Back in the 1990s, only 15 percent of whiskey drinkers were female. Now, that number has increased to about 37 percent and it’s still rising.
I set out to interview women who own or run whiskey distilleries across the country to figure out why they wanted to enter the whiskey business. Some hold chemical engineering degrees, a few followed the family business, but what they all share is a love for whiskey. Whether neat or in a cocktail, Scotch or bourbon, distilled in Virginia or California, each woman has a passion for creating — and drinking — her unique craft.
A Brief History of Whiskey
First, some surprising facts about whiskey: Today, while men outnumber women in executive roles at distilleries (as they do in almost every social sector), women have been performing most of the manual labor needed to produce liquor for the better part of history. As far back as 4000 B.C., a female alchemist, Maria Hebraea, built an early distilling apparatus, known as the alembic still, to make spirits including whiskey and moonshine.
That’s according to author Fred Minnick, who traced the alcohol’s “her-story” in the book, Whiskey Women. In the early centuries, housewives were the chief producers of whiskey — called “aqua vitae” or “water of life” in Europe — and often distilled the spirit for medicinal use. In the U.S., whiskey production popped up in the South, where distillers could avoid a post-revolution whiskey tax. Since some states did not allow women to own property, many women only printed initials on labels to protect their land and equipment.
In the 1850s, sex sold more liquor than any other American tavern: New York City prostitutes made more revenue in liquor sales than the net revenues of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri combined. During the Prohibition era, searching a woman was illegal in many states, which allowed women to get by with hiding flasks under their dresses or driving trucks to transport liquor. One female bootlegger, Gertrude “Cleo” Lythgoe, sold two million gallons of whiskey in one year while operating her wholesale company in the Bahamas.
In more modern times, men solidly remain the face of whiskey brands (think Don Draper from Mad Men). But women have been increasingly leading a “whiskey renaissance” to prove that it’s not just “for the boys.” Pop icons such as Lady Gaga and Rihanna have endorsed Jameson whiskey in their songs, and movie stars such as Mila Kunis and Christina Hendricks have joined the campaigns of Jim Beam and Johnnie Walker, respectively.
The Women Leading the Change
From the old to the new, here’s a look at six women shaking things up in the whiskey industry.
(Quick note: the spelling of “whiskey” typically depends on its country of origin: “whiskey” with an “e” comes from countries that also have an “e” in their spelling, and “whisky” without an “e” comes from countries that don’t.)
Marianne Eaves, Castle & Key Distillery
Woodford County, Kentucky
Favorite Cocktail: An Old Fashioned. My favorite style includes simple syrup, black walnut and orange bitters with an orange twist or a luxardo cocktail cherry.
As the only master distiller on this list, Marianne Eaves holds a special distinction. In 2016 Eaves became the first female bourbon master distiller in Kentucky since before Prohibition — a Wikipedia search for “master distiller” will reveal her name listed among a myriad of men. (In most cases, a master distiller is responsible for both production and marketing of a product.)
While other master distillers may have gotten help from a family member or a “bourbon baron,” Eaves went to college to obtain a chemical engineering degree. After graduating, Eaves briefly considered different career options. “My decision came down to one between renewable energy and bourbon,” she says. “Then I thought, of all the things you can make with corn, why in the world would you make fuel when you can make bourbon?” When she discovered that the process of making bourbon was highly technical, “it really appealed to my ‘nerdiness’ and I fell in love with working in a more industrial environment while also learning the art of bourbon creation.”
Eaves started as a process engineer at Brown-Forman, a major American-owned company in the spirits business, where she was in charge of creating and refining spirits’ flavors. Five years later, she had worked her way up to serve as protege to a master distiller. Not long after, the owners of Castle & Key Distillery invited Eaves to become the company’s master distiller and partner — and the rest is history.
Looking back, Eaves has some choice words for those interested in entering the spirit industry: “Don’t be scared to share your excitement, and don’t be afraid to own what you have yet to learn. Find comfort in your ability to develop and try to seize each day.”
Becky Harris, Catoctin Creek Distilling Company
Favorite Cocktail: Whisky Sour
Becky Harris, co-founder of Catoctin Creek Distilling Company, has been distilling whisky for about a decade and gives her take on the current spirits economy.
She says, “This is one of the best times to be in the whiskey business. Consumer interest is the highest in a couple of generations, and the openness to experimentation has never been higher.” At the same time, she says, rapid growth of small distilleries has put pressure on the so-called “three-tier system of distribution,” which consists of producers, retailers and ever-bigger distributors. “The industry as a whole is grappling with the consequences of that mixture of growth and consolidation.”
Harris, too, has a background in chemical engineering, and running a whisky distillery wasn’t the first job that came to mind. After raising her two children, she knew she wanted to re-enter the workforce but was hesitant to invest in such a large project.
“I knew that the process of making spirits would be within reach but I really questioned the financial feasibility,” she says. “Ultimately, through careful business planning, Scott [my husband] convinced me to take the risk.”
The entrepreneurial couple had to jump through several hoops to get their distillery on its feet: after securing a loan, they purchased equipment, worked through local, state and federal regulations, leased a space, and finally started distilling in 2009.
Harris served as chief distiller in the business’ early years while her husband worked the business angle. Inspired by Virginia’s history of whisky, Harris focused primarily on creating a line of rye whiskies for both sipping and for use in cocktails. “We have also created a rye-based gin, which is a fun and delicious product,” she says. “My input as chief distiller informs the distinctive smooth, fruity flavor profile with a pop of spice and mint.”
To get a keg up in the spirits industry, Harris recommends getting to know your local distillery: “The spirits business is a relationship business, with a strong customer focus at all levels. In addition to technical growth, work to develop skills as a public advocate for yourself and your brand.”
Angela Moore, Virginia Distillery Company
Favorite Cocktail: Whisky Neat
Fellow Virginian Angela Moore, current owner of the Virginia Distillery Company, had similar qualms about starting up: “In truth, I didn’t pick the whiskey business, and if I was to start one now, I’d do some things very differently.”
Like Harris, Moore was greatly influenced by her husband to enter the spirit industry. In 2011, after her husband founded the distillery with a few investing partners, Moore decided she wanted in, too. After all, as an immigrant from Northern Ireland, whiskey has always been in her blood. Moore says of her true passion, “I loved single malts but my preference was Irish whisky as I grew up not far from a whisky distillery in Ireland.”
Following her husband’s death (Moore adds that sadly, he never lived to see the actual production of the whisky), Moore bought out the other partners and made the business her own. She says, “I decided to go a different direction using Old World techniques with New World technology and data.”
Despite geographical and manufacturing differences of the spirit, Moore wanted to exclusively produce a single malt whisky. To clarify some terminology, single malt is malt whisky produced exclusively at a single distillery. It usually refers to Scotch whisky, but Moore and her family created a unique American product that retains some family heritage as well.
“As a team we’re excited about our new line being released later this year, called Courage & Conviction,” she says. “This name is a bit personal to the family as it was a key saying of my late husband George: to always have the courage of your convictions.”
That might be the ultimate lesson Moore hopes to impart on future whiskey distillers. Harkening back to her immigrant roots, she says, “America teaches you to think BIG. If you can dream it, you can build it — although women often have to work harder at this, and we do.”
Kate Mead, Wyoming Whiskey
Hot Springs County, Wyoming
Favorite Cocktail: Kombucha and Wyoming Whiskey Outryder Straight American Whiskey with a twist of lime.
Moore isn’t the only one keeping whisky in the family tradition. Kate Mead, co-founder of Wyoming Whiskey, also hopped on the whiskey bandwagon, raising cattle and distilling the spirit on her multi-generational ranching farm. Mead became one of the leading pioneers in the industry when she attained the first distillery license in Wyoming. For Mead, the decision to distill whiskey was an easy one since she had nearby access to most of the raw materials. The hard part? Winning over customers.
Mead remembers the challenges of distilling the first batch. “We decided early on that we would distill all of the whiskey that we would bottle which required aging and waiting and waiting,” she says. “Under pressure, our distiller released a young whiskey in Wyoming, just three years old, and it was not very good.” To Mead, the experience was a welcome lesson but “fortunately, the people in Wyoming are mostly forgiving.”
The weather, on the other hand, is not. Mead notes that the extreme temperatures in Wyoming can fall to -20 degrees in the winter and rise to 110 in the summer, which naturally affects the aging process. “Making and distilling whiskey in this harsh environment has not been done before legally, so it has been a fascinating and very positive experiment,” she says.
Like others, Mead advises future whiskey entrepreneurs to stay knowledgeable about the craft: “Keep up with the trends by reading everything you can get your hands on about the industry. You can become an expert and then pay it forward to other women.”
Carin Luna-Ostaseski, SIA Scotch Whisky
San Francisco, California
Favorite Cocktail: A Glasgow Mule: SIA with ginger beer and a squeeze of lime over ice.
Not too many business ideas come out of relationship break-ups, but for Carin Luna-Ostaseski, founder of SIA Scotch Whisky, the bottom of a bottle proved very promising indeed. Following a split, she says, “I started drinking a lot more scotch than usual,” — not to mention, she had “a little extra money” now that she no longer needed couples counseling. “I started spending all of that on building a really beautiful 300 bottle collection of Scotch whisky. Scotch wasn’t cheap, but couples counseling wasn’t cheap either, and this was so much better therapy.”
While most distillery owners have self-funded their businesses, Luna-Ostaseski chose an alternative approach. In 2012, she launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $45,000 for her business in 40 days. Even though she had nearly two decades of marketing experience, building a company was anything but easy. When she reached out to investors about her product, she was rejected 80 times.
She says of her challenges: “When I was just getting started, me being a total outsider and not having those industry connections was really difficult. I guess in any business relationship, it comes down to who you know, right?”
It’s safe to say that now, Luna-Ostaseski knows quite a few people in the industry. What differentiates her from others, however, is her whisky’s unique taste profile. Scotch whisky tends to be unpopular among novice drinkers because of its strong and smoky nose — and according to Luna-Ostaseski, the nose is roughly 80 percent of the taste.
On her unique blended Scotch, “it’s really inviting, mostly vanilla and caramel on the nose, citrus and honey on the mid palate,” she says, “and you get that hint of smoke but it’s only on the finish.”
Though her SIA brand can’t compete with the prestige of Scotland’s age-old whisky industries, it has already received considerable award recognition and has an easy-to-pronounce name to boot. Luna-Ostaseski adds, laughing, “Recently my friend pointed out SIA could stand for ‘Scotch is awesome.’”
For all her success, Luna-Ostaseski recalls that “starting up by yourself can be very lonely.”
If she could do it all over again, Luna-Ostaseski would find a partner early on. She says, “Being able to divide and conquer all of the work that needs to be done is a good way to start.”
Monica Pearce, Tenth Ward Distilling Company
Favorite Cocktail: Rye Whiskey Neat
Monica Pearce, founder of Tenth Ward Distilling Company, shares an ardent passion for whiskey and like most of the women on this list, considered her entrance into the industry as a radical career transition.
Pearce says she had always been a big whiskey drinker, but the craft brewing boom in her region inspired her to start her own distillery: “I was sort of at a point in my life where I was ready for a career change so I said screw it, emptied my bank account and jumped off the cliff into business ownership.”
At the time, most distillers in Pearce’s region were startups, and without mentorship or proper guidance, Pearce realized she had to learn the hard lessons quickly. Customer by customer, Pearce gained the confidence of her local community before marketing her product through various social media channels. With over 3,500 followers on Instagram to date, Pearce remains committed to loyalty.
She says, “We really focused on having a strong social media platform, developing a larger than life brand and creating a grass roots approach to marketing where our following starts local and builds out from there.”
Something less often confronted in the industry is the glaring gender disparity. Pearce, however, finds a silver lining: “Definitely being a woman owned business in a male dominated industry is a huge draw. People love to support us and feel like they are being a part of the cause.”
Despite her self-made success, Pearce tells budding entrepreneurs to be careful jumping into the industry like she did. “Ask yourself if this is something you really want,” she says. “My business has been open for 3 years now and I still work 7 days a week and barely take a pay cut. If you are passionate and willing to put in the elbow grease, go for it.”
A Lasting Influence
Many popular whiskey brands are currently named after men but maybe one day, there will be a Maria Hebraea Reserve or a Gertrude Lythgoe Select. Without women opening shops for medicinal whiskey, illegally transporting and selling whiskey, or distilling whiskey in the first place, the market would not have been the same.
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