For a long time Scotch whisky was seen as a man's drink. Today more and more women enjoy whisky. According to Forbes magazine 27% of whiskey consumed in the US is drunk by women. Some recent experiments suggest that women have better noses for nosing whisky, wine and other drinks.
With these findings in mind, drinks companies around the globe have started to get more and more women involved in their operations. Scotch whisky distilleries are no exception.
On International Women's Day we celebrate three women who have changed the whisky industry and left a long lasting legacy. Their involvement in the industry is not new at all.
Helen Cumming and Elizabeth Cumming
Helen is rumoured to have been the first recorded female distiller in Scotland. Mrs. Cumming ran Cardhu distillery before a license was acquired to distill alcohol. She also sold the liquid to passers-by from her window. The distillery operated successfully during her tenure and was then passed to Elizabeth Cumming (her daughter-in-law). Cardhu distillery grew under Elizabeth's tenure to the point that it tripled its production capacity. The spirit was so good that blenders couldn't get enough of it. Up until today is an important component of the Johnnie Walker blends.
If Helen Cumming was the first recorded female distiller, Margaret Nicol was the first distillery manager. Glenburgie distillery was going through a difficult period during the inter-war years. It had gone through periods of closure in the late 19th century and it suffered massively during the Pattison crisis (1898) and WWI. Somehow it managed to stay open but once the prohibition became law in the US the whisky industry was shocked. Glenburgie distillery closed down in 1925 and many thought that would be the end of it.
A solicitor from Elgin acquired the distillery and promptly sold it to George Ballantine & Son. Under the ownership of this company Margaret Nicol was appointed as distillery manager. Margaret wasted no time and started to work on her new challenge. Under her leadership the distillery was refurbished and doubled its production capacity. The malting floors were decommissioned and the malt was sourced cheaper from a dedicated facility. Not afraid of innovation, she introduced two Lomond Stills and produced a whisky called 'Glen Craig'. She retired in 1958.
A native Glaswegian who was training to become a teacher and who became the only woman in the 20th century to manage and own a distillery. It was during a holiday to Islay in 1934 that she learned of a typist vacancy at Laphroaig distillery. She got the job and moved to Islay. Ian Hunter the owner of the distillery at the time was known for his temper. He however became Bessie's mentor and she became his most trusted employee. Mr. Hunter suffered a stroke in 1938 and was left confined to a wheelchair. When that happened Bessie took charge of the distillery.
When WWII started Laphroaig was requisitioned by the government. The distillery was used as barracks and arms depot until 1944. After the war Ian Hunter appointed Bessie as Company Secretary with a small shareholding. In 1954 when Mr. Hunter died he left money to long serving distillery workers in his testament. Bessie Williamson inherited the isle of Texa, Ardenistiel House and Laphroaig distillery. That's how she became Scotland's only female distillery owner.
Shrewd business lady, she entrusted the distilling operations to the usual team. This cemented her position and earned the respect of her employees and the community. Under her ownership the distillery grew in production capacity and sales. By the 1960's she complained that the demand was too great for the distillery's capacity. She eventually sold shares in the company to blenders D Johnston & Co. Ltd. in order to rise funds to modernise Laphroaig and boost its production capacity. She oversaw the modernisation of the distillery and retired in 1972.
Whisky sold to blenders and independent bottlers by Laphroaig distillery is often called 'Williamson'.
Women in whisky now
The role of women in today's whisky industry has increased massively. Master blenders and master distillers aren't titles that belong to men only. The following list includes female master blenders:
-Kirsteen Campbell, Master Blender at Cutty Sark and Famous Grouse.
-Rachel Barrie, Master Blender for Benriach, Glendronach and Glenglassaugh.
-Stephanie Macleod, Master Blender for John Dewar & Sons.
-Dr. Kirstie McCallum, Master Blender for Burn Stewart.
-Heather Nelson, founder of Toulvaddie distillery. When operational, it will be Scotland's first distillery to have been founded by a woman.