How Women Shaped Whiskey History

Rachel Barrie of Brown-Forman (left), photo by Peter McNally / Marianne Eaves of Castle & Key (right), photo by The Malicotes

We’re grateful for all the up-and-coming women who distill, blend and otherwise make sure that our favorite whiskeys and spirits find their way to our glass. But we should also pay homage to those who paved the way and played an integral part in whiskey history.

Women have always been involved in the production of beer, wine and spirits. According to Fred Minnick, author of Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey (Potomac Books, 2013), the first evidence of women making beer was found on Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets that date to around 4000 BC. While Minnick’s book should be required reading for those who seek to know more, here are just a few ladies who’ve helped advance, protect and develop whiskey.

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Ellen Jane Corrigan, Bushmills

In all but name, Ellen Jane Corrigan was the first CEO of a major spirits company when she stepped in to run Irish whiskey distillery Bushmills after her husband, Patrick, died in January 1865.

She’s most noted for taking the first steps that transformed Bushmills into an international whiskey powerhouse, but she did it all. She negotiated the terms of Bushmills’ lease in 1874, preserved and protected the distillery’s vital water supply, and introduced electricity to the facilities. She also turned the distillery into a limited liability company to enable it to shift from a local Northern Ireland distillery into an international entity. 

When she sold Old Bushmills in 1880, Corrigan negotiated a voting spot on the board of the new company, something not typically offered to women at that time.

In 2005, Helen Mulholland was appointed as master blender for the Irish whiskey brand, a role she still holds today.

Elizabeth Cumming of Bushmill's
Elizabeth Cumming of Cardow (Johnnie Walker) / Photo courtesy Diageo Archive

 Helen and Elizabeth Cumming, Johnnie Walker

Before Johnnie Walker became the blended Scotch whisky dynamo it is today, a woman ran its most important distillery, Cardow.

The first was Helen Cumming. The illicit whisky enterprise she helped run began in the early 1800s, when Cumming was reported to have lured excise agents into her Cardow farm for a meal, and then hoisted a red flag outside to alert other distillers to the presence of the agents.

The distillery eventually became legal when excise laws were eased. Her husband, John, became registered as a “distiller of genuine malt whisky” in 1824. Eight years later, he handed over the business to their son, Lewis. Helen still contributed to Cardow, “the smallest distillery in Scotland,” with just two employees.

When Lewis died in 1872, Helen was 95 years old. She encouraged her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, to take over Cardow. A brilliant businesswoman, Elizabeth recognized that blending whisky was becoming increasingly popular, but the distillery couldn’t keep up with demand. In 1884, she acquired four acres of land within 300 yards of the original buildings. Over the next year, Elizabeth built a new distillery and eventually sold the old one to William Grant.

When John Walker & Sons Limited, later named Johnnie Walker, purchased the Cardow Distillery in 1893, it was no longer “the smallest distillery in Scotland.” Its substantial whisky-making capacity played a key part in Johnnie Walker’s rise to become an empire.

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Augusta Dickel, George Dickel

The only American whiskey distillery owned by a woman in the 1800s that’s still in production is George Dickel, established in Tennessee as a liquor wholesale company in 1861. Named for its founder, George A. Dickel, the company blended and bottled whiskeys, with most of its spirits procured by the Cascade Distillery in Coffee County, Tennessee. Eventually, Dickel purchased the distillery.

In his will written in 1894, Dickel instructed his wife, Augusta, to sell the business at the “first favorable opportunity.” However, after he passed away, she ignored his wishes. Augusta maintained her husband’s share of George A. Dickel, although she didn’t participate in the day-to-day operations. She mostly traveled to Europe, where she brought her whiskey to associates in France.

While it’s not the most heroic of stories, by ignoring her husband Augusta kept the company intact, which passed on to brother-in-law V.E. Shwab after her death in 1916.

Now renamed as Cascade Hollow Distilling, Nicole Austin was appointed in 2018 as its general manager and distiller, where she oversees the legacy George Dickel brand.

Elizabeth “Bessie” Williamson of Laphroaig
Elizabeth “Bessie” Williamson of Laphroaig

Elizabeth “Bessie” Williamson, Laphroaig

Often referred to as “The First Lady of Scotch,” Elizabeth “Bessie” Williamson is credited with having saved Scotland’s Laphroaig Distillery from a military takeover. But she also changed the American demand for Scotch from blends to single malts.

Shortly after she graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1934, Williamson began work as a temporary secretary at the Laphroaig Distillery on the Scottish island Islay, where she became the trusted lieutenant of owner Ian Hunter. After he suffered a stroke in 1938, Hunter asked Williamson to become the distillery manager. She took over his full-time duties just before World War II began.

It was not a moment too soon. Whiskey production ceased during wartime, as the government diverted grain to feed soldiers. Laphroaig was turned into a major ammunitions hub, with explosives hidden in the malt barns. Yet, Williamson refused to give in to every military demand. She made sure no one melted down the stills or other equipment to make munitions. She also ensured that no one stole her whiskey and kept the distillery’s business afloat during the crisis.

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When World War II ended, Williamson forged ahead and developed relationships with other distillers. She made bold, smoky Laphroaig a sought-after whisky for blends. But instead of wasting her Scotch’s distinctive peaty character in blends, Williamson envisioned marketing Laphroaig as a single malt.

When Hunter died in 1954, he left the distillery to Williamson. She forged ahead as an ambassador for Islay whiskies and single malts. The Scotch Whisky Association named her as American spokesperson from 1961–64, giving her the opportunity to tour the U.S. and spread the gospel of Scotch whisky. Williamson died in 1982.

Rachel Barrie of Brown-Forman / Photo by Peter McNally
Rachel Barrie of Brown-Forman / Photo by Peter McNally

Rachel Barrie, Brown-Forman

Currently the whisky-maker for Brown-Forman’s BenRiach, Glenglassaugh and GlenDronach distilleries, Rachel Barrie built her reputation as the first modern female master blender in the spirits industry.

Barrie studied chemistry at the University of Edinburgh before she began her career as a research scientist at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute. She then moved into production at the Glenmorangie Company, where she earned the title of master blender in 1995, working with the Glenmorangie and Ardbeg Scotch whiskies.

In 2011, she joined Morrison Bowmore, where she developed well-known brands like Bowmore, Auchentoshan, Laphroaig and Ardmore.

Barrie is noted for her work in developing award-winning whiskies. But in addition to her accomplishments in whisky, she also opened the doors for other women to enter the spirits business.

Marianne Eaves of Castle & Key / Photos by The Malicotes
Marianne Eaves of Castle & Key / Photos by The Malicotes

Marianne Eaves, Castle & Key

Representing the up-and-coming generation of women in whiskey, Marianne Eaves is the master distiller for Kentucky Bourbon producer Castle & Key. When she took on the role in 2015 for the brand-new distillery, she was the first woman to earn that title in Kentucky since Prohibition.

After she graduated from the University of Louisville with a degree in chemical engineering, Eaves worked at Brown-Forman, the company behind Woodford Reserve, Old Forester and Jack Daniels. In five short years, she ascended from intern to master taster, where she worked in the storied research and development lab alongside Woodford’s master distiller Chris Morris.

In 2015, Eaves left Brown-Forman to launch Castle & Key at the site of the Old Taylor Distillery, a historical site that had been out of commission since 1972. Today, she oversees the production of Castle & Key’s gin and vodka, as well as new rye and Bourbon bottlings scheduled for release in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

Published on March 19, 2019
Topics: Women's History
About the Author
Kara Newman 
Spirits Editor

Kara Newman reviews spirits and writes about spirits and cocktail trends for Wine Enthusiast. She's the author of several cocktail books, including Shake.Stir.Sip. and NIGHTCAP: More than 40 Cocktails to Close Out Any Evening, which debuts in September 2018. Email: spirits@wineenthusiast.net



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