The History of Women in Spirits

Whisky woman

The spirits industry has been male-dominant for quite some time, yet it was women who used to do the hard yards of distilling and distribution in the pre-industrial era. Back in the day, it was common practice to make spirits from the comfort of your home using the ingredients at hand, and the work was considered ‘woman’s work’ as it was labour-intensive housework, a bit boring and time consuming, so why on earth would men do it…?

There are records of women pharmacists making and selling alcohol for medicinal purposes in the 1200s. At the same time as Brother John Cor was receiving eight bolls of malt to make aqua vitae for King James IV at Lindores Abbey in 1494, aqua vitae women were having to keep their production hidden as the King only entrusted men with the supply.

Even the bain-marie and tribikos, a three-armed copper still, were invented by a woman, Mary the Jewess, sometime between the 1st and 3rd century. She is considered one of the most famous alchemists and gets credit of several chemical inventions.

lindores abbey aqua vitae

Unfortunately, it wasn’t always smooth sailing and during a centuries-long witch hunt, over 50,000 female distillers were charged with practising black magic and burned as a consequence. That paused the distilling scene for some time. It didn’t help that the arrival of the Industrial Revolution (1770–1840ish) lowered the status of women. Before then, women were looking after farms, distilling and performing many useful economic roles, which kept them close to equal to men. But now it was becoming more common for men to take paid jobs in bigger cities and there were less for women to do, other than their roles as housewives. Women lost their power within society.

Women also fought to ban alcohol (talk about revenge…), but that’s a story for another time.

The Distillery Women

Let’s look into a few important women within the history of distilling. As Fred Minnick writes in his book Whiskey Women, Scottish wills and archives state there have been more than 30 women in Scotland managing legitimate distilleries such as Dalmore, Glenmorangie, Ardbeg, Blair Athol and Cardhu. Of course, it wasn’t just Scotland that had female distillery owners. There are records of women in Ireland and the US doing exactly that.

Back in the day, women were extremely successful in illicit distilling, and most women who were running legal distilleries were doing so after their husbands had died. Unfortunately, female business owners’ records weren’t always documented properly, if at all. Many women also used their initials on official documents, which makes it unclear how many distillery- or landowners actually were women. Although, there are records in the US of a few female named distilleries. For example, the Susan Johnson Distillery and the Mary Jane Blair Distillery Company.

I have listed a few important ladies below.

Helen & Elizabeth Cumming – shaping the future of Cardhu Distillery

Cardhu (then known as Cardow) was a farm where Helen and her husband John were making illicit whisky. Due to the location of the farm, Helen could see when the officers were coming to visit. She would cover herself in flour to make it look like she was baking to explain the smell and she’d lift a flag up for other distillers to see and prepare themselves while she was entertaining the officers.

In 1816, John was arrested three times, but eventually the excise laws were eased and Cardhu became the first legal Speyside distillery in 1823. Helen took care of the operations until old age. Her daughter-in-law Elizabeth took over both the farm and the distillery (while recently widowed with two sons and pregnant with a third). Helen was 95.

Elizabeth was an excellent businesswoman. She could have sold the distillery and lived well, but she chose to keep the business going, and she did it very well. She bought more land and built a new distillery to meet the demand for blending whisky. In fact, she could have made even more whisky to be sold, but as a mother of three sons, she wanted to make sure she had enough time to look after her family and refused to overwork. She also sold the old distillery to William Grant.

Over the years the demand for blended whisky grew and blenders were inflating prices and buying distilleries to cut out the middlemen so they could make their own blends. In 1893, Elizabeth sold the distillery to John Walker & Sons Ltd, later to be known as Johnnie Walker. She made sure all her longstanding employees could keep their jobs, one of her sons got a seat on the board with decent shareholdings and they even allowed her to keep the farm where some of the Cumming family lived rent free. Later on, her grandson became the chairman of Johnnie Walker and very wealthy in the process.

Elizabeth cummings
Elizabeth Cumming – Photo from The Drinks Business website

E.J. Corrigan – the owner of Bushmills Distillery

Ellen Jane took over the Bushmills Distillery after her husband passed away in 1865. Even before she was in charge, the distillery provided equal opportunities by employing women and doing business with widows. Ellen Jane transformed the distillery into an international success. It would have been easy to simply sell unaged whisky for blenders, but she insisted on every drop of their whisky being aged on the premises. This guaranteed the quality and consistency of their whisky.

When Ellen Jane sold the distillery, she made sure to have a place on the board of the new company. Today, Bushmills’ master blender is Helen Mulholland. Making her the first modern master blender in Ireland. Her tasting panel only consists of women.

Rita Cowan – the (Scottish) mother of Japanese whisky

Jessie Roberta ‘Rita’ Cowan met her husband Masataka Takesuru in Glasgow in 1918, while he was studying chemistry and distillation. His dream was to make real whisky in Japan. He came from a wealthy and well-connected Hiroshima sake brewer family so the passion for distilling made great sense.

Together they brought scotch whisky distillation techniques to Japan. In 1920, the couple got married and finally moved there to help to set up Japan’s first whisky distillery, now known as Suntory. After that they created an independent distillery, Dai Nippon Kaju, which was renamed the Nikka Whisky Distilling Company. For four decades she supported her husband and helped to build the most successful distilleries in the country.

woman behind japanese whisky
Rita Cowan – Photo from Scottish Field Magazine’s website

Bessie – the matriarch of Laphroaig

Elizabeth Leitch ‘Bessie’ Williamson had come to Laphroaig one summer to help Ian Hunter, then owner, as an office administrator and ended up staying for 40 years. When Hunter had a stroke, he made Bessie the distillery manager. And once he passed away in 1954, he left the distillery for her as he didn’t have any family of his own and Bessie was the most qualified for the job.

During WW2 she helped to store ammunition and artillery at the distillery. Boats would come to the shore and she would sign off every shipment. She even made the military pay for the expansion of their malt barns to allow business as usual while helping the government.

Bessie became an important part of island life, taking part in peat cutting and other activities, and she even held community dances at the distillery. With Bessie in charge of the distillery, its fame and sales continued to grow even though she had more of a ‘people first’ management style. She was known for hiring under-qualified or elderly workers to help them earn some money for their families.

The Scotch Whisky Association named Bessie their US spokesperson between 1961 and 1964.

Bessie from Laphroaig
Credit: Laphroaig Distillery

Marjorie Samuels – the mother of Maker’s Mark

Marjorie was the co-owner of the Maker’s Mark distillery and oversaw marketing while her husband did the distilling. In 1959, She came up with their unique bottle design, the red wax seal and the hand-torn label to differentiate their bottles from the rest of the bourbons on the shop shelves.

She has been awarded a place in the Bourbon Hall of Fame and is the first women directly connected to a distillery to receive the honour.

Today, Victoria MacRae-Samuels is the operations manager of the distillery. She is the first female Vice President of Operations in the bourbon industry. She runs the production, from selecting grains to warehouse management, overseeing 174 staff members.

woman at distillery
Credit: Maker’s Mark

Giannola Nonino – the boss lady who revolutionised grappa production

So that this article doesn’t focus so much on whisky, I wanted to mention Giannola Nonino. When Giannola first took part in the production of grappa, she realised people were embarrassed to serve it at dinner parties as it was still considered a poor man’s drink. She was proud of her husband’s product and wanted to improve it to make it a real competitor with other spirits. 

In 1973, Giannola came up with an idea to produce a single-grape grappa, known as monovitigno, from the Picolit grape. This became a huge success and has since changed the method of producing grappa in Italy and in foreign distilleries. In 1984, she also pioneered the idea of using the whole grape. This is another popular practice amongst many grappa producers these days.

Today the company is run by Giannola and Benito. When I visited the distillery some years ago, Giannola was abroad promoting their amazing products. The couple has three daughters, Antonella, Elisabetta and Christina, who all travel around the world marketing Nonino products and holding tastings to educate people on grappa.

Nonino family
Credit: Grappa Nonino
Lesley Gracie
Lesley Gracie – Photo from William Grant & Sons

Today

Today, you can find many inspiring and hardworking women in several positions within the drinks industry all over the world, whether it is gin, whisky, tequila or vodka. Women are master distillers, master blenders, operation managers, distillery owners, sales reps and whisky sommeliers… You name it, we can do it.

Even though this article focuses on women in the past, I feel it is important to mention a few women of today. Joy Spence is the first female master blender in the spirits industry, a title she earned at Appleton Estate in 1997. Dr Rachel Barrie became Scotland’s first (modern) female master blender in 2003, paving the way for other women in the whisky industry. Lesley Gracie has worked with William Grant & Sons for over 30 years and she came up with the recipe for Hendrick’s Gin and is still their master distiller. Kirsteen Campbell is the Master Whisky Maker at The Macallan, making her the first woman to hold the title.

In 2015, Ann Soh Woods launched Kikori, one of the first Japanese rice whiskeys. María Teresa Lara made history twice when in 2001 she became the first known woman to lead production at a tequila distillery. The second time was in 2009 when she was promoted to master distiller. Emma Walker is the master blender of Johnnie Walker and half of her blending team are women. In fact, Diageo (the owner of Johnnie Walker and many other brands) ranks highly for female representation among FTSE 100 companies. Nearly 50% of their board and 40% of the executive committee are women.

This list could go on and on and on, so I’d better stop before I start to bore you. It is great to see so many inspiring women working in the spirits field and helping to make the male-dominant industry more equal to all.

Happy International Women’s Day to all you lovely ladies!

Vintage woman

Note: If you are interested in the backstories and history of distilling, I truly recommend Fred Minnick’s book Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey.

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2 Comments

  1. Great post Inka! I love the history and tying it into the modern day master distillers and blenders. I’ve attended a couple of rum events where the female blenders were very impressive – Joy Spence from Appleton and Lorena Vásquez from Zacapa.

    1. Thanks Katie! These backstories are very interesting. How amazing you have met some of the rum women. I really need to up my rum game!

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