a few years ago. I would have the privilege of being part of an elite level of experts. Beyond being one of the select few with the title, this would also give me the opportunity to be invited on the Council of Whisky Masters and help shape the future of whisky. I hope that this achievement will expand my presence in the whisky community, and help me continue expanding my career in whisky. I am also proud and humbled, and I recognize the significance of being an Asian American woman on the threshold of becoming a Master of Scotch.”

Carolyn adds, “Whether I achieve the title or not, it has been an honor to be a part of this group of candidates. I am so excited to have the opportunity to represent Seattle and the Pacific Northwest!”

She flies to Scotland in early September to give herself a few days to acclimate. Sniffing the whisky will be a major factor in the exams, so Carolyn wants to be rested and ready when the time arrives. She promises to text us the results before she flies home to the PNW for a much, much-needed break.

While the Scotland trip will be Carolyn’s first international travel since the pandemic, another big excursion is already on the horizon.

Remember how we mentioned Carolyn is also a full-time zookeeper and award-winning conservationist?

Born and raised in Hawaii, Carolyn moved to Seattle to study Primatology at the University of Washington. A professor introduced her to Woodland Park Zoo, and her job as a college student became a career where she recently recognized her 20-year milestone, working primarily with apes and big cats.

It’s this work that will take her on a wildly different business trip soon.

“I currently work with orangutans and Asian primates, and I have also worked with tigers and other big cats. I’ve traveled to many countries and gone deep into the jungles to work with local conservationists to help save these incredible endangered species. I will be heading out again to Sumatra, Indonesia to continue work in helping save the remaining endangered orangutans that still live in the quickly disappearing jungles.”

WATCH: We Are All Tiger Keepers – Zookeeper Carolyn Sellar in Malaysia

“I am excited to head back into the jungle,” Carolyn says. “I am looking forward to every moment I get to spend there… Okay, not every moment since there are tons of biting insects and leeches!”

Carolyn describes how working with wildlife has shaped her worldview, “Working with animals is quite incredible since they are always honest and never hide who they are. Animals also seize and live in the moment. Spending most of my life working with animals has helped me become a very transparent person who tries to live each moment to the fullest.”

Of course, Carolyn found the perfect way to weave together her passions for animals and spirits: her own rescue dogs with whisky-themed names.

“I might like whisky a bit! My two rescue dogs are named Peat and Barley. Peat is a 5-year-old, 90-pound black Lab with a touch of Great Dane in him and he is the sweetest big guy. Barley is a 4-year-old, 55-pound yellow Lab Mix. He thinks he is smarter than all of us and that he is in charge of our pack! These two boys are my best buddies and I try to always make it a goal to be the person that they think I am.”

Her personal accountability and grit has also been tested on the roller rink after Carolyn was inspired to take roller derby for a spin. She also learned some life lessons along the way.

“That we can do anything, and that all it takes is the confidence and tenacity to try. I didn’t really know how to roller skate too well before joining roller derby since there are no roller skating rinks in Hawaii where I grew up. I saw a roller derby bout at KeyArena, and I decided at halftime that I would try out the very next month. I went to a skating rink and had to take two ‘Introductions to Roller Skating’ classes with a bunch of 5 to 7-year-old kids. It was absurdly funny, I even had to go head-to-head in a race with a 6-year-old girl in a Dora the Explorer helmet. Here I am, trying to be this tough badass roller derby chick and I get left in the dust by this young girl as she skates along smiling and waving to her mom. Fast forward to just a year later, and there I am playing in large arenas, and I even played on Team Star Trek at RollerCon in Vegas. So… believing that you can do anything and seizing the moment like this is proof that anything really is possible.”

Carolyn credits roller derby for more than just mental and physical tenacity, “I also learned that friendships can last forever and that being on a team is incredible with fiercely loyal teammates. My whisky journey is still intertwined with those close friends from roller derby. An incredible former teammate, Kelley helps me with social media and graphics. Another great friendship from roller derby is Danny, an amazing photographer who captured moments of us on the derby track, and he now helps me capture moments in the whisky world.”

Reflecting on her varied passions and accomplishments, Carolyn sums it up like this, “Who could have ever predicted that a surfer-girl from Hawaii would move to Seattle to go to UW, work with incredible zoo animals, trek through jungles helping save endangered species, become a national whisky judge… and then eventually could become the first Asian American woman with the title of Master of Scotch Whisky! Life is an amazing wild journey filled with so many adventures. We can never predict what will happen next!”

Learn more about Carolyn Sellar’s Adventures in Whisky here.

Explore Danny Ngan Photography and Steve Parent Photography

MORE: Seattle whisky connoisseur celebrates her AAPI heritage

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