Women of the Still

These fearless females create some of the world's favorite spirits.

While the profiles below celebrate four notable women making strides in the spirits industry, they are far from the only ones out there. Around the world, a growing number of women are involved with all aspects of making spirits—creating, distilling, blending, consulting and managing these businesses.

“There are a lot of amazing women in the spirits industry,” says Maggie Campbell, head distiller at Ipswich, Massachusetts-based Privateer Rum, who lists Rachel Barrie and Joy Spence as “my heroes.”

A small but influential group of women rose to key positions during the 1990s and early 2000s. That group has expanded significantly in the last few years, particularly as interest in artisan distilling has grown.

Other notables include Joanne Moore, master distiller of Bloom London Dry Gin in the U.K.; Melanie Asher, who makes Macchu Pisco in Peru; Katia Espirito Santo, of Brazil’s Avua Cachaça; Sonja Kassebaum at Chicago’s North Shore Distillery; and Laura Dierks, managing partner at Brooklyn’s Van Brunt Stillhouse.

Groups like LOAD (Ladies of American Distilleries) share knowledge and create community.

“As in math and sciences, the more young women see other women succeeding, the more they can see themselves being here—and the more likely we are to see the best distillers,” Campbell says. “We want to inspire the next generation of great distillers, whoever they happen to be.”

Joy Spence

Master Blender, Appleton Estates Rum, Jamaica

The Jamaican-born Spence says her journey toward becoming the world’s first female master blender began at 13 years old, when a beloved teacher sparked her interest in chemistry and science.

Spence attended the University of the West Indies before she moved to England to pursue a Masters of Science degree in Analytical Chemistry at Loughborough University.

After graduation, Spence returned to Jamaica and lectured at the College of Arts Science and Technology (now renamed as the University of Technology). She then worked as a research and development chemist with Tia Maria liqueur.

Yet, the high-energy Spence—“I love to dance,” she says—soon grew restless working with a single product, and noticed the furor of activity at adjacent Appleton Estates.

“I used to sit and look across the fence,” she says. “I would think, ‘Oh my gosh—so many tankers rolling in and out—that place seems very interesting.’ So I sent in my résumé.”

Spence was hired as chief chemist in 1981, working closely with then-Master Blender Owen Tulloch. She assumed the role in 1997.

Compared to those early years of gazing across the fence, her hectic, wide-ranging role now encompasses aspects of production (developing new rums and blends and ensuring the quality of existing products) as well as marketing, traveling the world to promote
Appleton Estates.

Now, she says, “My job is complex, and I definitely do not get bored.”

The Product
Appleton Estate 12-Year-Old Rum
For sipping or cocktails, this aged rum features rounded caramel flavor, with lots of spice and touches of almond and dried fruit.
abv: 43%         Price: $40

Bridget Firtle

Owner/Distiller, The Noble Experiment, Brooklyn

The youngest of the women profiled here and the only one to start her own business, Firtle, a Queens native, earned an MBA from SUNY-Binghamton and entered the world of finance. She started her career analyzing corporate distillers and brewers for a hedge fund.

Inspired by a TED talk and mentored by craft distillers across the country who taught her how to make spirits, Firtle wrote a business plan, quit her job, gave up her Manhattan apartment and leased an industrial space in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. She named her distillery The Noble Experiment NYC—a tongue-in-cheek appropriation of a euphemism for Prohibition.

The first—and for now, only—product is Owney’s Rum, a crisp white rum made from domestic molasses, named for the bootlegger behind Harlem’s famed Cotton Club. An aged rum is in the works, but that’s at least two years away.

“My goal is to bring rum back to New York, back to the Northeast, and maybe back to the country one day,” she says.

In the meantime, the distillery’s tasting room, where Prohibition-era photos and the chandelier’s yellow glow evoke a dimly lit speakeasy, opened for afternoon tours and tastings in November 2012.

The Product
Owney’s NYC Rum
This crisp, appealing white rum lends itself to mixing up daiquiris, Papa dobles and other cocktails.
abv: 40%         Price: $35

Pierrette Trichet

Cellar Master, Rémy Martin Cognac, France

Trichet is well aware that she’s preparing a legacy for future generations.

The daughter of a winegrower, Trichet grew up in southwest France, where she developed a great love for nature and a strong interest in science. After studying biochemistry and biological analysis in Toulouse, Trichet arrived at Rémy-Martin 35 years ago, taking a research position to study how Cognac is made.

In 1993, she joined the prestigious “tasting committee,” where she worked with then-Cellar Master Georges Clot, becoming his apprentice in 2000. She succeeded him in 2003.

She remembers finishing the final blend for Louis XIII—a particularly high-end line, made from carefully selected casks—the year she became cellar master.

“You remember that moment when you finish,” she says. Even with her words parsed by a translator, Trichet comes across as thoughtful and soft-spoken, even stoic.

“There’s a fear—there’s an emotional moment,” she says. “You’re working with the fruit of the work of previous generations.”

She refers to herself as a steward, preserving barrels of eau de vie (the term used for Cognac while still in the barrel) for future generations to discover.

“It takes 100 years to complete the process,” she says.

Trichet says she’s learned much over the course of her career.

“Like eau de vie, you improve and mellow over the years.”

The Product
Rémy Martin 1738 Accord Royal Cognac
The $22,000 bottle of Rémy Martin’s Louis XIII Rare Cask is predictably amazing, but out of the price range for most of us. The 1738 Accord Royal is a more affordable splurge, blended for aromatic intensity, with bold toffee, orange peel and chocolaty tones.
abv: 40%             Price: $55

Rachel Barrie

Master Blender, Morrison Bowmore, Scotland

“I was born just a few miles from the [Glen Garioch] distillery,” in Scotland’s Highlands, says Barrie. “I used to go out and run through the fields of barley, with that wonderful spicy scent in the air.”

So perhaps it was only a matter of time before she would make Scotch whisky, becoming master blender in 2003.

In addition to overseeing releases from Bowmore, an Islay Scotch with a smoky, broody profile, she also works with the Glen Garioch and Auchentoshan bottlings.

Upon earning a chemistry degree from the University of Edinburgh, Barrie became a research scientist at the Scotch Whisky Institute. That interview process required her to identify more than 20 different fragrances.

Barrie credits her keen sense of smell for helping make the key decisions that shepherd Scotches from grain to bottle.

“If I hadn’t been in whisky, I’d be in perfume,” she says.  

She then embarked on a lengthy stint with Glenmorangie, where she first became a master blender. Barrie joined Bowmore in 2011.

Neither the notoriously blustery Scottish weather nor whisky making are kind to shrinking violets. Although she appears polished, Barrie surely has a tough side. It’s served her well through 20-plus years in the whisky business—not to mention as a mother to three sons and collector of motorcycles, with nine bikes at last count.

The Product
Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve
Pronounced “Glen Geery,” this is an excellent example of a Highland Scotch, with vibrant notes of honey, heather and spice, and just the faintest hint of smoke.
abv: 45%        Price: $45

Published on July 22, 2013