Chemists, Bartenders and British Royalty: Eight Women Who Changed Gin History

Sonja Kassebaum of North Shore Distillery / Photo by Cory Dewald
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Whether your cocktail is a classic martini, gin & tonic or a Hanky Panky, an enterprising woman helped the drink make its way into your hand.

“It’s no coincidence that a woman was chosen as the symbol of the gin craze in the mid-1700s,” says Dr. Nicola Nice, the founder of gin liqueur Pomp & Whimsy. She references such nicknames for the spirit as Mother Gin and Madame Genever, as well as the later, less-flattering moniker, “Mother’s Ruin.”

Compared to beer, which was available in male-run alehouses, “gin was sold and consumed in places where women went, like markets and the backrooms of household good[s] stores,” she says. “More importantly, women didn’t just drink gin, they sold it, too.”

How Women Shaped Whiskey History

It’s high time to pay homage to the women who helped pave the way to advance the spirit. From a 17th-century British noblewoman to modern mixologists, here is a timeline of some of the world’s most esteemed gin advocates.

Mary of Orange
Mary of Orange / Alamy

Mary of Orange (1631–1660)

Also known as Mary Stuart, the eldest daughter of King Charles I of England, she married Dutch nobleman Prince William II of Orange in 1641. Part of her legacy, says Keli Rivers, brand ambassador for Sipsmith Gin and a gin history expert, was to help popularize genever—regarded as the forerunner of gin—in England.

“It wasn’t the first time we saw [gin] in England, but it was the first time we celebrated it,” says Rivers. An English blockade against French goods meant dwindling supplies of French brandy. In its absence, “Dutch courage” (genever) became the drink of choice at William and Mary’s court.

After Mary’s death, The Distilling Act was passed in 1690 by the British parliament. It made it legal for anyone to distill, as long as they paid an excise duty to the government. “It was the beginning of the gin craze in England,” says Rivers.

Queeen Anne of England
Queen Anne / Alamy

Queen Anne (1665–1714)

In 1702, Anne succeeded William III of England (also known as William of Orange, Mary of Orange’s son), and was an enthusiastic booster of genever, and especially gin. She encouraged consumption among the British people and government ministers alike.

Anne increased gin production inadvertently when she canceled the charter that Charles I had issued to the Worshipful Company of Distillers, which granted it sole rights to distill in and around Westminster and London. Hundreds of small unlicensed distilleries sprung up. Cheap, potent gin soon flooded the market.

Ada Coleman
Ada Coleman / Alamy

Ada Coleman (1875–1966)

“Coley,” as she was known, was one of the most famous bartenders of her time. She was the first and only female lead bartender at The Savoy’s American Bar in London, a title she held from 1903–1926.

Coley was known for her cheery disposition and the many celebrities she served, from Mark Twain to Charlie Chaplin. Today, she’s also remembered as the creator of the Hanky Panky, a cocktail made with gin, sweet vermouth and a few dashes of Fernet Branca.

Dorothy Parker at a typewriter
Dorothy Parker / Alamy

Dorothy Parker (1893–1967)

The acerbic American writer, critic and satirist is best known as a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table. But she was also a gin enthusiast and an iconic connoisseur of the equally iconic martini.

There’s some debate as to whether Parker actually penned the quotable quatrain often attributed to her:

I like to have a martini

Two at the very most

After three I’m under the table

After four I’m under my host

But her indelible association with the cocktail led New York Distilling Company to honor her legacy with its Dorothy Parker American Gin, introduced in 2011 and as dry as her legendary wit.

Illustrated bottle of Hendrick's Gin
Lesley Gracie was instrumental in creating the recipe for one of the 21st century’s most popular gins, Hendrick’s / Illustration by Alan Barker

Lesley Gracie (William Grant & Sons)

Among the current generation of gin makers, Gracie is best known for crafting the recipe for Hendrick’s Gin alongside fellow master distiller John Ross in 1999. The approachable mix of cucumber and rose essences helped reinvigorate the gin category in the 2000s.

Born in Yorkshire, England, Gracie was a chemist by trade. In 1988, Gracie moved to Girvan, a small village in the southwest corner of Scotland, to join spirits conglomerate William Grant. Today, she’s one of just four people who know the specific recipe of 11 botanicals that goes into Hendrick’s.

Dr. Anne Brock appraising a glass of Bombay Sapphire gin
Dr. Anne Brock / Photo courtesy Bombay Sapphire

Dr. Anne Brock (Bombay Gin/Bacardi)

The master distiller of Laverstoke Mill distillery, which makes Bombay and Oxley gins, Brock holds a Ph.D in organic chemistry from Oxford University. In 2013, she began as a project manager for Bermondsey Distillery, which makes the Jensen’s line of gins that include an Old Tom-style that pays homage to the original 18th-century recipe in an innovative way.

Sonja Kassebaum of North Shore Distillery
Sonja Kassebaum / Photo by Cory Dewald

Sonja Kassebaum (North Shore Distillery)

There’s now a craft distillery in every state, thanks to pioneers like Kassebaum. In 2004, along with her husband, Derek, she opened North Shore, the first craft distillery in Lake Bluff, Illinois. It was the first distillery to open in the state since Prohibition.

North Shore helped clear the way for other craft producers in Illinois. There are now 20 in total, according to the Illinois Craft Distillers Association. She also provided a template for others across the nation. The distillery produces four gins that includes the flagship Distiller’s Gin No. 6, all of which are made on a still named Ethel.

Natasha Bahrami of The Gin Room and Gin World
Natasha Bahrami / Photo by Robert L. Brown

Natasha Bahrami (The Gin Room; GinWorld)

In an industry that seems saturated by whiskey festivals, Bahrami seeks to provide more gin education to the public.

She began her journey at Cafe Natasha, her family’s Persian restaurant in St. Louis, named after her. Eventually, half of the space was transformed into The Gin Room, where the spirit is highlighted. In 2015, she founded Ginworld, an online platform that spawned a festival in St. Louis, now regarded as the largest gin gathering in the U.S.

This year, there are also fests planned in Washington, D.C. and New York City. “[Bahrami] turned brand marketers on their heads because they didn’t think people would care,” says Rivers. “But she’s getting people learning and interested in gin.”

Published on February 18, 2020
Topics: Advocacy