March is Women’s History Month. I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the role of women in the Bourbon industry. It is a rich heritage. Many people believe women in the bourbon industry is a new phenomenon, but that is simply not the case. Catherine Carpenter inherited a distillery from her second husband and is the author of the earliest known recipe for sour mash whiskey. Then there is Milly Stone who ran her husband’s distillery while he was a soldier in the war of 1812. Women were making whiskey in Kentucky in the early 1800s. As the century progressed the industry grew and the role of women changed. In the industrial setting of the column still production, women became less known. Men dominated the business of distilling and most women were relegated to the secretarial work at the distillery. That is until bottling lines became common.
Fred Minnick in his Book Whiskey Women he does an excellent job of explaining why women thrived on the bottling line at distilleries. The important thing for this discussion is that the industry gave women a place of employment that did not require higher education, but paid relatively well. Prohibition closed the distilleries, but women still worked on the bottling lines for the companies licensed to sell medicinal spirits. Women remain the dominant workers on the bottling lines and have their own organizations associated with the positions.
When Prohibition went into effect Mary Dowling, who owned the Waterfill & Frazier distillery at the time, decided to move it to Juarez, Mexico and continue to make her family’s Bourbon. The distillery continued to make Bourbon in that city until 1964 when Bourbon became a sole product of the United States.
As the 20th century proceeded women began to get back into the manufacturing side of the industry. The Second World War opened many doors for women as the men left to join the service and their positions were filled by women. It proved that women could do the work well and once the war was over some of these women were able to remain in the manufacturing side of the industry. Women were also beginning to enter the field of marketing and playing a role in the advertising and sale of Bourbon.
By the early 1990s there were many women involved in the Bourbon Industry. There was a woman who monitored the still at the George Dickel Cascade Hollow Distillery. There were several women in the marketing department of United Distillers, Heaven Hill and other major companies. Frenchy Sweatt, an African-American woman, was in the inventory department at United Distillers (later Diageo) keeping track of the barrels in the warehouses amongst other tasks. The only positions that were not being filled were the “Master Distiller” positions. This would change in the 21st century.
The first woman distiller I met was Cheryl Linn, who owns the Delaware Phoenix Distillery in New York state. I met her at the ADI meeting her in Louisville in 2010. Cheryl had been making Absinth and had just ordered a new still to start making whiskey. She had a few samples of her rye that she had made on her small still that she used to make absinth. It was quite good and I would consider her a master distiller even though she prefers to call herself simply a distiller.
Since then I have met many other women who are making whiskey. Lisa Roper Wicker started at Limestone Branch making the formulas for the flavored moonshines, but was later hired as Master Distiller of whiskey at the Starlight Distillery in Indiana, but later became a partner and Master Distiller at Preservation Distillery in Bardstown Kentucky, a distillery owned by yet another woman.
The Craft Distilling industry has opened many doors for women, but even the larger firms are now placing women in distilling positions. Michter’s hired Pam Heilmann from Jim Beam where she had been working in the distillery. When Willie Pratt retired Pam stepped into the role of Master Distiller. She was later joined at Michter’s by Andrea Wilson, who was hired after Diageo laid her off. Wilson had been vice president of production and stationed at the Stitzel-Weller distillery and was the first woman to lead the Kentucky Distillers Association. She holds a similar position at Michter’s. Pam and Andrea played a major role in designing the new distillery built by Michter’s in Shively and together they work to make the whiskey going into the barrels.
Brown-Forman has also played a large role in the advancement of women in the manufacturing side of the industry. Peggy Noe Stevens became the first woman to become a Master Taster at Brown-Forman late in the 20th century. She opened the doors to those who followed her at the company. Marianne Barnes was a master taster and worked in the developing of new brands at Brown-Forman when she was offered the partnership at the Castle& Key distillery. Her experience at Brown-Forman prepared her well to become the first female Master Distiller in Kentucky since Prohibition. Another woman who started at Brown-Forman at about the same time as Marianne Barnes is Elizabeth O’Neill McCall who is also a master taster and works on the development of new products at Brown-Forman. She is a possible replacement for Chris Morris when he retires as Master Distiller.
Women have always played a role in the development of the Bourbon industry. That role has grown larger over the years and women are become more involved in the industry. From the traditional bottling line jobs to warehouse workers, distillery workers and even distillery owners, women are having an impact on the future of the industry.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl