In 2018, the three founders of Miram & Greene, a distillery in Blanco, Texas, traveled for the first time to the San Antonio Cocktail Conference, one of the state’s largest gatherings of bartenders, distilleries, and their army of fans. They were excited to introduce the new whiskey until they found the assigned table stuck in a corner far from the action.
Cold shoulders may have come because they weren’t used to the scene, or because some of the whiskey was made outside Texas. But not all three helped — entrepreneur Masha Miram. Heather Green, CEO and Master Blender. And Marlene Holmes of the Master Distillery was a woman, trying to make it in an industry well-known for her assertive and sometimes aggressive masculinity.
“There were literally complaints like’why are you here’,” Green said.
The Miram & Green team won the tournament and received high praise in an indomitable spirit, including the award at the Texas Whiskey Festival in April. And three years after its first frosty reception, they were not only accepted, but also celebrated by other Texas distilleries.
“It was a complete turnaround,” Green said. “We just had to dig in and say,’We are here, and we are one of you.’”
Similar stories are often found in the American whiskey business, where women have long played a quiet and undervalued role, often in places like jarring lines and marketing departments. However, in the last few years, women have begun to play a leading role in production (distillation and mixing) in corporate activities such as Cascade Hollow Distilling Co. and Milam & Greene in Tennessee.
In the process, they are not only gaining credibility for a long time, but also reshaping what remains a male-dominated profession.
Andrea Willson, a mature master of the Michters distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, said: “The difference today is that they are recognized for their contributions over time.”
Distillation was once regarded as a woman’s job. This is part of their duty around the hearth and the house. Fred Minick wrote in his book Whiskey Woman that a woman in medieval Europe used her distillation insight to make medicine, but was persecuted when the same skill was accused of black magic. I am.
That tradition continued in the early American frontiers. Catherine Spears Flykerpenter, the mother of a widow in Kentucky in the early 19th century and a spirit liquor maker, first recorded a recipe for sour mash whiskey.
With the advent of modern industrial distillation after the Civil War and the stricter gender role, women left stamps in other ways, but no longer played a role in whiskey production. In the 1950s, Margie Samuels designed bottles and labels for her husband’s new whiskey brand, Maker’s Mark, and developed its distinctive red wax seal.
Some women managed to be hired for a production role. Pam Heilmann, Professor Emeritus of Master Distillery at Michter’s, and Holmes at Milam & Greene have worked for Jim Beam for decades.
Holmes, 65, says that when he began in the early 1990s, he had to overcome many myths about women and distillation, as well as the usual sexist stereotypes about women. For example, hormones can interfere with fermentation.
“If it was the time of the month, if you were in your period, you would ruin the yeast,” she recalled.
With the smarter head of the company dominating, Holmes took on more and more household responsibility. “When I left the beam 27 years later, I was making the yeast,” she said.
There are other reasons why women make natural distillers and blenders besides hard work. Scientists have long known that women have a more subtle sense of smell than men — Linda M. Bartoshuk, a professor of food science at the University of Florida, said that 35% of women said she was a super taster. We estimate that it is eligible to call, but only 15% of men do. That keen sense can be a great asset when trying to determine if you’re ready for fermentation, or when you need to tweak spice notes in a batch of whiskey.
Women like Holmes and Heilmann are opening their doors to young women’s spirit liquor makers. Many of them arrive with technical training in chemistry and engineering. This is an important asset for breaking through what still looks like a network of old people.
Among them is Nicole Austin. She studied chemical engineering at university and worked for a wastewater treatment company in New York City. In the early 2010s, he began volunteering at the Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn.
Her hobby soon changed to a new career. Austin, 37, helped establish the New York Distillery Guild in 2013 and has since worked with Dave Pickerell, a consultant who has grown dozens of craft distilleries, and the vast Tullamore Distillery in Ireland. It was.
In 2018, she returned to the United States to become the manager of Cascade Hollow in Tullahoma, Tennessee, home of George Dickel Whiskey. So she revived the once-sleeping brand — Whiskey Advocate named her first major release, a 13-year-old bottled whiskey of the year 2019 — and the best young distilled liquor maker in the country. Recognized as one of the vendors.
Austin is dominated by a new generation of whiskey makers who are accustomed to playing an equivalent role, even though they have to deal with people who are resentful of the idea of what women are doing. They said they were lucky to be able to start their careers when they saw it as a male job.
“I experienced the best and the worst in the transition to the whiskey industry,” she said. “While the most dramatic injustice of wages and the most dramatic misleading corporate culture, I have also experienced industries that have repeatedly chosen to choose me as a leader.”
That tension is a challenge for women like Austin and the Miram & Green team. They say they want to respect performance, not gender, but they also recognize that their position is a role model and a responsibility to help other women take on the challenge. invade.
This is a paradox that weighs particularly heavily on Victoria Eddie Butler, the master blender of Uncle Nearest, a Tennessee distillery founded by entrepreneur Fawn Weaver in 2017. How people recognize her, especially as a black woman.
“I think we were an example of this industry by showing that women can play these roles, not just podiums,” she said. “I fully understand that I’m looking at me as the first African-American master blender in history. I accept that responsibility, but I’m not focusing on it. “
Dealing with the sexism left in the industry is difficult enough. For many women’s distilleries, the problem is not their colleagues, but the men who are plagued by the possibility that their customers, especially women, know more about whiskey than they do.
After studying chemical engineering at college, Marianne Eaves enrolled in Brown-Forman, a Louisville company that manufactures Jack Daniel’s, Old Forester, and Woodford Reserve whiskeys. There she found a mentor at the company’s master distillery, Chris Morris. In 2014, he gave her the role of a master taster with a focus on sensory analysis and quality control, and worked with her to develop new whiskeys such as Jack Daniel’s Rye and Woodford Reserve. Double oak.
But she talked about her frustration when a retailer pushed her away to wave her hand during a public event where Morris emphasized her work.
“He glanced at me and said,’Oh, you’re the girl of that taster,’” she recalled. “Chris said,’No, she’s our master taster.’ But the man said it again, and Chris corrected him again.”
Eaves left Brown-Forman in 2015 for the startup Distillery Castle & Key, where she was a partner, master distillery, and the first woman to hold that title since Prohibition in Kentucky, 2019. Standed up on his own as a consultant. (Two other women are following her at Brown-Forman’s top spots: Elizabeth McCall, Woodford Reserve’s assistant master distillery, and Jackie Zycan, Old Forester’s master taster.)
Eaves has won praise for his recent work and has developed ultra-premium whiskey for brands such as Sweetens Cove, backed by groups of sports stars such as Peyton Manning and Andy Roddick.
Nonetheless, she finds occasional sexist attacks, especially from online trolls.
“At first I was really sneaking into my skin, but after a while I stopped reading the comments,” she said. “I don’t feel I have to fight every fight. People follow me. Every time someone disagrees with my achievements, I don’t have to justify myself.”
But she added that there have been many changes in the 12 years since she started her business. According to 2020 data from market research firm MRI-Simmons, not only are more men accepting to learn about whiskey from women, but women also account for an estimated 36% of American whiskey drinkers. This change is underpinned by the success of groups like the Bourbon Women’s Association, founded by another former Master Taste of Woodford Reserve, Pegino Estevens.
“I love standing in front of women, answering questions, sharing stories, and not having the opportunity to worry about sideways or judgments,” Eaves said.
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