#IWD2024 - The History of Women in the Spirits Industry

The Spirit of Progress: Women's Legacy in the Alcoholic Beverages Industry

The spirits industry, often perceived as a male-dominated field, has a history of female pioneers who have shaped its development and innovation. However, as is the case with many industries, it has certainly not been a smooth ride for women.

For many centuries in the pre-industrial era, women were distilling and distributing alcohol behind the scenes and often behind closed doors. Over many centuries, 50,000 female distillers were charged with practising black magic and were burned to death if they were found to be distilling spirits.

Some of History's Key Players...

Mary the Jewess: The Alchemy of Distillation

Mary the Jewess, active between 0 and 200 CE, is among the earliest recorded alchemists and is credited with inventing several chemical apparatuses essential for distillation, such as the 3 armed still (alembic still), a tool that remains central to distillation practices. Her work laid the groundwork for the science behind spirit production.  

Helen Cumming: The Speyside Matriarch

In 1824, Helen Cumming co-founded the Cardhu Distillery in Scotland's Speyside region, a name that would become synonymous with quality Scotch whisky. Helen lived through the movement from illicit distillation to legal distillation and was instrumental in the early days of the distillery, hand-selling bottles of whisky. Her entrepreneurial spirit and resilience ensured Cardhu's success, laying the foundation for what would become one of the most famous names in Scotch whisky, eventually becoming part of the Johnnie Walker blend.

Ellen Jane Corrigan: The Bushmills Success Story

In 1865, E.J. Corrigan took over Bushmills Distillery after her husband passed away and transformed it into an international success. She was an incredibly strong and purposeful woman who made it one of her legacies that she insisted on every single drop of whisky was to be aged on their premises. 

Bessie Williamson: The Scotch Whisky Pioneer

Bessie Williamson's story is one of accidental success turned industry legend. In 1954, she became the owner and manager of the Laphroaig Distillery on Islay, making her one of the only women to own and run a distillery in the 1900s. Williamson was pivotal in promoting single malt Scotch globally, at a time when blended whiskies dominated the market. Her vision and dedication to quality helped establish the prestige of single malt Scotch whisky worldwide.

Rita Taketsuru: The Mother of Japanese Whisky

Rita Taketsuru, née Cowan, was a Scottish woman who moved to Japan with her husband Masataka Taketsuru, where they played a crucial role in the birth of the Japanese whisky industry. Her support and cultural bridge-building were instrumental in the establishment of Nikka Whisky, contributing significantly to the development of a distinct Japanese whisky style. Rita's influence extends beyond her support; she is celebrated for her role in the cross-cultural exchange that gave rise to a new whisky tradition.

Marjorie Samuels: The Art of Branding

In 1959, Marjorie Samuels played a crucial role in shaping the bourbon industry through her work with Maker's Mark. Marjorie was responsible for the distillery's distinctive branding, from the name to the bottle shape, the label design and the iconic hand-dipped red wax seal. Her contributions demonstrated the importance of branding in the spirits industry, setting a new standard for marketing and presentation that many have followed since.

It is thanks to the immeasurable impact that these women have made that in the 21st century, many women are master distillers, master blenders, operation managers, production operatives, distillery owners, sales and marketing executives, account managers, whisky sommeliers - the list is endless! There is still some way to go, but let's #inspireinclusion this International Women's Day.

#internationalwomensday #inspireinclusion #IWD2024