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Women’s impact on bourbon overlooked, but undeniable, says Filson panel

by Steve Coomes
Women have played instrumental roles in alcohol production from the invention of stills to the creation of recipes and, today, via the leadership of major and emerging alcohol brands.

That subject was discussed last week at the Filson Historical Society’s Old Louisville mansion during a meeting of Bourbon Women.

The two-year-old, 500-member group not only likes bourbon, many of its members want it unadulterated, often sipping it neat—only on rocks if they have to.

The group gathered a panel of bourbon writers, distillers and historians to talk about the role of women in the production of Kentucky nectar, work that remains widely unacknowledged.

Panelist Fred Minnick, author of the upcoming book, “Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey,” and a local spirits writer, said women are not only among the world’s first distillers, “Maria the Jewess created the alembic still (somewhere around 300 AD). … And when you get to the 1800s, women were a part of all the major Scotch brands you see today.”

Minnick said women helped establish liquor demand by using it as medicine to cure their families’ aches, pains and nervous issues.

“But the other side of the demand created was prostitution,” Minnick added. “In New York, in 1857, prostitutes (working in brothels) sold more than $2 million in whiskey. That was close to the city’s revenue that year.”

Minnick mentioned Catherine Spears Frye Carpenter (1760-1848), a pioneering Kentucky distiller (who also had 13 children by two husbands, both of whom she outlived), and another, distiller Mary Dowling, “who moved her production to Mexico during Prohibition where she made Waterfield and Frazier Bourbon” and, as legend says, sold it back to the U.S. through Al Capone’s network.

Even the iconic Maker’s Mark Bourbon bottle has a woman’s fingerprints all over it, he said.

“The bottle, the wax and the label were all created by Marge Samuels, Bill Samuels Sr.’s wife,” Minnick said. “Bill Sr. wanted to get rid of that because the bottles would come in torn and chipped too often. But she stood up for it, and you know how it turned out.”
Minnick said that today, women hold the post of CEO at five major spirits companies, and that the chief financial officer at Diageo, the world’s largest spirits company, is a woman.

“One out of every two new distilleries opening up now are run by women, which is impressive,” he said.

As a young woman, panelist Peggy Noe Stevens said she would go to bars with friends and drink bourbon, a choice that surprised her colleagues.

“The girls would order wine spritzers and guys would get beer, and I’d say, ‘I’ll have bourbon on the rocks, please,’ and all heads at the bar would turn in surprise,” said Noe Stevens, founder of Bourbon Women. “But I was from Kentucky and to me bourbon was like mother’s milk.”

Fortuitously, Noe Stevens, later got a job with Woodford Reserve Distillery as its guest services manager. On her own time she would follow then-master distiller Lincoln Henderson “around like a puppy to learn from him about bourbon. … Our general manager at the time suggested I become trained as a master taster.” That achievement led to her an appointment as a brand ambassador, traveling the globe conducting tastings for Woodford.

About 90 percent of attendees at those tastings were men, she said, but she always found a couple of women sitting shyly in the back of the audience.

“And after the tasting was over, they’d always come up and say, ‘Can I ask you a question about bourbon?’” She said it dawned on her then that women weren’t drinking a lot of bourbon partly “because the industry wasn’t having a conversation with them. And so I did a little pushing and pulling and convincing that we needed to talk to the other half of the population about bourbon.”

Joretta and Jimmy Russell, master distiller at Wild Turkey Distillery

Panelist Jimmy Russell, master distiller at Wild Turkey Distillery, joked with his wife and panelist, Joeretta Russell, about their six decade involvement with the brand.

“I worked with her for a while and she said, ‘One of us has gotta leave,’” Russell joked. (Indeed, she preceded his work there, which currently extends to 59 years.)

“They didn’t need two Russells working for the same business,” she added.

Jimmy Russell said the bourbon industry mistakenly catered to older gentleman for too long and, as a result, missed a major marketing opportunity as a result. In the last decade or so, that has changed.

“Now, we’re all working on marketing to ladies, and we have a lot of ladies who head our marketing department at Wild Turkey,” Russell said. “Let’s face it: You all make the labels look better than we ever did.”

Russell joked that when it was “just us men going to the liquor store, we knew where our bottle was on the shelf, we paid for it and went home. It was all routine. But if they changed position on the shelf, we got home with the wrong bottle!”

Looking at the all-female audience he added, “If y’all are like my wife, you pick the bottle up and start reading, don’t you? You want to know about what you’re buying.”

Russell said that when he started in the bourbon business, women worked in the office or on the bottling line.

“Now, I don’t know anybody in the bourbon business today who doesn’t have a whole lot of ladies working all over the plant: working the stills, making the yeast, grinding the grain, doing everything,” he said. “Wild Turkey is owned by, Campari, which also has a Jamaican rum plant where a woman is the master distiller. The only one in the (rum) industry, I think.”

Russell told the audience that when he travels internationally, he sees women drinking bourbon everywhere he goes.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s Japan or Australia or wherever, bourbon is huge with the ladies,” he said. “And I guess they’ve been drinking it for a long time given the way they can handle it!”

Panelist Joy Perrine, bar manager at Equus and Jack’s Lounge, said the women who inspired her as a bartender were women cookbook writers.

“These were books written by women, for women, and every old cookbook I’ve read has a section on libations that would tell you how to make this or that medicine or cocktail,” she said. “The basis for this medicine was whiskey, of course. And these books would tell you how to make your own cordials, homemade wine, whatever.”

Panelist bourbon historian Mike Veach said he talks to spirits influencers around the country who tell him a growing number of women say they feel the bourbon industry is pandering to women with products accented with honey and cherry flavors.

“They are saying that is totally wrong because they want to drink it straight,” Veach said. “A lot of these women are saying the reason they drink bourbon is to show the guys sitting next to them that, ‘I can drink Wild Turkey Bourbon neat. Too bad you’ve got it on the rocks.’”

Veach said that the bourbon industry, in particular, has been good to women over the years, especially during World War II.

Facing a shortage of male employees at Schenley Distillers, its owners decided to hire women, but the workers’ union opposed the decision.

“The unions were afraid that once Schenley hired them that they would not hire the men back after war because the women would be paid less,” Veach said. But the owners of Schenley were “quite progressive on this front and said they will pay the women the same.”

Veach said the union forced a compromise that, while not perfect, showed some appreciation for the new female workforce.

“The compromise became this: If a woman replaced a man who left for war, once he came back, her job was gone,” Veach said. “But, if the job was created, such as a third shift position and a woman took it, she could keep that job as long as the company kept that job. Women were still having a hard time them, but they were making inroads in the industry.”

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