For the last few years among whisky and bourbon brands, there’s been a concerted effort to market to women. Some of this has materialized in the form of flavored whisky offerings (which, according to at least one master distiller, are more popular with men than women). Other times, companies have created campaigns, like Campari’s Women & Whiskies, to give women a “safe space” in which to explore the spirit. As a female who drinks whisky—and who loves evangelizing about it—most of the time I view outreach to women in a positive light.
But make no mistake—women drinking whisky is not a new thing. And throughout history, women weren’t drinking whisky because of targeted marketing campaigns or special added flavors. They were drinking whisky because it is good, and because you don’t have to be a certain gender to appreciate things that taste good.
Noted journalist Fred Minnick has just published a book that proves just that. Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey should cause quite a splash among whisky professionals and enthusiasts alike as an exhaustive, and often surprising, history of women’s relationships to whisky and vice versa.
Minnick starts his narrative in the realm of the obscure and somewhat mystical, describing Mesopotamian brewing deities and the Egyptian woman who invented the first alembic still, Maria Hebraea. He charts in great detail the laws and customs that surrounded brewing and distilling, noting that “women faced the same regulations as the men.” Drawing the thread through the centuries, Minnick’s writing weaves a tapestry of women, usually anonymous, who made spirits for a living—often as the only option to feed their families.
How about the women who “saved” bourbon, Scotch, and Irish whiskey? The examples are numerous—wives and daughters of established distillers who inherited or took over and kept the companies going; women who made and used whiskey as medicine during wars and on the American frontier; and of course female moonshiners whose manufacture of whiskey during Prohibition helped preserve important knowledge and distilling culture during that dry period.
Minnick presents a scholarly and even-handed point of view, discussing temperance women alongside female bootleggers. He doesn’t gloss over the tension that existed between these groups up until the mid-20th century. Instead, he treats both sides of the story with care and respect, although of necessity giving more attention to the bootleggers (this is about whiskey women, after all).
When discussing the whisky industry’s position toward women in the latter half of the 20th century, the terrain begins to feel more familiar. Noting that the industry had welcomed female participation in whisky production in the 19th and early 20th century, Minnick points out a few examples of notable women in the mid-century and then declares the 1970s and 80s as “lost decades” for women in whisky. The last couple of chapters he devotes to modern women who are making their mark as blenders, distillers, and producers of whisky.
I found this section most interesting because Minnick acknowledges plainly that “despite women running two major whiskey companies and making significant decisions at every level, women whiskey executives face the same ‘Oh, wait, you’re a woman stigma'” that occurred in the 1960s. Having done his homework and interviewed women all over the world about their experiences in the whisky industry, Minnick can back up his claim.
And, I have to say, I’m not at all surprised that these attitudes still prevail, both within professional circles as well as among plain old imbibers. I’ve encountered such attitudes myself—from men and women. At times I’ve chalked up dismissive treatment to my age, but at least part of the time I think people underestimate or discount my knowledge of whisky due to my gender.
Minnick questions why the whisky industry has not yet recognized its strong female heritage. For example, plenty of brands are named after men—Jack Daniels, Johnnie Walker, Jim Beam, the numerous expressions named for master distillers—so why not an expression named for a woman whose work contributed to the distillery’s success? His question is valid, and I look forward to seeing the industry’s response to it.
Whiskey Women is a game-changer—a serious, scholarly text that details how women have impacted the whisky industry and why that matters. It rightfully lauds the industry for its progressive past treatment of women while pointedly calling out what it can do further. Don’t look for tasting notes here. Read it for an entertaining, often-surprising narrative of strong, interesting people making, distributing, and drinking whisky—people who all just happen to be women.