women in whiskey

Covering both the science of distilling and the history of women in whiskey is less like a boring lesson and more like a great conversation over whiskey.


In the beginning

March 2020

It was a cold and rainy autumn day in Glasgow when I found myself in an Uber en route to Dalmuir. My plan had been to take the train from Charing Cross Station was thwarted by a torrential downpour. Upon arrival, I found out everyone else had cancelled their bookings; this turned out to be a treat since I would now be led on a “private tour” by Mahj, my tour guide.


Covering both the science of distilling and the history of Auchentoshan whisky, it felt less like a boring lesson and more like a great conversation over whiskey.  Mahj was extremely knowledgeable and passionate and we chatted about the shared frustration of people’s perception that only men drink whiskey. For Mahj, there was an added another level of frustration as an industry professional.

And yet, it had only been a year since Beam Suntory had revealed their “Whiskey and Women” research project findings attributing 30% of their growth to women. You may be familiar with Mila Kunis as the face (quite literally) of the Jim Beam’s Make History™ ads, their first global campaign targeting the U.S., Australia, and Germany. This was the brainchild of Rebecca Messina, Senior Vice President and global Chief Marketing Officer for Beam Suntory.

Numerous articles usually mention the growth of  U.S. female whiskey drinks as 15 percent in the 90’s to 37 percent today. And long before Mila, there was Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady herself, enjoying a Scotch & Soda at the bar in the House of Commons. (It was reputed that Bell’s was her favorite Scotch.) Female focused whiskey events abound and groups like Women Who Whiskey, founded in 2011 by Julia Ritz-Toffoli boasts 10,000 members in 26 chapters across the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Europe, and Africa.

But what about the Women IN Whiskey? As we launch this new column, we look forward to showcase the accomplishments that have helped to shape the whiskey industry and continue to do so today.

Two years before my Scotland trip on a cold and not rainy at all evening in New York City I attended the launch party for Fred Minnick’s book, Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey. His book was and remains the most comprehensive publication on the part played by women in the history of whiskey and is the main reference for the earlier content in this article along with Jack Sullivan’s Bottles, Booze, and Back Stories blog.

And since this is the beginning of this column, it feels appropriate to kick it off with a brief overview of Women in Whiskey History, from the beginning.


6,000 to 4,000 BC

Beer is sometimes referred to as “baby whiskey” and there is evidence in Mesopotamia that a significant number of women were brewers. “Hymn to Ninkasi” is said to contain both a tribute Ninkasi, the patron goddess of brewing, and a 4,000 year old beer recipe that was revived for use by microbrewery Anchor Brewing in 1989.


1st to 2nd Century

Mary is widely recognized as being the first known Alchemist and starting an academy in the city of Alexandria. Zosimos of Panopolis, a 4th century Egyptian Greek Alchemist and Gnostic mystic wrote of her several chemical inventions. The most well-known one is the tribikos, a type of alembic still with three arms. However, her goal, like other alchemists of her time was to make gold, not whiskey. But it’s this schematic that provided the blueprint for stills that help us to enjoy whiskey today in both the Appalachian region in the United States and parts of Europe.


5th to 15th Century

Minnick notes in his book that although there isn’t a lot in the way of text, women were definitely distilling spirits in Western Europe and beginning in the 1200s, they ran apothecaries making “aqua vitae” for medicinal purposes. 


1500 to 1600s

When the Spanish Inquisition was launched, over 80,000 women would be suspected of witchcraft and put to death. And female brewsters and distillers were targeted. Driven underground, women continued to distill in secret with one famous example is Anne, Princess of Denmark and Norway who built a distillery with walls and moats.



Home distilling by American women were apparently commonplace. In research for his book, Minnick stated that he found old newspaper ads for wives mentioning beer brewing and spirits distilling as ideal traits.



A document was found listing a sour whiskey recipe on one side and a sweet mash one on the other dated 1818 amongst her personal effects and donated to the Kentucky Historical Society. It is endorsed as the first written original sour mash recipe. Widowed twice, she ran the largest family farm in Casey County and the whiskey distillery helped support her family.


1811 to 1893  

Helen Cumming leased the Cardow farm on Mannoch Hill with her husband John and is  credited with running the stills and hiding them from the excisemen, claiming  she was “baking bread”.  As she fed them, she’d sneak out to raise a red flag or hang out the wash, alerting their presence to neighbors. Alwynne Gilt of The Alcohol Professor wrote that “Stories also go that she would walk all the way to Elgin – some 20 miles away – with bladders of whisky tied up underneath her skirts to sell on to willing consumers”. Helen is credited with the expansion and growth of the distillery and when distilling was made legal by the 1823 Excise Act, they were one of the first to get a license. Helen’s daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Cumming took over the business when their son passed in 1872 and in addition to building a new distillery, registered the Car-Dhu name. She ran the distillery until 1893 when she sold it to John Walker & Sons.            



Women in Old West Saloons earned commissions from whiskey sold to customers marked up to 60% of its wholesale price and purportedly NYC prostitutes earned more than $2 million a year in liquor commissions vs. the $3 million for sex.



Ellen Jane Corrigan, widow of Patrick Corrigan, the founder of Bushmills, helped to run the distillery and took the lead in business matters. Her innovations included streamlining business processes and introducing the use of electricity to grow production by 25% to 100,000 gallons of whiskey and allowing the ability to ferment in 1,200 gallon pots. Bushmills became an internationally recognized brand, winning awards across Europe


1907 to 1919

Widowed, Mary Jane buys out her late husband’s business partners and names the distillery after herself. She runs operations for four warehouses for the next seven years with production reaching 9,000 barrels annually and a daily mashing capacity of 118 bushels per day.



Like other whiskey widows, Catherine inherited her husband’s business, which in this case was the German House - a saloon, a liquor store, and hotel. And she, too decided to run and expand the operations. However, she was able to leveraged the three separate entities to add not just her own whiskey brands, but also a bottling brand, sold at both at retail and wholesale.



Masataka Taketsuru’s wife, Rita, is recognized by Nikka as not only providing moral support to help him take the knowledge he learned while apprenticing in Scotland but also financial support with her income and leveraging her professional network to help locate investors. A street in Yoichi is named Rita Road, there is a Rita Taketsura  Japanese fan club, the Japanese TV series, Massan was based on her life.



A former Prohibitionist, Pauline witnessed how it led to the proliferation of corruption and organized crime. She then poured her efforts into creating the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform and dedicated her efforts for its Repeal through what would be the largest Repeal group going head to head with Woman's Christian Temperance Union.



Mary bought out her husband’s business partners after he died and she inherited his equity in the Waterfill & Frazier distillery. While she managed to continue distilling during Prohibition, she ended up getting arrested, though not convicted. But she pivoted and hired Joseph Beam to help her break down her distillery in Kentucky and reassemble it in Juarez, Mexico where it was legal. She managed to get it to the US Market legally but never lived to see Repeal.



Nicknamed “Cleo” for her exotic looks, Gertrude was a stenographer that was sent by her British liquor exporter to set up their shop In the Bahamas. Her business acumen was respected and she became the most famous female bootlegger; she was always arrested but never convicted and her superstition of about this led her to retire from whiskey running. Upon her death in 1974, Nassau flags flew at half-staff.



Bessie started as a secretary, then office manager and was asked by Ian Hunter to take over as distillery manager when he suffered a stroke . When it was turned into an ammunitions hub during wartime, she kept the whiskey business running and prevented the military from melting down their equipment for munitions. While championing Laphroaig as a single malt, she promoted its use for other distillers to use in blends and inherited the distillery after Ian passed. The Scotch Whisky Association appointed her as a North American Ambassador and in 2019 was honored with a 25 year old single malt in her name.



In 1944, Elspeth, Agnes and Ethel (“Babs”) inherited their family business comprised of Scotch interests. With the blessing of her sisters, Ethel took the lead to run the business and shortly thereafter was pitched by Samuel Bronfman (Distillers Corporation-Seagram). After being rejected, he continued to pursue their businesses. To protect the company and ensure the future of their employees Ethel created the Edrington Group and the Robertson Trust. The own the Glenrothes, Glenturret, Highland Park and Macallan Distilleries, co-own n British grain distillery with Diageo and reported a 2019 net worth of ~$176 mln USD.



Marge Samuels, a chemist, transformed the packaging and marketing of American whiskey in her home kitchen. She created the company logo comprised of a star (representing Star Hill, their farm), “S” (for Samuels) and “IV” for her husband being a fourth-generation distiller. She introduced the curved bottle shape and iconic red wax reminiscent of Cognac bottles along with the handmade labels featuring her custom font design, used the spelling of “WHISKY” and dubbed the brand “Maker’s Mark” in homage to how English pewter makers sign their work. In 2014, she was the first woman to be inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame for her work with a distillery.

We hope that you enjoyed this historical journey of  women in whiskey. Join us next month for women in the 21st century!

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