The Secret History of Women Distillers | VinePair

The Secret History of Women Distillers

5 minute Read


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Women are making strides in the spirit world, but the vibe is still overwhelmingly macho. ‘Twasn’t always thus. It’s not that there weren’t some serious roadblocks thrown up against distilling women, like when 50,000 of them were burned at the stake in the 1500s (more on that later). But before the Industrial Revolution belched its giant smog cloud over the Earth, women were distilling much of the spirits being consumed. And if you look at distilling through the lens that most (male) historians and academics do, it makes sense: Distilling stuff is essentially “women’s work.” You have to follow a recipe, it takes a long, boring time where not much happens, and it can be done at home. Basic distilling is a back-burner type of operation that can be quickly monitored between runs out to the barn to milk cows, as shrieking children use your apron strings to turn you into a living maypole and hubby hollers at you to bring him a sandwich.

The Industrial Revolution (roughly 1760-1840) transformed the perception of artisanal, handcrafted foods and drink. It turned what used to be the norm (hand-churned butter, home-distilled hooch) into an embarrassing rural activity. Enter the clean, gleaming, fully mechanized city dream, where cranking out booze became a man’s job. It wasn’t until 1987 that a ban on advertising to women was lifted by the liquor industry.

These days, the world of distilling is still dominated by men (the fact that Hillary Clinton likes and can hold her liquor notwithstanding), but it used to be just the opposite. So let’s raise a glass to all the ladies, some famous, most not, who kept the booze flowing through good times and bad.

First Lady of Hooch

Mary the Jewess, a.k.a Maria the Jewess, Mary the Prophetess, or Miriam, truly is the First Lady of Hooch. Many of the details of Mary’s life have been lost to history, but thanks to the 4th century Gnostic Christian writer Zosimos of Panopolis, who wrote about Mary’s groundbreaking work in Peri kaminon kai organon (On Furnaces and Apparatuses), we can be confident that she essentially invented the still. Mary lived around 200 CE and has been credited with the invention of several chemical instruments, one of which is the tribikos (a type of alembic still). The goal of her early still was non-boozy: Mary was attempting to master the art of making gold from base metals. She is considered to be the Western world’s first true alchemist, and today, while we aren’t trying to turn lead into precious gold, her work helps us turn base materials like corn and water into… whiskey! A model of her device is still used in some parts of Europe to make brandy and whiskey. It’s used in America, too, often to make moonshine.

Anonymous Spirit Drudges

While Mary was widely respected and lauded by her contemporaries, most women who made moonshine back in the day were completely anonymous. For a contemporary observer to take note of women who distilled alcohol at home would be analogous to drawing attention to women who pack lunches for their school-aged children today. It’s just what was done, man. Men and women in Alexandria made and consumed some form of distilled hooch from the second century B.C. and there is even evidence of liquor being made from rice and horse milk in Asia circa 800 B.C. By the medieval era in Europe, women were distilling spirits for fun and medicinal purposes at home.

The Deadly Witch Panic

Women’s ability to pursue an education and the right to kick back with an inch or two of tawny at the end of the day were slowly eroded during the medieval period, although their relative freedom varied region by region and was often dependent on their social standing. But whether women could openly distill spirits or not, it was happening; by the 1200s, there are public records of women running apothecaries featuring homemade distilled spirits for medicinal purposes. Flash forward a few hundred years to the infamous witch panic. From 1500 to 1660, between 50,000 and 80,000 women distillers were burned at the stake, charged with practicing sorcery. A vial of spirits found on a woman could be used as evidence. In addition to killing thousands of innocent women, the witch panic extinguished a spirits-making cottage industry. And then the Industrial Revolution came and danced on the artisanal spirits’ grave.

American Hooch From the Hearth & the Streets

Americans, many of whom arrived from Europe with distilling know-how, were quick to unpack those recipes Stateside. By the time the 1700s rolled around, making spirits at home was de rigueur for American women. According to Fred Minnick, author of “Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey (Potomac Books, 2013), when men advertised for wives in newspapers (ah, those innocent pre-Tinder days), the ability to distill beer or spirits was often cited as a requirement. Spirits were also associated with the demimonde, those parts of the social landscape to which men fled to escape their hearths. Prostitutes made and sold whiskey, often at a serious markup. In the 1850s, women made roughly $2 million on their booze sales, compared to $3 million on their sex sales in New York City, according to Minnick’s research.

Spirited Betty Crocker

If Mary the Jewess helped create still technology, Catherine Spears Frye Carpenter is credited with the first recipe for sour mash, a key component of whiskey. In 1818, the Catherine Carpenter Distillery produced the first known recipe for sour mash. The sour-mash fermentation process involves a distiller adding about a quarter of an already fermented mash to a new mash set for fermentation. The process prevents bacterial contaminations and the development of wild yeast, thereby ensuring a consistent final product. A man by the name of James C. Crow went on to industrialize Catherine’s method, and it’s used worldwide today.

Bootlegging Bad Girls

While male bootleggers like Al Capone and the “Real” Bill McCoy dominate much of the Prohibition-era bootlegging coverage, there were some key dames who kept the hooch flowing when the long, dry national nightmare of Prohibition (1920-33) was in effect. First of all, it was illegal in many states for male officers to search women, and even if it wasn’t legal, convention frowned upon it. Booze-smuggling gangs took note, hiring women for ride-alongs to reduce the risk of search and seizure. Others carved out their own terrain. The most famous of these was Gertrude “Cleo” Lythgoe (she was a stenographer for a British liquor importer pre-Prohibition so she had a background in the industry) who set up a legal wholesale shop on Market Street in Nassau in the Bahamas. Known as the Queen of the Bahamas, she also ran bootlegged spirits to the States. She was arrested on numerous occasions but never convicted, and garnered a rep for her whip-smart business acumen, her beauty, and her temper (she once allegedly threatened to shoot a man for talking smack about booze). She retired from the business in 1925, and when she died in Los Angeles at 86 in 1974, Nassau flags allegedly flew at half-staff to honor the Queen.

Today

In the footsteps of those first brilliant inventors, anonymous plodders, and mold-breaking brassy dames, there are some amazing ladies who are (re)taking their rightful place at the still. Heather Bass at Rabbit Hole Distilling, Marianne Barnes at Castle & Key, and Hannah Lowen at New Riff Distilling are just a few of them.

For now, the spirits world is still a boys club. But female consumption is rising. Currently, about 37 percent of whiskey drinkers in America are women. There are more and more women running distilling operations, and celebs like Mila Kunis and Christina Hendricks are shilling for major brands (Jim Beam and Johnnie Walker, respectively). It looks like change is nigh.

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