Women Making Whiskey: An 800-Year History

Bourbon, often considered a man’s drink, surprisingly has feminine roots. But it’s still a man’s industry, and women are only just starting to catch up.

Paolo Trabattoni / Flickr

One evening in 1957, Marjorie Samuels took a seat at the kitchen table and firmly set down a bourbon bottle. It had been dipped in thick, bright red wax, and had dried after dripping down the bottle’s neck. The cream-colored label was hand-torn and carefully centered. Samuels proudly displayed it to her husband and three children, and then declared this bottle design the future of Maker’s Mark.

Her husband, Bill Samuels, the founder of Maker’s Mark, pushed back, unsure that the design concept could be scaled. Marge pushed harder, saying he could figure out how to make it work. Bill Samuels Jr., a senior in high school at the time, watched his parents bicker. He was used to his mother’s ideas for his father’s business, and waited for her to play her trump card to win the argument: the fact that Marge finished first in their class at the University of Louisville, and Bill Sr. finished last.

That was the end of the conversation, and the beginning of an era for bourbon. Marge had revolutionized the packaging and marketing of distilled liquor with the signature red wax, hand-torn labels, and classic font that spelled “WHISKY” across that bottle.

Marjorie Samuels, "the mother of Maker's Mark" (Maker’s Mark)

Almost 60 years later, women are still making big decisions at Maker’s Mark. Victoria MacRae-Samuels is the vice president of operations, and has been in the spirits industry for more than 25 years, having learned to make whiskey from Jim Beam’s grandson. She’s a rarity—female executives are still few and far between at distilleries—but MacRae-Samuels and Marge Samuels (who are distant cousins, by marriage) are just two of the many women throughout history who changed the course of distillation as it made its way from Mesopotamia to the Scottish countryside to rural Kentucky. In fact, Catherine Spears Frye Carpenter is credited with the first recipe, discovered in 1818, for sour mash—the basis for whiskey.

That’s what Fred Minnick found when he started doing research for his 2013 book Whiskey Women. He started with the goal of learning about the history of women in the bourbon industry, but he unearthed a narrative going back much further in time. Women are credited with the invention of beer around 4,000 B.C., when they fermented barley to make the beverage. Egyptian women, Peruvian women, Dutch women—they were all brewmasters with their own particular, popular recipes. Maria Hebraea, an alchemist who was first written about in the fourth century, has been credited with building an early distilling apparatus. That device, the alembic still, is still used in some parts of Europe for making brandy or whiskey, and is a model for stills used today in the foothills of Appalachia, where people continue to make moonshine.

By the medieval era, women were distilling spirits in Western Europe, but soon they were stripped of basic rights, barred from reading and studying math or science. In some cultures, they weren’t allowed to be near alcohol. Women do not appear in most texts from this era, and there was little to no mention of these operations for many years, until they started popping back up again in the 1200s, Minnick says. Women were running apothecaries as the demand for distilled medicines increased. They made “aqua vitae”—distilled beer, wine, or spirits—for medicinal use. Until the 1500s, women distilled and sold aqua vitae relatively peacefully.

That changed during the time of witch hunts. One of the pieces of evidence that could be used to prosecute women for witchcraft, Minnick says, was to have a vial of aqua vitae in hand. If a woman was selling it to the community to get drunk, she’d receive a slap on the wrist. But if something went wrong—if a neighbor’s child died or livestock perished—that same charge could lead to a conviction of witchcraft and a sentence of death.

By the late 1700s, American women were distilling at home. Minnick is convinced he found the earliest form of dating sites in old newspapers, men put ads out for wives, sometimes specifying a preference for women who could brew beer or distill spirits (in addition to being able to make clothes and churn butter, of course).

It didn’t take long for whiskey to lose its domestic connotations. As spirits continued growing popular in America, “there [was] this incredible connection between prostitution and selling whiskey,” Minnick says. Prostitutes legally sold whiskey and earned significant commissions for their brothels. In New York City in the 1850s, for example, women made more than $2 million a year in liquor sales—close to the $3 million they were making for sex.

That caught the attention of the women of the Temperance movement, who played a key role in Prohibition from 1920 to 1933. In response, a culture of bootlegging cropped up—and women played a significant role in that as well. Gertrude "Cleo" Lythgoe was the queen of the bootleggers, a beautiful, powerful woman who, immediately after Prohibition was instituted, outsmarted the government by moving to the Bahamas and starting a wholesale whiskey company. When she died in 1964, everyone assumed she was worth millions, but none could prove it.

Even if women weren’t the leaders of bootlegging collectives, men made sure they were in the car because they couldn’t be searched by police. Doing so was considered rude, and searching a woman who was driving alone was actually illegal. As a result, women hid flasks in their dresses, drove trucks filled with liquor, and ran multimillion-dollar operations. Women either were hired by syndicates or created their own bootlegging groups. Minnick says at one point, female bootleggers outsold men five sales to one.

Women were also largely responsible for making alcohol legal once again. The Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform was started by Pauline Morton Sabin in 1929, and she changed the national conversation by convincing women that the government was trying to tell them what was best for their children. She pushed for state regulations on alcohol rather than sweeping federal laws, and she convinced enough lawmakers and citizens for her plan to work.

But after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, distilled spirits weren’t marketed toward women because of their longstanding association with prostitution. It wasn’t until 1987 that the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade group, lifted a ban on advertising directly to women, and the liquor industry didn’t market to women on television or radio until the 1990s, when Crown Royal ran a television spot.

“[There was a] separation that whiskey and women had—an unsavory association in the 19th century, when prostitutes were the largest retailers—that just took a while to get back to say, ‘This is socially acceptable,’” says Susan Reigler, president of the Bourbon Women Association, a Kentucky-based organization that educates women around the world about bourbon.

In the 1990s, bourbon experienced a renaissance. Premium offerings like Woodford Reserve started to come to market, and cocktail culture was revived. Bourbon was on the rise, and women’s interest rose with it.

“In the 80s, men had the discretionary income to purchase products, but then more women were entering the workforce, gaining better positions,” says Peggy Noe Stevens, the founder of the Bourbon Women Association and the world’s first female master taster. “Women were the other half of the population to target.”

Though it wasn’t entirely socially acceptable for women to drink liquor until the late 20th century, they continued to work in the distilleries as bottling plant managers, owners, and distillers—though they rarely, if ever, received prominent titles. Owning a business was risky; if they lost their husband and all that he owned, they could lose their children too, so women often hid behind initials on paper. “Despite those societal times, and despite the prostitutes kind of giving women a bad name in whiskey, women were very much alive and well in all circles of the business side of things,” Minnick says.

But not without discrimination. One woman Minnick interviewed, who was a chemist in the 1940s, was up for a distiller job, but couldn’t get it because her boss was afraid the men would look up her skirt when she was walking up the stairs. By company rules, women weren’t permitted to wear pants at the time.

There are many stories like that. The creek on Maker’s Mark property in Loretto, Kentucky, for instance, marked a deep gender divide. In the 1950s and early 60s, when the company started bottling, working the bottling line was a woman’s job. A woman could earn enough in a year on the bottling line to support her family, and women were protective of those jobs. If she left for maternity leave or some other reason, it was almost always another woman who replaced her. And the men stayed in the warehouses across the yard, and the creek, making the whiskey.

More women, like Peggy Noe Stevens, started moving into brand management, executive positions, and production in the 1990s. Stevens says that almost every event she held throughout her career was attended by a predominantly male audience, which is why she started the Bourbon Women Association in 2011 as a platform for intelligent conversation among women who were consumers or employed in the industry. The organization now has more than 600 members in 23 states.

On the production side, Victoria MacRae-Samuels was also the only woman in meetings and conferences. She often still is. People weren’t used to having a female supervisor in the warehouses, and it was difficult for people to get used to—though probably much less daunting for her, because as a chemist, she had always been the sole woman in the room.

“Did I notice it? Yes, absolutely. Were there instances, anecdotal stories? Yes. Do you have to change people’s perspectives? Yes,” she says. “But you can’t dwell on it, because if you do, where would you be?”

There aren’t a lot of women flooding into operational positions today, because those jobs require decades of experience, she says. More women come up in companies by way of finance, marketing, and human resources. But that’s shifting. MacRae-Samuels has noticed the rise of women, both within the industry and as consumers.

For much of recent history, liquor companies marketed sweet, flavored liquors—think honey whiskey, Fireball, whipped cream and apple-pie vodka—to women. But as the numbers prove women are drinking fewer vodka martinis and more straight brown liquor, the tune of the liquor industry is changing. Now, MacRae-Samuels says, when women reluctantly attend Maker’s Mark events, convinced bourbon is a man’s drink, they more frequently leave educated, with a better understanding of how to enjoy the spirit.

“It’s more than just the demographic of them being a female. It’s a psychographic,” says Peggy Noe Stevens. “They’re curious … They’re foodies, they know quality, they want to learn. The best thing we’ve done is to complement the industry. It’s a wonderful marketing vehicle.”

According to International Wine and Spirit Research, Americans drank 24 million cases of domestically produced whiskey in 2013—about a 30 percent increase from 10 years ago. And women are largely responsible for that growth. Women represent nearly 37 percent of whiskey drinkers, Minnick says.

“There’s still a lot of work to do in the marketing and in bartending,” says Alwynne Gwilt, who runs Miss Whisky, a popular whiskey blog, out of the U.K. She’s one of the most well-versed women on the spirit, but she says she notices that when she takes too long to decide, the bartender will recommend a whiskey that’s “floral,” or “feminine” in some other way.

Things are changing, slowly. There are several startup rum distilleries run by women, such as The Noble Experiment in Brooklyn. The Japanese whiskey industry was largely created by a Scottish woman. Most distilling operations in rural Africa are run by women. To find all of these women, you just have to know what doors—or rather, barrels—to look behind.