The Women Behind Your Favorite Spirits
Once a male-dominated industry, liquor making is attracting a growing number of women who are innovatively creating, distilling, blending and managing. It all started when a small but influential group of ladies rose to key positions in the 1990s and early 2000s. That group has expanded significantly in the last few years, particularly as interest in artisan distilling has grown.
“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,” says Maggie Campbell, head distiller at Ipswich, MA-based Privateer Rum.
“We want to inspire the next generation of great distillers, whoever they happen to be.”
The four notable women we celebrate here are far from the only ones out there. Other notables on the radar screen 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; Nicole Austin, master blender at Brooklyn’s Kings County Distillery and Laura Dierks, managing partner at Brooklyn’s Van Brunt Stillhouse.
And groups like LOAD (Ladies of American Distilleries) share knowledge and continue to create community.
In honor of Women’s History Month, read on to see who is making the spirits you sip and love.
Jamaican-born Joy Spence says her journey toward becoming the world’s first Master Blender began when she was a mere 13 years old, and a beloved chemistry 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 the University of Loughborough.
After graduation, Spence returned to Jamaica and lectured at the College of Arts Science and 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 couldn’t help but notice the furor of activity at adjacent Appleton Estates.
“I used to sit and look across the fence,” she recalls. “I would think, ‘oh my gosh, so many tankers rolling in and in and out—that place seems very interesting.’ So I sent in my resume.” Spence was hired as Chief Chemist in 1981, working closely with then-Master Blender Owen Tulloch. She assumed the role 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 standards of existing products) as well as marketing, including traveling around the world to promote the Appleton Estate brand.
Now, she notes with satisfaction, “my job is complex and I definitely do not get bored.”
Sip It: Appleton Estate Reserve; $27
Like spice cake in a glass, this light, silky rum is scented with toffee and allspice. It features notes of brown sugar, vanilla and baking spice on the gentle palate.
The only woman profiled here 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. However, limited-edition flavored seasonal rums sometimes can be spotted on shelves in the New York area.
“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, there’s always the distillery’s tasting room, where Prohibition-era photos and the chandelier’s yellow glow evoke a dimly lit speakeasy vibe for afternoon tours and tastings.
Sip It: Owney’s NYC Rum; $35
This crisp, appealing white rum lends itself to mixing up daiquiris, Papa Dobles and other cocktails.
“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.”
It was only a matter of time before Barrie would begin to work in the Scotch whisky industry.
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, she recalls—a skill that would come in handy later in her career for nosing whiskies.
After a stint at Macdonald & Muir (a whisky distillery now part of Glenmorangie) as the Quality Lab Manager, she went on to work with Glenmorangie, where she first took on the title of Master Blender in 2003.
In late 2011, she moved on to Morrison Bowmore, also as Master Blender, her current role. In addition to overseeing releases of smoky, broody Bowmore, she also works on Glen Garioch and Auchentoshan single malt Scotch whisky bottlings.
Today, 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.
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.
Sip It: Auchentoshan American Oak; $40
Launched in May 2014, this Scotch is matured only in former bourbon casks, which are made from American oak, hence the name. Lightly smoky at first, this soft and light whiskey finishes with vanilla, coconut and citrus.
This up-and-coming young distiller says she became enchanted by the alchemy of wine and spirits with her first dram in Scotland’s Oban whiskey distillery. As soon as she completed her degree in philosophy at the University of Colorado, she immersed herself in the beverage world by completing the Wine and Spirits Education Trust Level IV Diploma and attending Chicago’s Sieble Institute’s course on Craft Distillation and Technology.
Since then, Campbell has worked with some of the best in the business, counting as her mentors Todd Leopold (of Leopold Bros), Dave Pickerell (formerly of Maker’s Mark, now a consultant), and Hubert Germain-Robin of brandy-maker Germain-Robin, where Campbell previously served as assistant distiller.
Jumping to then-startup Privateer in 2012, Campbell has overseen creation of an eau-de-vie inspired white rum and luscious aged amber rum, both made with American-grown sugar cane. Quietly, Privateer has also started producing “Gin Rummy” small-batch gins, also made with a sugar cane base. The latest variation, debuting in spring 2015, is made with “tiki-inspired” botanicals such as grapefruit peel and cinnamon. (The owner of a well-known tiki bar has already raised his hand and offered to buy out the entire run of 800 bottles.)
Next up: a partnership with Boston sommelier Kate Webber, to roll out a “Queen’s Style Rum”—a richer, more full-bodied style of rum modeled after the rum once made in the colonies and sent back for the royal family’s use. It’s rare to find, and can only be made in small quantities in a labor-intensive process, one barrel at a time. The batch being released this spring has been aging for nearly three years.
“There’s so much crossover between wine and spirits,” Campbell enthuses. “So it’s great to have a wine buyer and sommelier be as excited about spirits as I am.”
The “Queen’s Style Rum” will launch at Webber’s Burlington, Massachusetts restaurant, The Bancroft, where it will also be mixed into a traditional Boston Hub Punch. In 2017, Campbell and Webber plan to expand to New York, San Francisco and Chicago with allocated releases.
Enticingly delicate floral and raspberry notes wind into a clean finish with a pop of cinnamon that’s soft and fresh.
- 1Joy Spence | Master Blender, Appleton Estate Rum, Jamaica
- 2Bridget Firtle | Owner/Distiller, The Noble Experiment, Brooklyn, NY
- 3Rachel Barrie | Master Blender, Morrison Bowmore, Scotland
- 4Maggie Campbell | Head Distiller, Privateer Rum, Ipswich, MA