Until just a few years ago, definitely a decade or less, encountering a plethora of women in the whiskey industry and at whiskey events was about as common as finding a Saola in the wild. In other words, it was rare. And so the seemingly sudden proliferation of women getting involved in the field has drawn attention.
Article after article proclaiming “truths” about women and whiskey and their accomplishments abound. Some even go so far as to pigeonhole them, which is a shame, because the women who populate the world of whiskey alongside their male counterparts, whether in production, education, or sales, are as vastly different from one another as the men are. And so it’s time to put that women in whiskey myth to bed.
There are real tangible reasons for why until recently, there weren’t that many females with high profiles in the whiskey industry (and we’re talking about women who don’t carry the last name Shapira, Samuels, Noe, Beam and any of the other storied families of whiskey). These reasons include numbers, education and exposure. Just as recently as ten or so years ago being taken seriously as a chef or a bartender was a bit of a stretch. The possibilities in the whiskey industry were also unknown.
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Allison Patel, a former ballerina who became the owner and founder of the award winning Brenne Whisky, started her spirits career by filling a niche that didn’t exist. She explains, “I originally wanted to start an import company, importing from non-traditional countries. I had done some international travel and had liked whiskies at the time, but had really fallen in love with Japanese whiskies, back in the early 2000s when nobody was talking about them in the U.S. When I was exploring the very few international world whiskies that were out there to possibly import, I remember the people introducing them to me by telling me with pride ‘you can’t tell the difference between what you are tasting and the category of Scotch’ and so it refined my thinking from simply importing non-traditional to importing non-traditional with an influence of terroir. Then, when I couldn’t find that I thought, forget it, I’m starting a whiskey born of nontraditional terroir.”
That out of the box thinking put Allison and Brenne on the map for her new approach, which isn’t all that she was looking for – although visibility is key when trying to sell a brand. She also did it to satisfy the need and be innovative. She continues, “When you look at innovation – you have to ask yourself the crucial question that’s at the crux of it all: is it a bad idea or has nobody had the guts to try it?”
Having the guts to try on a career isn’t limited to the spirits industry. Patel remarks, ” I do keep my ears to the ground by watching women in tech. I think they’re facing a similar question and answer. I think whenever you have an industry boom – and we can go back and look at the data – the men go in first and women come along second.”
Spirits expert Heather Greene, who describes herself as having been in hospitality”since most mixologists were in elementary school”, notes, “When I was first doing my whiskey events there were all men in attendance. In general 10 years ago I am sure I was the only woman anywhere. There was nobody under 40. So, here I was, I was super young and a woman. And that meant I had to hit the ball a lot harder to be where I am, make more noise and kick open a lot of doors. And, at the beginning of every presentation, I had to spend a good 10 minutes proving myself.”
She continues, “When people use the term women in whiskey – well, there are a lot of different kinds of women. That ‘women in whiskey’ statement assumes there’s one kind of woman. There isn’t. Each woman comes to the proverbial table with a different perspective on how her background and culture approaches drinking. These aren’t the same people coming from the same places. For example, women in the south and whiskey? It’s a whole different thing. There are some women in their own families or cultures where this is a big deal.”
Not only are they not in the same place, but even if they were, women in whiskey all took very different paths to get there. Danielle Eddy, a spirits industry professional/educator and PR advisor who’s career spans from representing big brands to boutiques, as well as banging the American whiskey drum and educating on spirits on behalf of DISCUS (Distilled Spirits Council of the United States), shares her thoughts on why there are fewer women than men in the field,” I don’t think we knew it as a choice when we went to school. I don’t think any of us intended to get into the spirits business; it wasn’t until recently that this was a course of study. Think about it, when you were 18 and declaring your major you weren’t looking through a catalogue and saying’ I want to get into whiskey.'”
This is an industry that’s evolved. And for many women now in their 30s and 40s it wasn’t a clear career path they ran to. Eddy notes, “What keeps the numbers down is the fact that you picked a major based on what you were good at, liked to do and you were really thinking ‘how can I get a paycheck?’; you didn’t go in knowing that a career in whiskey was even an option, or that you could take any of the courses of study and apply afterwards. For example, Nicole Austin, who is the Master Blender at Kings County Distillery, went to school for chemical engineering and discovered later she could do this. The same for Dave Pickerell (Master Distiller at Makers Mark who then went on to consult with brands like WhistlePig, Corsair and Hillrock as well as reviving George Washington’s distillery, Mount Vernon). He started in non-digestible distillation.”
The evolution is evident to Patel. “I had no idea there was a glass ceiling,” she said. “I didn’t know that there weren’t that many women and I wasn’t trying to be different because it was a lightly female industry. I’ve never been a man so I don’t know how this journey would have been different for me. But I have seen the numbers change. I went to the World Whiskies Conference in 2011 and believe I was one of three women in the entire room. This year it was probably a 50-50 split men and women – that’s amazing growth in a few years.”
Personal growth and professional development is something cited by Austin as a key to why there aren’t so many women in the industry. She explains, “I wish that we lived in a world where what drives sales is simply the quality of the liquid in the bottle. But it also takes marketing and building a brand. So, if you’re not from the right family in Kentucky or Scotland, craft is where it is and the only way to do it well is to put yourself out there and actively pursue it. To make that happen it’s about finding someone to give you money to start. And that’s hard and awkward for a lot of women. With fundraising I think women are more straightforward and realistic. That straightforwardness sort of hinders the grandiose ability to tell someone your dream. But if you’re going to start your own company you’re going to have to get someone to buy into your dream. That’s a real choke point.”
Getting past that traditional choke point will certainly open up the floodgates for many women to join the industry and not just be an anomaly. Eddy comments, “There are some women throughout the industry who have been able to earn the respect because they can prove that they know something. They’ve educated themselves and taken the steps they needed to in order to know what they know. Nicola Riske of Edrington is a great example of that; every chance she gets she’ll hang out with master distillers and give herself more knowledge.”
Knowledge is power. So is time. And while women of Greene’s generation started off their careers when women in whiskey was a barely recognized phenomenon and bartenders were asked what their “real” job was, this generation that’s coming into the bloom of their careers will experience it differently. Though Greene acknowledges that the whiskey business may not be the friendliest to women who have children, given all the travel a role like an ambassador involves and the choice to be home with the children rather than at yet another bar until 4 AM, she wonders, as more women have babies in their 30s, how can we make the industry more friendly to them? Is the answer for more women to become distillers, where at least the hours are better? She concludes, “It will be interesting to see in the future how the industry looks. Right now there are so many more women in their late 20s and 30s involved in whiskey that we are bound to see a shift in another eight or nine years. Nobody would have asked me to write a whiskey book in 2005. That happened in 2013. Is our field yet 50/50? No, but it’s definitely come a long way since 2005.”