Women who have shaped whisky history

While the whisky industry was, for a long time, seen as male preserve there were some talented women who played leading roles at major brands. Fred Minnick shines a light on their groundbreaking work.

Women’s role in whisky has evolved drastically over the years. From the boardrooms to the warehouses and from the branding teams to the whisky clubs, women are situated firmly in the ranks of both the industry’s rising stars and coveted target audiences. But it wasn’t always this way.

When I researched my book, Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch & Irish Whiskey, brands did not comprehend the historic role women played in creating them. Whisky histories and marketing stories have largely focused on men, rarely celebrating the women who ran distilleries such as Bushmills, Dalmore, Laphroaig and Tullamore Dew.

I have long theorised that these women were not ignored per se, but they received political backlash stemming from Prohibition and the social climate of the time.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union trucked through Washington in the late 19th and early 20th century, fighting for their right to vote and to end drinking. They won. And after Prohibition, they still had power, trying to undermine alcohol policy to the point that the federal government considered banning alcohol advertisements. Meanwhile, some American municipalities and states outlawed single women from drinking at bars, and the Supreme Court upheld bans against female bartenders. Women were also treated like secondary citizens at distilleries. In one instance, in the 1940s, a woman was up for a master distiller role, but was told men would look up her skirt when she climbed the stairs.

Thank goodness, these ways lost out to better minds. Still, as we forge ahead and create a more inclusive industry, let us remember three great matriarchs of American, Scotch and Irish whisk(e)y. While they may not have been celebrated in their time, whisky history remembers them fondly.

Portions of this article originally appeared in Fred Minnick’s Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch & Irish Whiskey.

Over the following pages, we take a look back at three leading women who have played major roles in the whisky industry.