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Women in Whisky

When Helen Cumming strapped bladders of whisky underneath her hooped skirts and began walking the 20 miles from her home to Elgin to sell her wares, one can assume she didn’t stop to think about her role as a woman in the whisky industry.

Indeed, Helen’s Cardhu whisky was so prized that her illegal spirit would sell out as soon as she arrived in the nearest local town to her Speyside farm distillery, regardless of her gender.

But fast forward more than 200 years and society is still speaking about women in the whisky industry as if they are a new contributor to its creation.

In September this year, controversy broke out in this age old industry when whisky writer Becky Paskin spoke out about its inherent sexism, citing the writings of famed scribe Jim Murray as being both sexist and vulgar. What emerged from this tweet – for it broke on social media – was a tsunami of voices of women across the whisky industry who had faced innumerable instances of harassment, sexism, exclusion and sometimes worse in their bid to do their jobs as whisky ambassadors, writers, distillers, technicians, marketing specialists and more. Many were shocked to learn that such opinions and experiences are still so commonplace in the year 2020 and the industry as a whole vowed that the whisky’s ‘Me Too’ moment would not get swept under the carpet.

So how have women contributed to the evolution of whisky? And how are some of today’s leading females changing the rhetoric?

To understand the history, one must rewind far back in time. Scholars generally agree that it was women who, in Egyptian times, were doing the first experimentations with distilling. Perfumery was the focus but that experimentation laid the foundations of knowledge that we use to this day in distillation.

By medieval times, many women worked as brewsters – as females who made beer were known. It wasn’t until the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries that this tradition stalled. A quick and sure fire way to accuse a woman of being a witch was to say that she gave you something that made you feel funny – almost certainly caused by the alcohol – and the majority of women were persecuted to the point of abandoning working in this space.

Which leads us to Helen Cumming, wandering the long, lonely road to Elgin two centuries ago. Helen was famous in the valley not only for her whisky creations but also for her incredible ability to outwit the local gaugers – taxmen – who were continuously in pursuit of illegal distillers. The area in which she lived – Speyside – was by far the most well populated with people secretly distilling because of the number of valleys and hills in which they could hide. Helen, however, had no need to hide. Her husband John was a farmer and while he would toll away in the fields, she would use any excess barley to make whisky in a shed behind the house. But she disguised her operations so well, that she was famed in the valley for inviting tired and forlorn taxmen into her home for a cup of tea, even an overnight rest, leaving them none the wiser to her operations. While they would be soothed by her hospitality, she would raise a red flag – often red coloured laundry – up on her laundry line, so that young boys, who worked as messengers in the valley to alert people to the whereabouts of the taxmen, would have time to spread the news that the gaugers were coming. It led her to have an enormous amount of respect and even after she went legal with a licence in 1824, she continued to see a great amount of success.

Ann Miller, founder of whisky events and training company Dram Queen and longtime whisky illuminati through her roles as global ambassador for Chivas Regal and at Edinburgh’s Scotch Whisky Experience, says that Helen was one of the women who truly inspired her. “I was always impressed by [her] story at Cardhu, close to where I live today. However, I was particularly interested to learn that she was probably not alone as it was often women who distilled at their domestic hearths across Speyside and beyond, but sadly their names are no longer known.”

Cumming laid the foundations for her daughter in law Elizabeth to take over and it was Elizabeth who took on an ambitious plan of expanding the Cardhu distillery substantially in the late 1880s, doubling its output. The old stills were sold to another local man – William Grant – who would use them to build Glenfiddich, one of the world’s largest and most awarded distilleries today. Then in 1893, Elizabeth sold Cardhu to John Walker & Sons – on the condition that her family remain a firm part of running the distillery – which led to one of the world’s most famous blending houses becoming a distillery owner. Cardhu is still a key malt in all of their blends to this day.

Fast forward to the 1950s: post-war Britain was slowly recovering and Scotch was growing in favour globally. For Bessie Williamson – then head of Laphroaig – this meant opportunities abroad for the intense Islay malt whisky. Bessie had arrived on Islay in 1932 to become secretary to Laphroaig’s owner Ian Hunter. When Ian had a stroke in the late 1930s, it was Bessie who took over sales operations to markets like the US and she focused on growing the business until she inherited the distillery upon his death in 1954, becoming the only female to run a Scotch distillery at the time. Her work helped to put single malt Scotch whisky on the global market, opening up the pathway for many other brands to successfully follow suit.

But it wasn’t only in Scotland where women were having an impact on whisky making. In 1920s Japan it was Masataka Taketsuru’s Scottish wife Rita who helped the couple find success with his Nikka whisky company. Masataka had studied distilling in Scotland – where he also met and married Rita, a hugely controversial move at the time – and when he returned to his homeland in 1920 she was by his side as he set about working with Kotobukiya Company (Suntory) to set up the first whisky distillery in Japan, Yamazaki. However, Masataka’s dream was to build his own distillery, and it was Rita who supported his dreams by working as an English teacher and piano instructor to help them financially. She became known as the ‘Mother of Japanese whisky’ due to her staunch support for Masataka not only as he started the distillery but especially during the war years when many people turned against them for fear she was a British spy.

Today, women are an integral part of the whisky industry and while there are challenges, the overarching feeling is one of staunch dedication to changing any outdated rhetoric while continuing to open up the industry to a wider audience.

“When I was just beginning to fall in love with whisky, there were countless people who scoffed at me and made me feel unwelcome. These were people who never truly loved the spirit, they simply enjoyed the status it represented in their communities,” says Tracie Franklin, who is currently on the leadership acceleration programme with leading new US whiskey distillery Uncle Nearest.

Franklin, who was named US Whisky Ambassador of the Year by Whisky Magazine when working as the US East Coast Glenfiddich Ambassador, said that those people only pushed her to work for change. “I knew the men and women who truly loved the whisky, the history, the flavours, and  the camaraderie and they opened their arms to all curious imbibers,” she continues. “I promised I would do whatever I could to help build a whisk(e)y community that radiates this level of inclusiveness. It was time to destroy all rules and customs used for gatekeeping and put a new face in the leather chair.”

Marianne Eaves, whisky consultant and previously the first female master distiller in Kentucky since Prohibition during her time at Castle & Key, says despite the challenges she’s faced, she would still tell her younger self that, when questioned by doubters, the only route is to move forward. “The negativity that tends to find me from people who can’t possibly understand the depth of knowledge I’ve gained or the work I’ve put in over the course of my career has become inconsequential background noise, and I am so proud of the growth I have experienced because of the challenges I’ve faced. I stay in the industry because I still love everything about it, I want to be in production, I want to get covered in grain dust and create new things and be inspired by others and continue to grow myself and our industry. I know there is much more to come for our industry, I can see it, and that is what drives me ahead.”

Both Tracie and Marianne can easily name myriad current day whisky women who have inspired them on their journeys, and feel there is a bright future ahead, as Ann concludes.

“I have always felt it was important, for the sake of all women who enjoy Scotch whisky, to challenge these stereotypes with undeniable expertise and professionalism and of course to continue to enjoy drinking whisky. I’m delighted that there are so many more opportunities for women throughout the industry today in production, marketing and communications. I hope they get the chance to develop the careers they deserve in an environment which encourages them to make their mark.”

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