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Book details role women played in saving whiskey

12/18/2013 1:34 PM

12/18/2013 1:36 PM

Late into a dinner party decades ago, my host brought out a bottle of Laphroaig single malt.

He poured generous measures for the male guests, but passed over my glass with the assumption that girls don’t like whiskey. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Women not only enjoy whiskey in all its forms, they were essential to its very creation, survival and current popularity.

Don’t believe me? Then just turn to the excellent

Whiskey Women: the Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey

.

“This book gives credit to the women who perfected the recipes we enjoy today and helped build iconic brands worth billions of dollars,” writes

Fred Minnick, whom I met during the Kentucky Bourbon Festival

a few years back. “They may not have a whiskey named after them, but the world of whiskey owes them a debt of gratitude.”

It’s a thousands-year-old debt, according to Minnick, whose book begins with the ancient Sumerian and Egyptian women who made beer and those from Mesopotamia who may have invented distillation. He goes on to describe the skill of women brewers and distillers through the ages and chronicles the threats they often faced from witch hunters (evidence of either activity was enough to get countless women burned at the stake), governments and tax collectors.

Despite it all, women continued distilling through the 18th and 19th centuries. Some, like Ellen Jane Corrigan of Bushmills and Elizabeth Cumming of what is now Johnnie Walker, built whiskies that remain powerhouses today. Women remained a force in the twentieth century, taking their place alongside men at cooperages, on bottling lines and in other roles long before feminists began agitating for equality.

Their influence has remained largely invisible, though. To correct that, Minnick profiles women including Marge Samuels, who created the name and iconic packaging for her family’s Maker’s Mark bourbon, and Elizabeth Leitch “Bessie” Williamson, who safeguarded Laphroaig’s operations during World War II and, as Minnick puts it, “elevated single malt’s status in America.”

While the 1970s and 1980s were what Minnick calls lost decades, that soon changed. The 1990s were “the most prominent growth decade for women in whiskey at all levels,” he writes. Examples include Rachel Barrie of Bowmore and Bushmills’s Helen Mulholland, who emerged as master distillers and were followed by a host of others in the 2000s. The flavors of Mackmyra, Dewar’s, Bell’s, Lark, Heaven Hill and Jack Daniels are all now determined by female palates.

Today, women oversee marketing and public relations functions, maintain distillery archives, write books, manage events like

WhiskeyFest and spearhead organizations including Bourbon Women. Some, like Kris Hennessy of Lenexa-based Dark Horse Distillery

, have even launched their own companies. Others serve as brand managers, senior operations and financial executives, chief executive officers and board chairs of international beverage companies.

“Women are no longer novelties to the whiskey boardrooms,” Minnick writes. “They run too many of these companies to be considered gimmicks.”

Neither is Minnick’s book a gimmick. It’s as entertaining as it is meticulously researched — substantial footnotes and a 5-1/2-page bibliography give testament to that. While there are plenty of tales of brothel boat owners and bootlegging queens, Minnick’s book is devoid of clichés. And why would he need them? The real history of women in whiskey is fascinating enough, and I’m glad someone has finally told the tale.

What to drink while you read

Women are increasingly influencing the whiskey in our glasses, so why not fill yours with one of theirs? Try a bourbon or rye from Lenexa’s Dark Horse Distillery, which was launched by Kris Hennessy, or go with one of Fred Minnick’s recommendations:

Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon

— Marge Samuels created this brand’s name and its instantly recognizable wax-sealed bottle

Bushmills Irish Whiskey — Ellen Jane Corrigan owned Bushmills during the 1800s, what Minnick calls one of its greatest growth periods

Laphoaig Single Malt Whisky — “Bessie Williamson is hands down the First Lady of Scotch,” Minnick told me via email. “She transformed the brand and boosted the industry in so many ways.”

Anne Brockhoff is an award-winning spirits writer who writes a monthly column for The Star’s Food section, as well as food features. She blogs at food_drink_ life.wordpress.com .

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