Honoring Women in Whisky
By: Jenna Elie
In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8th, I wanted to take some time to highlight and recognize how women have made and continue to make massive impacts in the world of whisky, from distilling it to promoting it and, of course, to enjoying it!
Women have been imperative to the world of brewing and distilling for centuries - from brewing in the times of Mesopotamia and distilling in the 1st Century A.D. to crafting the world’s best whiskies in the modern age. Owning and operating distilleries over time, women have been vital contributors to the success of the spirits industry from the very beginning. They can be found in all aspects of the business from distiller to ambassador, head of marketing to President & CEO and everywhere in between. Let’s learn about a small handful of iconic women over time who have contributed to the growing successes of the spirits industry!
From the beginning:
Maria Hebraea, Alchemist: Also known as Maria the Jewess, she has been accredited to inventing the first distilling apparatus in the 1st Century AD, which is now called the Alembic still. While her teachings were never documented, much like many of the times, her lessons carried on through others after her. It is her contribution to alchemy and distillation that many now carry on in modern day distillation methods.
Ellen Jane Corrigan, Bushmills: Irish whiskey has a very long history of women at the helm. Dating back to the 1400’s, women were making both whiskey and poitín at home and supplied these tinctures and spirits from their one-woman still operations for years prior to the taxes placed upon them by the English. During these times, women risked it all to distill and fight for the rights of distillers across Ireland. Fast forward to 1865 when the owner of The Old Bushmills Distillery passed away and left the distillery to his wife Ellen Jane. It was she who made Bushmills an international brand, by making the distillery a limited liability company, increasing production by 20,000 gallons per year, all while continuing to hire woman at the distillery. She also negotiated a seat on the board when she sold the distillery, ensuring women continued to have a seat at the table.
Helen and Elizabeth Cumming: In the early 1800’s, Helen Cumming and her husband leased land to farm, which they named “Cardow". Much like their neighbors at the time, they set up an illicit still which was operated by Helen, who is documented as one of the first women to distill in Scotland. She not only ran the household, but also distilled and sold her whisky in the streets of Elgin and through her kitchen window to any who passed. She did this rather successfully, all while keeping the hands of the excise man out of her profits. In 1824, when taxes were finally lowered on the spirit, her husband became a legally licensed distiller (women were not allowed to hold such licensure) and they continued production to meet the demand for her quality spirit. When Helen’s husband died, the distillery went to their son Lewis, as women were not allowed to own land. It was Lewis’ wife, Elizabeth who was responsible for increasing production, moving the distillery to a larger farm and successfully running the business for 17 years. As she grew older, she realized she could no longer keep up with demand, she sold the distillery to John Walker & Sons, and ensured her entire staff would stay on board. To this day you can still buy a bottle of Cardhu and raise a glass to Helen and Elizabeth Cumming!
Bessie Williamson: In 1934, Glasgow born Bessie Williamson took a summer job as a typist at Laphroaig. She only planned on staying for the summer months, but working closely with Ian Hunter, was promoted to office manager. When Ian suffered a stroke in 1938, Bessie took over the distribution to the United States. She eventually became the full-time distillery manager and then owner in 1954, inheriting Laphroaig’s controlling interest when Ian Hunter passed away. It was she who is known to have forecast the trend of single malt scotch in America and is responsible for not only Laphroaig, but for all Islay malts becoming popular and distributed here in America!
The Future of Whisky: The number of brilliant women who are impacting this industry is far too long to list here and deserves a beautiful book of its own. Women can be found in all aspects of this business today, much like they have been throughout history. Here is just a very small list of some women who are continuing to pave the way.
Stephanie MacLeod: Malt Master, Master Blender of the Year, first woman blender to win ‘Whisky of the Year’. These are just some of the titles Dewar’s Malt Master, Stephanie MacLeod holds. Graduating from The University of Strathclyde with a degree in food science, Stephanie had no plans to work in whisky. Taking a role at her alma mater to study maturations influence on the spirit, she found her love of whisky and is now the Master Blender for one of the most iconic brands in the world of Scotch Whisky. In over 170 years, she is only the 7th Master Blender and the first female to hold the position. Her contributions to Scotch Whisky will without question influence the industry for decades to come!
Helen Mulholland: With over 25 years at Bushmills, Helen began her journey in a small laboratory at the distillery for her university coursework, and, after graduating with a Master’s in Science, returned to the same laboratory analyzing ingredients for distillation. She is now responsible for hundreds of thousands of casks as Bushmills Master Blender and has crafted award winning whiskies for the oldest licensed distillery int the world. In 2018, she was inducted into the Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame and is the first woman to be inducted since its inception in 2004!
Eboni Major: Have one of the world’s top bourbons in your glass? Chances are it was blended by the brilliant Eboni Major, Master Blender for Diageo. With a degree in food science and technology, Eboni found her way working in whisky in 2015 at Bulleit in Shelbyville, Kentucky and has released some of the most highly sought-after bourbons from this whisky powerhouse. Her Bulleit Blender’s Select Release 001 has garnered mountains of praise and has been listed on numerous ‘Best Of’ lists.
Allison Parc: Having founded Brenne French Single Malt in 2012 and growing it into a now global whisky brand, former ballerina Allison Parc is a force to be reckoned with. From delivering her first bottles by way of Citi Bike in New York City, to now being available in top markets around the world, her story is remarkable and her spirit fierce. She has succeeded in her mission to show terroir can exist when crafting single malt in releasing the world’s first single malt aged exclusively in both new French Limousin Oak barrels and Cognac casks. Her accomplishments and contributions to the world of whisky are truly inspiring!
I hope you have learned a little bit about just a small handful of women past and present who have impacted this industry in such prolific ways. Without these women, our world of whisky would not be what it is today, and with them we are building a better, more inclusive and colorful industry that I am both honored and thrilled to be a part of. They each continue to inspire me on my own journey with their dedication, relentless spirit and kindness.
I hope you will join me today live on YouTube, as we continue this conversation with Brenne Whisky Founder, Allison Parc as we talk about whisky, women in whisky, and her journey in building Brenne from seed to spirit.
Here’s to all the women who make the world go round!