The world of whisky has always been a man’s world. Or has it really? Perhaps history has been short-sighted in the face of all those women who have contributed to the whisky industry. Indeed, between Prohibition and the social climate of the past decades, the work of women in the whisky world has faded into the background. Yet, there have been women throughout history who have profoundly shaped the whisky industry as we know it today.
For International Women’s Day, MNIW chose to give back a voice to all those women who have shaped the history of whisky. Thus, we decided to share the story of great women of modern times who are revolutionising the industry.
We wish to celebrate all the women who have bravely ventured into new horizons, setting a turning point for the whole whisky market.
Women’s legacy in the whisky industry
Elizabeth Leitch ‘Bessie’ Williamson was the very heart of Laphroaig. It all began in 1934. Williamson started working at the distillery as a shorthand typist during the summer, planning to stay only a few months. Yet, sometime later, she ended up running Laphroaig while the Second World War raged over Europe.
She worked directly with then-owner Ian Hunter. Eventually, she became office manager when Hunter suffered a stroke in 1938. At that time, Williamson took on responsibilities. By the outbreak of war, she had become the full-time manager of the distillery.
Thus, Laphroaig’s facility was engaged in the country’s war effort. The Scottish government transformed the distillery into a storage and training area. Therefore, Williamson had to add the military aspect to her managerial duties.
Williamson prevented many of her workers from being called to arms, protecting her whisky while soldiers were quartered at Laphroaig. She also succeeds in quietly hiding 400 tons of ammunition in the malt barns. Williamson signed off on each shipment every time a boat departed with bullets and bombs as its cargo. Had the Germans known that Laphroaig was storing ammunition, it would surely have been a target for air raids.
After the war, Williamson continued to pursue blend sales, the core production of Laphroaig’s business model. However, she started gazing toward a new horizon. Williamson was among the first to anticipate the coming trend for single malt Scotches. With that, she positioned Laphroaig, and as a consequence the other Islay’s malts, in the American market.
Williamson left a lasting legacy as an entrepreneur. She went down in history as the only woman to run a Scottish distillery in the 20th century. But she was also a generous person who profoundly contributed to the betterment of her community. Thus for her philanthropic efforts, Queen Elizabeth II granted Bessie Williamson’s appointment to the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem on 15 January 1963.
Helen and Elizabeth Cumming
Helen Cumming was the first woman to be (unofficially) the founder of a Scotch whisky distillery. Although officially John Cumming, her husband, was the founder of Cardhu distillery in Archiestown in 1824, it was thanks to Helen’s business skills and her creative ability that they avoided alcohol taxes, thus, keeping the distillery running and thriving.
When the tax collectors approached, Helen would disguise her distillery as a bakery. Apparently, she would throw flour on herself to mask the smell. Next, she would serve the tax collectors tea. While they were distracted, she would raise a red flag over the farm to signal to other distillers that the taxmen were nearby.
According to another story, Helen once even walked 20 miles loaded with whisky bottles concealed in her skirt. Indeed, she was well aware that the authorities would never be so ungracious to search her.
When Helen’s husband John died in 1846, he left the brewery to his son. Lewis became the official owner, while Helen, like other married women of the time, was not allowed to own property. Nevertheless, it turned out to be a fine decision. Lewis and his wife Elizabeth made an amazing team and soon they doubled the distillery’s output.
Like her mother in law, Elizabeth was a smart businesswoman. She expanded the Cardhu plant’s production capacity. The old stills were sold to Glenfiddich, a new distillery called back then. With the money from the sale, new equipment with a much larger capacity was then purchased.
By the 1890s, production became three times what it had been just 10 years earlier. Much of Cardhu’s malt was sold as a blend component to Johnnie Walker. Eventually, in 1893, Elizabeth oversaw a deal to sell the distillery to Johnnie Walker, securing a great business bargain for her family.
Ellen Jane Corrigan
Known as E.J. Corrigan, widow of Old Bushmills Distillery owner Patrick Corrigan, Ellen Jane Corrigan wielded great power. After her husband’s death in 1865, she co-managed the Northern Ireland distillery with James McColgan. However, Ellen Corrigan ran most of the business, negotiating lease terms and making sure no one used Bushmills’ water supply.
It was Ellen herself who introduced electricity into the distillery facilities. She also turned Bullmills into a limited liability company to make the distillery an international business. Under her guard, Bushmill reached the production of 100,000 gallons of whisky a year.
The distillery was sold in 1880. Corrigan negotiated a voting seat on the board of the new company. Indeed, something not usually offered to women at that time.
Women who are shaping the new whisky history
Annabel Thomas is the founder and CEO of Nc’nean – an independent organic whisky distillery – and the pioneer of whisky sustainable production.
After leaving her job in London in 2013, she spent four years raising money and building the distillery on the west coast of Scotland. Since then, Thomas has dedicated her time to making Nc’nean a distillery that not only brews great whisky but whose distillation process is also in harmony with the environment at every level of the production chain.
And indeed, she successfully realised her vision.
The distillery is powered by renewable energy and recycles 99.97% of its waste materials.
Moreover, as she explains in an interview, the staple of Nc’nean’s whisky production is the use of organic barley. “The principles of organic farming, though not perfect, do contribute massively to biodiversity and water quality on the farms”, said Thomas, highlighting how the use of organic agricultural techniques had a positive impact not only on the surrounding area but also on the final product per se.
The result of this environmental conscious decision is a richer and more full-bodied whisky. A spirit that fully embodies the high-quality barley used as its core ingredient.
Nc’nean is a great example of how it is possible to produce a great whisky through a green approach.
Nevertheless, Thomas’ contribution to the whisky industry doesn’t stop there. The founder of Nc’nean is determined to make the whisky industry a more inclusive world for all young women who want to step into it.
For that very reason, Thomas has offered female internships in the past. As a female founder and CEO in the industry, people used to ask if she would really enjoy drinking whisky. Which is ridiculous. Thomas has been acutely aware from the first days how important it is to contribute to making whisky a more inclusive industry.
Certainly, Thomas is showing us how the whisky business and trade can and must adapt in today’s ever-growing world, keeping pace with the new society in the making.
Rachel Barrie is the first woman Master Blender. She shaped several whisky brands as we know and love them today – Including Glenmorangie, Ardbeg, Auchentoshan, Bowmore, Glendronach, BenRiach, Glenglassaugh, and Glen Garioch. Through her work, she contributed to the development of award-winning whiskies.
But what exactly does a Master Blender do?
Generally, a Master Blender is involved in several stages of production. The duties of such a figure go from quality assessment of the spirit in the still, to which cask to select for the maturation process, and when the whisky should be bottled. The Master Blender is also involved in the creative process, bringing new projects to life by working closely with managers and marketers.
In short, the Master Blenders are the real artists behind a bottling.
Rachel Barrie began her career in the early 1990s at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute as a researcher after studying chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. Then, she moved into Glenmorangie Company, where she became Master Blender in 1995. During that time, she worked with the Glenmorangie and Ardbeg Scotch whiskies.
Since then, Barrie has worked in the industry for over 26 years of experience, moving between a number of whisky companies. Nevertheless, she would always leave her personal imprint on every project she has worked on.
As she once said, Berrie “wanted to create whiskies that were exciting, interesting, would dance on your tongue, give you a journey of flavour, a world of flavour, surprise and delight, and that people would want to come back to and that they’d be able to come back to.”
Rachel Barrie has tasted over 150,000 casks and she can intuitively bring together an expression. Thus, for her great expertise and skills, in July 2018, the University of Edinburgh awarded her with an honorary doctorate for her work in the whisky industry and understanding of the alchemy of the expressions.
Eaves is the first Kentucky Female Bourbon Master Distiller since the Prohibition period.
Everything started in 2012 when she graduated from the University of Louisville with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. She had started in an internship role with Brown-Forman and eventually rose to the role of Master Taster in 2014, a title that earned her a spot on Forbes 30 under 30. Moreover, the Whiskey Advocate Magazine recognized her as “the Next Generation” Master Distiller for the bourbon industry.
During the pandemic, she launched Eaves Blind, a subscription that distributes small batch and single barrel spirits curated by her. Eaves designed the kit to encourage blind tasting, a practice not often seen in the spirits industry. Through this experience, people can improve their tasting skills.
Although her first love remains bourbon, her vision expanded. Today, her client list includes a wide range of spirits producers, from Tennessee distillery to a producer building the first whiskey distillery in China.
Eaves thus continues to prove that there is room to rebuild the world of spirits, through a non-traditional path open to new and creative experiments. Thanks to her role in the whisky business, she is in changing the dynamic in this predominantly male industry.
To a world of new possibilities!
In the spirit of the ongoing transformation of the whisky world, MNIW has dedicated its first Signature Collection to all those brave enough to gaze into a new Horizon.
The first bottle in three of the Horizon selection is available on our website.
Subscribe to our newsletter, and don’t miss out on any of our (soon) next bottlings.