Campbell found her way to distilling at the advent of the spirits renaissance in America. At the age of 20, this daughter of a truck driver took off to Scotland for some mild soul searching. It was 2004, and she was halfway through a philosophy degree. A trip to famed Scotch whisky distillery Oban was all it took to light a fire in young Campbell's mind. "I was like, 'Oh, people do this. For a living.'" She returned home to Denver and finished her degree in philosophy, but after graduation, "I could not find a job. Obviously," she laughs. So she enrolled in wine classes, figuring it was a step in the right direction. Soon after, she found work in a local wine shop, where she learned the ins and outs of distribution -- an oft-overlooked lesson she counts among her most valuable. "Most distillers never get that experience," she says. "You need to know how your product exists in the world."
And then, the cultural phenomenon that brought back both booze and the crimson lip: Mad Men. "All of a sudden, everyone wanted a well-stocked bar," Campbell says. She saw an opportunity in the lack of spirits professionals in her industry, and she jumped on it. "I thought, 'I'll learn more than all these dudes, and I'll kick ass.'"
Kick ass she did. After making an effort to have her face known at local breweries and distilleries, she landed the mentorship of Todd Leopold, of Leopold Bros. distillery in Denver. The family-owned distillery gets huge respect in the small-batch American spirits world, and its hands-on owners exposed Campbell to the day-to-day of distillery life. With Leopold's encouragement, she completed her diploma in craft distilling technologies from the Siebel Institute in Chicago. Shortly after that, she got her first big break: Hubert Germain-Robin offered her the assistant distiller position at Germain-Robin, the esteemed Cognac-inspired brandy distillery in Northern California. "I was very lucky to learn Cognac techniques. Cognac is very closed-door," she says.
When she decided to move on from Germain-Robin, Campbell had a gilded resume and venerable recommendations from some of the most respected names in the business. She was filled with the verve and confidence of a young go-getter; in many industries, she would have been a shoo-in for dream jobs. Instead? Insert that aforementioned radio silence.
Resume after resume went out into the seemingly bottomless void of an industry dominated by what Campbell refers to as Don Draper-cum-John Wayne characters -- a contemporary extension of the good old boys of yore. She remembers calling Leopold at 4am, full of doubt. "I was like, 'Should I legally change my name to Mark so when I send out an application I actually get a callback?'" Leopold assured her that she had what it took -- she just needed to find the right distillery. "I don't think I understood what was happening at the time," she says. "I almost gave up on my dreams."