Female Distillers Prove Women Know Their Alcohol – And Always Have
Bridget Firtle interrupts our interview when an alarm sounds. The water has reached the right temperature for the next stage of making mash. I watch as she drives a forklift truck carrying 3,200lb of the thick, black molasses to siphon into the bubbling tank, the room filling with a sugary aroma.
“I wasn’t always so good at this bit,” Firtle tells me, while doing a three-point turn around a pillar in the middle of her Bushwick distillery, The Noble Experiment. “There’s a giant hole in the wall over there to prove it.”
As far as we’ve come in terms of gender stereotypes in the workplace, the assumption remains that distilleries are a man’s world – it conjures images of stout gentlemen quaffing drams of whiskey and mumbling appreciatively beneath a set of whiskers.
Contrary to public perception, however, the world of distilling is full of women and always has been. And in recent years, women have been increasingly rising in the ranks of the industry, from the chemistry labs and tasting panels to take the top titles. The fact that women are scientifically proven to have a better sense of smell raises the question: why has this taken so long?Marianne Barnes, master distiller at the Old Taylor distillery. Photograph: PR
In March, Marianne Barnes, 28, became the youngest female master distiller in Kentucky, reviving the historic Old Taylor distillery. Likewise, Andrea Clodfelter won many awards since working her way up the ranks from bartender in 2010 to head distiller at Corsair in 2014.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, a small group of women were already paving the way, including Joanne Moore, who became the first gin master distiller in 2000 for G&J Distillers; Joy Spence, the world’s first female master blender in 1997 for Appleton Estates Rum; and Victoria MacRae-Samuels, the vice-president of operations at Maker’s Mark since 2010 (and the highest-ranking woman in the distillery industry in the US).
Nowadays, more women are establishing and running their own distilleries as well. While some of these are in partnerships – such as Samantha and Allen Katz at NY Distilling Co or Karen and Brice Hoskin of Montanya Rum in Colorado – a small but growing number are independent distillery founders.
Firtle began her career on Wall Street, and developed a passion for craft spirits, especially rum, while doing research for one of her accounts. What began as a dream to re-establish rum in New York – one of the first rum distilleries was on Staten Island in the 1660s – soon became a business plan. In 2012, she made the leap. Her first product, Owney’s is now available in many US states and launched in the UK in April. She was recently named one of Forbes’s 30 under 30, along with Barnes.
“When I started on the hedge fund, I was the only woman who wasn’t in an admin role,” she tells me. “Maybe I’m drawn to stereotypically male-dominated industries. It never occurred to me for two seconds that there weren’t other women doing this.”
After running the business single-handedly for two years, Firtle now has an all-woman team of four working alongside her, although this was a happy accident. “I was just looking for the best candidate, not the best female candidate, though potentially more women reached out to me because they were inspired by another woman going it alone in this industry.”
The irony is that women have been instrumental in progressing the distilling industry from the beginning. “Women are actually credited with inventing distilling,” Fred Minnick tells me, author of Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey. “In 1400 BC, it was women who created the devices for distilling plant extract, and Maria Hebraea – Maria the Jewess – invented an alembic still prototype around 2AD – though she didn’t use it for making alcohol.”
Women’s prominence in distilleries has risen and fallen with the levels of sexism in society: nearly dying out during the Dark Ages; violently suppressed in the era of witch-hunts when a bottle of aqua vitae amounted to evidence of witchcraft; and kept behind closed doors during the conservative climate of the 1940s and 1950s.
In the 1800s, Kentucky women were running distilleries all over the state, with Catherine Spears Frye Carpenter penning the first known original sour mash recipe in 1818. The temperance movement may be associated with prim ladies, but women were on both sides, with plenty of female bootleggers too.
But after the growth of infamous brothels and speakeasies, an association between women drinking publicly and indecency became ingrained in the American psyche. In some states, well into the middle of the 20th century, women were banned from being in a bar unaccompanied.
An institutional fear of reinvigorating the wrath of the temperance movement, as well as the social mores of the time, kept women out of the limelight in the distilling industry for decades. While many women worked behind the scenes, obstacles ranging from the ignorant to the bizarre were created to prevent their promotion. For example, it was said a woman couldn’t climb the ladders in the distillery for fear of indecency (clearly slacks weren’t an option), and that a woman menstruating in the fermenting room might throw off the scent.The bar at NY Distilling Co. Photograph: NY Distilling Co
Over the last 15 to 20 years, the small independent businesses in the craft distillery movement that have thrived do not subscribe to any outdated modus operandi, and the industry as a whole has grown more open. Most of the new generation of distillers I spoke to felt they hadn’t experienced any obstacles in their career due to their gender, though many started in the industry more by chance than premeditation. This raises the question: is it now more about the profession’s visibility than gender bias?
“It’s less about obstacles and more about awareness,” agreed Samantha Katz, who developed NY Distilling Co with husband and spirits expert Allen Katz. She is also the founder of Ladies of American Distilleries, with the brilliant acronym Load, which boasts more than 350 members across the US. “It’s important for women to see that opportunities don’t just exist in marketing and branding; women can own, run and operate distilleries.”
Barnes, who first started at Brown-Forman as an intern in 2012, sees this as a generational change. “I grew up with my parents encouraging me to do whatever I wanted. I did automotive in high school, because they thought it was important I know how to check the oil or change a tire,” Barnes said. “Some guys in the tastings are a little behind the times, and they want to fight back against it at first, but when you’re the one identifying all these notes that they can’t detect, they start to accept it. This is the generation when these things will change.”
As Firtle says: “I hope one day soon it won’t even be a talking point, but for now, if doing this helps another young woman do something that they thought they couldn’t, then that’s unbelievably rewarding.”