Women are leading a whisky renaissance after previously being booted out of the industry

11 min read

26 October 2015

Step aside gentlemen, women are rediscovering whisky. As the percentage of females drinking whisky in the UK steadily increases, past attitudes of women being unable to make whisky are fading away.

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.

Marianne Barnes, Kentucky’s first female master distiller, claimed her career was the direct result of a background and interest in another predominantly male field, chemical engineering.

“To give you an idea, in my class of 50 or so there were about 12 women,” she explained. “In these science and technology fields, it’s still skewed towards men, so going into the workforce in the first place there’s just more men going after those jobs.”

For Becky Harris, co-owner Catoctin Creek, a similar background with Barnes led to a shared a profession. Harris worked as a chemical engineer before founding Catoctin Creek with her husband in 2009. “The reason I became the distiller was because I was the one who was best suited to do it in our personal situation,” she explained. “Maybe that’s what it really talks to, is that women are starting to become the most qualified to do it, and that’s a good thing. Being interested in a field, and saying this is the field where I feel like I fit.”

In addition to more women entering the workforce with backgrounds that apply to industries such as whiskey production, it doesn’t hurt that women also have superior palates to men. “Brown-Forman’s sensory science department is all females actually,” said Barnes. “It’s interesting to know that women have a better sense of taste scientifically.”

Harris has seen first hand how much perception has changed overall in a predominantly male workforce. “I’m 48 years old and I’ve worked in engineering for some 20 years so things are much better than they used to be. The silliest thing is when I drive a forklift, and somebody says, ‘a woman driving a forklift!’ and I go heck yeah I drive a forklift! But those things are just silly. It’s nothing that speaks to the product or anything else as far as that goes, I’ve never heard any brush back about that.”

Viktorija Macdonald, who is involved in numerous aspects of the whisky industry, suggested that both men and women in the whisky industry are younger than the whiskies they are representing. 

“The message that we receive from whisky enthusiasts and customers is that they do not want to be lectured by children, and they do not buy in to their credibility. Interestingly, on the flip-side, I have been told that at 41 years old, even irrespective of my knowledge, past track record and abilities, that I am too old. Apparently, you have to be a 23-year old with a good wiggle to sell whisky, and this has to change. Many distilleries, I believe, are employing women for a wrong reason, not because of their knowledge of whisky.

“I am not saying that young people cannot play an important part, of course they can. However to have opened up new markets for distilleries mentioned above with no support from the industry – financial, marketing, HR, etc. and then be told that my experience is irrelevant because I am not in my 20s, is farcical.”

This was echoed by Eszter Gyory, who is in charge of the whisky collection at the Hilton London Metropole’s Whisky Lounge bar. She suggested that stereotypes exist everywhere and when it comes to a whisky specialist or whisky sommelier, people usually picture a middle-aged Scottish gentleman with a moustache. 

“Of course, they are surprised when they see a young blond woman who claims to be the expert of whiskies,” she said. “But then it takes only a couple of minutes to convince them that I know what I am talking about. It feels really nice to see the surprise on their faces. It makes me proud. I don’t think age has anything to do with being a specialist or not. I believe if you have a passion, interest or curiosity for something then that motivates you to become an expert; not age or gender.”

According to Allison Patel founder of Brenne Whisky and Local Infusions, is of the belief that whisky is still viewed as a “male” drink due to Hollywood. Lots of leading men order single malts, pour themselves a glass of Scotch, and celebrate or relax with whisky in hand on the big screen. Socially, it’s still not thought of as a lady’s drink because it’s not girly and, frankly, it’s not for everyone.

There will never be an umbrella sticking out of a whisky cocktail, she said.

Marketers have already started tapping into the market, which means that a female whisky revolution could soon be near. Lady Gaga has described Jameson whisky as a love interest, while actress Christina Hendricks is featured in an advert for Johnnie Walker Black Label. 

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