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These Women are Changing the Face of Whiskey

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Once a man's business, women are changing the whiskey game.

Whiskey is a man's drink, and a good girl should stick to a pretty pink Cosmo at the bar, right? Thankfully, wrong. Whiskey sales have been growing at phenomenal rates for years, and one of the underlying trends supporting those numbers is the rise of the woman whiskey drinker.

Women could potentially account for 37 percent of all whiskey consumers, a figure most seem content in believing. Exact numbers may vary, but any trip to the local dram dispenser will turn up more than just men. 

"There is no gender bias to whiskey," says Erik Adkins, bar director for the Slanted Door Group, including San Francisco's whiskey bar, Hard Water. "Sometimes, the bar is just packed with young women drinking whiskey neat. At first it was totally mind blowing." What a time to be alive.

"My side of the fence, I meet women that already have love and respect for whiskey," says Lisa Wicker, distiller at Starlight Distillery in Indiana. The newly expanded operation has been producing brandy along with other assorted spirits and infusions for the last decade, and now with Wicker involved, is in the whiskey making business, too. "As for perception change, so many walls have fallen in terms of race, gender and orientation I guess it's just happening organically. Sippin' whiskey is certainly not a gender specific pastime in Kentucky!"

It's not just that women are drinking more whiskey, though. Brands are certainly taking notice. Mila Kunis is in Jim Beam commercials; Christina Hendricks has been a spokesperson for Johnnie Walker; Claire Forlani starred in Dewar's advertisements. All actresses are noted whiskey drinkers.

It might be easy to write that off as merely sex sells, and business as usual. However, the apparent shared theme isn't that these women will like men who drink this whiskey; it's that men can drink whiskey with women like these who enjoy the spirit as much as they do. A subtle difference perhaps, but a change.

Women Make Whiskey, Too

Far more substantial though is that women today are heavily involved across all facets of the whiskey industry. A very brief foray includes higher ups in the business realm, such as Maker's Mark VP of Operations Victoria MacRae-Samuels, Michter's VP of Production Pamela Heilmann, and Douglas Laing & Co's Director of Whisky Cara Laing; Master Blenders helping to formulate well-loved flavors and profiles, such as Morrison Bowmore's Rachel Barrie and Dewar's Stephanie Macleod; and even prominent voices, such as one Eater readers may recognize, Heather Greene.

Then there are distillers, like Marianne Barnes, Kentucky's first female Master Distiller, who's now helming the rejuvenated Old Taylor Distillery for an as-of-yet unnamed spirits line. Her career is the direct result of a background and interest in another predominantly male field, chemical engineering.

"To give you an idea, in my class of 50 or so there were about 12 women," she explains. "In these science and technology fields, it's still skewed towards men, so going into the workforce in the first place there's just more men going after those jobs."

L: Marianne Barnes, R: Old Taylor Distillery/ Photos by Julie Cauthen

While still in college, Barnes took an internship at Brown-Forman, the company which houses brands such as Jack Daniel's, Woodford Reserve and Old Forester. "I spent my first two and a half years at Brown-Forman just learning everything about what goes into making whiskey," she explains.

From there, she was involved with production and R&D, and also began working on sensory panels, advisory teams who gauge taste consistency with potential product refinements and tweaks, while also quality controlling new and mature spirits and final blends. Advancing from the larger consumer panel to the expert panel, Barnes learned directly under Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris and, barely four years after beginning her internship, she was named Master Taster for Woodford Reserve and Old Forester. Barnes was on the road to becoming a Master Distiller at Brown-Forman, but opportunity came knocking elsewhere.

For Becky Harris, co-owner and Chief Distiller of Virginia's Catoctin Creek, a similar background with Barnes led to a shared a profession. Harris worked as a chemical engineer for two decades before founding Catoctin Creek with her husband Scott in 2009. "The reason I [became the distiller] was because I was the one who was best suited to do it in our personal situation," she explains. "Maybe that's what it really talks to, is that women are starting to become the most qualified to do it, and that's a good thing. Being interested in a field, and saying this is the field where I feel like I fit."

Particularly given the shared backgrounds, it's no surprise that Barnes agrees here. "I think that in every industry women are having more opportunities," she says. "You're seeing more women interested in getting involved in different things science and technology-related, and engineering and manufacturing."

"We have stinking good palates and good whiskey has lots going on, it's a perfect match." - Lisa Wicker, Starlight Distillery

In addition to more women entering the workforce with backgrounds that apply to industries such as whiskey production, it doesn't hurt that women also have superior palates to men. "Brown-Forman's sensory science department is all females actually," says Barnes. "It's interesting to know that women have a better sense of taste scientifically." In fact, there is indeed scientific research supporting that women have a superior sense of smell and taste. Wicker puts it more simply, "We have stinking good palates and good whiskey has lots going on, it's a perfect match."

Is the Old Boys Club a Myth?

Ironically, across a pre-Industrial Revolution America, women were formerly household distillers, back when it was considered merely another female duty. "It was a big chore, making all the spirits and whiskey and cider and all of this stuff they did, that was one of their jobs," explains Harris. "Then guys decided that this was this 'craft' that only men do, and women were gone." 

Things have come full circle since then, and the perception of the old boys club of whiskey may lie more in the minds of the public at large, as opposed to those in the industry.

"I think everyone would agree it's been a fraternity for a long time. But you know, the consumer of bourbon is changing, too. I think it's a function of time. It's just the right time. In my opinion, it's about time," says Barnes.

It may be about time, but that doesn't mean that Barnes feels she faced an unduly difficult road. "Personally, I haven't had a lot of barriers in the industry," she states. "Brown-Forman is an amazing company, and I had an amazing opportunity there. I think it's a function of being really fortunate to have worked for a company who focuses so heavily on diversity, and making sure that the most qualified person is where he or she should be."

Brenne whisky barrels courtesy of Local Infusions

Barnes recognizes the importance of being the first female Kentucky Master Distiller, and hopes that as she's bringing a new face to the industry, she's also encouraging other women to get involved. Irregardless, she views herself less as trailblazer and more as simply career-focused. "Was it a big deal for me? It wasn't part of the reason why I chose to make the career move," she explains. "It was a great opportunity for anybody, even if they had gone for a male or some other young up and comer, it would have been just as of amazing a project, coming to a historic distillery which had fallen close to death and we're bringing it back to life."

Harris has seen firsthand how much perception has changed overall in a predominantly male workforce. "I'm 48 years old and I've worked in engineering for some 20 years so things are much better than they used to be," she says. "The silliest thing is when I drive a forklift, and somebody says, 'a woman driving a forklift!' and I go heck yeah I drive a forklift! But those things are just silly. It's nothing that speaks to the product or anything else as far as that goes, I've never heard any brush back about that."

"Truly, the industry has welcomed me beautifully. I've never felt shunned because of my gender." -Allison Patel, Brenne

For Wicker, she believes that if anything, she has been embraced by the community. "I think the novelty has worn off ... It's a tight knit community and everyone has been welcoming in the production part. Ultimately, I love what I do and am committed to making excellent whiskey. I think that's everyone's bottom line."

As the founder of her own company, Brenne, which produces French single malt whisky finished in Cognac barrels, Allison Patel never had to worry about internal company politics or glass ceilings. "Seeing that I am the owner, I think I've been able to help break this mold in a very different way," she says. "I personally have faced not many challenges. Truly, the industry has welcomed me beautifully. I've never felt shunned because of my gender."

The Gateway Whiskey

The old boys club myth seems to be busted, but one negative perception which does remain is that even as women are recognized for drinking more whiskey, there’s a belief that they stick mainly to flavored, sweet whiskey liqueurs, as opposed to the good stuff. "I know that it's there and I hope it goes away," confirms Patel. "I hate that one."

Yet, for both men and women alike, those flavored offerings often serve as gateway whiskeys, eventually encouraging people to explore a greater range and superior products.

"Thankfully there is flavored stuff, I got my foot in the door creating flavored stuff," says Wicker. "Everyone should drink what they like, and if we spend too much time trying to transition those drinkers to 'serious' whiskey, we will have even more difficulty finding and drinking what we like."

While Barnes jokes she won't be making any such flavored whiskeys herself, she also recognizes their place. "I never discourage anybody from trying something new," she says.

"Maybe someone starts with a honey flavored whiskey, and that leads them into making a honey flavored bourbon cocktail," Barnes offers, describing a common step-by-step approach to exploring any new taste. "Your palate gets used to it and maybe you go to some tastings, and you get to try it neat and you try something that you really like. With any spirit, if you try a really great brand, and you enjoy it, it opens your palate up to appreciating everything else."

That's more or less how Patel not only started to drink whiskey, but how she went on to form her own company. After lightly experimenting with whiskey a few times, sampling sips from her husband but never much enjoying it, she had one revelatory moment.

A pour of Yamazaki 18 literally changed her life. "I took one sniff and I joke that I never gave him his glass back again," she says. "I was hooked." The passion turned into the pursuit of knowledge, the thirst for more, the desire for better, and eventually, Brenne. She is the woman whiskey drinker turned woman whiskey industry influencer personified.

She too encourages anyone, and particularly women, to simply get out there and try more. "There's a learning curve like there is with coffee and wine," she says. "You have to give it a little time, learning about it, understanding it, and trying a wide variety, to see if it's something that's really of interest to you."

And fellas, in case there's any confusion, women drinking more whiskey should be welcomed. "I don't think men are against having more female whiskey drinking companions," jokes Patel.

Maybe there's a bit less space at the bar with all of these new whiskey drinkers, but that sounds like a good problem. More importantly, with an ever-increasing number of women like the ones here to not only drink with, but who are also working behind the scenes to ensure that everyone is drinking well, the whiskey industry as a whole is looking at a very bright future.

Photo of Allison Patel courtesy of Local Infusions


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