In a 2014 blog, one Allison Aubrey ducked into the bar at the Willard Hotel to find out what the bartenders had to say about the obvious lack of women drinking whisky. She was told that back in the day a lady wouldn’t be seen in a gentleman’s parlour, where men were drinking whisky, smoking cigars and talking politics.
Of course, things have changed, but there still seems to be remnants of a cultural taboo thanks to the prohibition era, where many women were not made to feel welcome in bars. That’s because there was a strong association between women drinking, or serving, whisky in a bar and prostitution.
But as more women are exposed to whisky, attitudes are shifting, and these hangups are fading away. “Women are absolutely the future of whisky,” according to Fred Minnick, author of “Whisky Women” – who revealed that women were a large part of whisky’s past.
An Egyptian woman who lived in the 2nd or 3rd century, Maria Hebrea, is credited with devising an early version of a still, and in the 18th century, women were producing most of the whisky. “In the early colonial days,” Minnick said, before industrial distilleries were popular, “women were the first distillers.”
This, however, was due to whisky being used as medicine. “If you had a scratch or a sore ear or a headache,” Minnick said, a woman would give you whisky. “It was the Tylenol, the ibuprofen of the day. The skill of making whisky was so coveted that men in the 1700s took out classified ads looking for women who were good at distilling. It’s hilarious. It was the Match.com of the day. Men would ask women to marry them based on their distilling talents.”
Now history is coming full circle and there’s a vanguard of new female distillers, blenders and tasters. And in his novel, Minnick singled out two Scottish women – Elizabeth Cumming who owned the Cardow distillery in the late 19th century and Bessie Williamson who owned Laphroaig in the 20th century – as particularly influential.
“Scottish women were amazing when it came to running businesses and they often catapulted their respective brands into national and sometimes international importance,” said Minnick. “Both women increased their brands’ stature, demand and distillation capacity, but they were also incredible philanthropists and became true pillars of the community.”
Minnick particularly praised Williamson for her managerial skills, which he claimed had ensured Laphroaig remained in good working order after it was requisitioned during the Second World War.
“One could not give credit solely to Williamson, but the single malt success was most certainly her vision when she took over Laphroaig,” wrote Minnick. “And it is most certainly not a coincidence that single malt Scotch whisky became premium liquor during her time as an industry spokesperson.”
Today, Minnick said, women are once again coming to the fore. “When you look across the industry today you will see a lot of blenders in big companies are women and there are more distillery managers: Georgie Crawford at Lagavulin, for example. It’s much more common than when Williamson was alive. Women also blend Dewar’s, Glenmorangie, Johnnie Walker, Morrison Bowmore and many others. They are not only influential; they are running whisky.”
Read on to find out what the barriers to the industry are.