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The Women Who Shaped Whiskey History

The world of whisky has refreshingly female roots.


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Often considered a man’s drink, women have actually been shaping the world of whisky (and whiskey) since its early iterations.

Today’s landscape is dotted with dram-shaping women like Castle & Key’s Master Distiller, Marianne Eaves in Kentucky, The Macallan's Master Whisky Maker, Kirsteen Campbell in Scotland, and informal whisky clubs like Women Who Whisky and Peggy Noe Stevens' Bourbon Women. But as it turns out, women have long been at the forefront of beer, wine, and whiskey-making.

For a thorough look at the fascinating history of women in whisky, pick up Fred Minnick's Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey (to buy: $19; Here, the Kentucky author notes that it all begins with beer. The first evidence of women making beer was found on Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets that date to around 4000 BC. The Egyptian goddess Hathor, Minnick noted, was the "inventress of brewing" and the "mistress of intoxication." From there, Medieval European women worked in apothecaries and later became the first distillers, often brewing and distilling illegally thanks to laws, witch hunts, and heavy taxes. Though some Scottish wills and archival records indicate more than thirty women in Scotland managed legitimate distilleries including Dalmore, Glenmorangie, and Ardbeg.

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From the highlands of Scotland to the coast of Japan, meet the female makers and shakers who paved the way and made whisky history all across the globe.

Elizabeth Cumming, Cardhu

Founded by Helen Cumming in 1811 as an illicit distillery and licensed in 1824, Cardhu is the first distillery to be officially pioneered by a woman. Two women, in fact: in 1872, Elizabeth Cummings, daughter-in-law of the founders, took over the running of the distillery and set about refining the flavor and character of the whisky and expanding the distillery's land. Eventually, she sold the Cardhu distillery to a John Walker & Sons Limited, later named Johnnie Walker, making her a key player in Johnnie Walker's rise to the empire it is today.

Bessie Williamson, Laphroaig

Known as "The First Lady of Laphroaig," Elizabeth Bessie Williamson worked her way up from secretary to managing director of the Islay single malt distillery in 1934, staying with the company for forty years. She was the only woman to own and run a Scottish distillery in the 20th century and was also responsible for positioning Laphroaig as a single malt scotch in the U.S. in the 1970s.—no small feat. To honor the Islay icon, the brand recently released a limited edition 25-year-old single malt in her name.

Jessie Roberta Cowan (Rita Taketsuru), Nikka

Jessie, Rita, "The Mother of Japanese Whisky,"'—this woman with many names played a vital part in the birth of Japan's award-winning Nikka. Born in Scotland, Cowan met Masataka Taketsuru, a young Japanese man, when he took up lodgings at her family home in 1918. Taketsuru came to Glasgow to learn the art of whisky-making. The pair fell in love and eventually moved back to Japan to start their whisky empire together. Rita died at the age of 63 in 1961, but her legacy lives on in Yoichi, whose main street is named Rita Road.

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Ethel Greig Robertson, Edrington

One of Scotch whisky’s biggest operators today came to be what it is thanks to Ethel Greig Robertson. Robertson inherited the family business from her father in 1944, which at the time was the Robertson and Baxter firm of brokers and blenders, the Clyde Bonding Company, and Highland Distillers. The avid stag hunter and race car driver was not a woman to be messed around with. To ward off aggressive takeover attempts from U.S. buyers and extremely high inheritance tax, she created a holding company and charitable trust named after one of the Robertson family farms, Edrington. Today, Edrington owns the Highland Park and Macallan distilleries (among others), as well as the Famous Grouse blended whisky.

Marjorie "Margie" Samuels, Maker's Mark

Maker's Mark would not have had its iconic curvy bottle with the signature red wax without Marjorie “Marge” Samuels, the brains behind the packaging back in 1957. "Samuels' design transformed the entire liquor industry," noted Minnick in Whisky Women.

Ellen Jane Corrigan, Bushmills

Corrigan put Bushmills on the map, taking the Irish whiskey international in the 1880s. During Corrigan's tenure as owner and board member, Bushmill grew in size, developing the ability to ferment in 1,200-gallon pots, and in stature, winning awards in Cork, Liverpool, and Paris.

We'll drink to that.


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