Historically, the spirits industry has been dominated by men, their contributions immortalized by iconic bottles that bear their names. And although we all love a good Jack Daniel’s, it’s always good to taste the hard work and contributions of not just men; the best spirits should be as diverse and unique as the people that enjoy them. And luckily, women distillers and blenders are stepping up. Around the world, women have been breaking through that distillery glass ceiling, turning the world of distilling and spirits into a more varied and interesting field. From gin to whiskey and everything in between, these are some of the most paradigm-shattering female distillers that you should know about and support.
Arbikie Highland Estate distillery on Scotland’s Angus coast has made a name for itself as one of the most experimental distilleries out there with its “farm to bottle” approach, and one of the driving forces behind that innovation is Master Distiller Kirsty Black. Coming from a background as an engineer in the medical device field, Black switched over into distilling, studying at Heriot-Watt University before being asked to helm Arbikie’s (which originated as a multi-generational farm) distillery. Harnessing her passion and interest in plants and their role in the distilling process, Black has quickly found success in producing award-winning spirits, using the farm’s crops and the region’s unique biodiversity to create terroir-driven spirits that capture the flavor of the Angus coast. Her signature work is with gin, such as her namesake Kirsty’s Gin, flavored by kelp, thistles, and bilberry. And she’s also responsible for producing the world’s first climate-positive gin, made using peas.
Growing up near the GlenDronach distillery, spending misty mornings walking past stone buildings and smelling the rich yeast and caramel notes of finely aged scotch, it stands to reason that Rachel Barrie would pursue a career in Scotch whisky. And what a career: Spanning nearly 30 years and working at some of the most venerable scotch whisky distilleries in Scotland, she’s earned herself the name of Scotland’s First Lady of Whisky. Using her university background in chemistry and experience in Scotch research at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, Dr. Barrie has brought her refined touch to such legendary institutions as Bowmore, Glenmorangie, and Ardbeg. She now oversees three distilleries — The GlenDronach, BenRiach, and Glenglassaugh — as master blender, and has the distinction of being one of the few female master blenders in the world.
The great-great-granddaughter of Nathan “Nearest” Green, the first-ever Black master distiller and the man who actually taught the Jack Daniels how to distill, Victoria Butler left a career in the Department of Justice to carry on the family legacy. Serving as master blender (and the first Black female whiskey master blender) of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey in Nashville, Tennessee, Butler is committed to making sure people remember her ancestor, who was almost overlooked by history until Jack Daniels finally acknowledged Green’s invaluable contributions in 2016 and Uncle Nearest co-founder, CEO, and historian Fawn Weaver committed to widely sharing his story. And although she didn’t have any background in distilling, she’s taken to it with passion and ingenuity, producing high-quality Tennessee whiskey in both small batch and premium aged options. And blending whiskey is definitely in her blood, as, since joining the company in 2019, her batches have gone on to win awards and quickly build a solid reputation for excellence.
With a resume that includes stints at Kings County Distillery, Cascade Hollow, and now master distiller of Tennessee’s George Dickel Whiskey, Nicole Austin is one of the top figures of distilling in the U.S. and a champion of Tennessee whiskey and bourbon. She’s made a name for herself coming into established distilleries like Kings County to bring innovation and renewal; in her first distillery job at Kings County, she produced a rye whiskey that crashed through the world of American whiskey, winning Double Gold at the 2015 World Spirits Competition in San Francisco. Despite having originally dreamed of being an environmental lawyer, a casual introduction to whiskey while on a date sparked a passion that has led to her life’s work of creating, advocating, and promoting American whiskey and bourbon. In that line, she’s helped launch numerous guilds and organizations dedicated to helping support and elevate those in the spirits industry.
Freeland Spirits in Portland, Oregon has been making waves in the spirits world since launching in late 2017, as it’s one of the few wholly women-owned and operated distilleries in the world. Not only that, but its herbaceous gin and smooth whiskey have also earned rave reviews and press, thanks in large part to Master Distiller Molly Troupe. After earning an undergrad degree in chemistry and a graduate degree in distilling and brewing, Troupe teamed up with Freeland founder Jill Kuehler right before their gin operations launched, and her unique infusion process gives Freeland gin its signature freshness and heightened flavors. One only needs to taste or smell a Freeland spirit to know that they are something special, with Troupe’s hand on the tiller to guide the distilling and blending process. She is also the youngest female master distiller in the United States.
If the South American spirit pisco has started to come on your radar more over the last few years, you might have Melanie Asher to thank. Together with her sister Lizzie, Asher launched premium pisco brand Macchu Pisco in 2006 to help introduce drinkers in the U.S. and further abroad to this southern hemisphere staple that is distilled from fermented grape juice. Although pisco hails from both Peru and Chile, Asher produces Macchu Pisco in Peru, making two lines that are in keeping with traditional pisco production methods. The first is made from 100% Quebranta grapes and aged for a year, while the other is an “acholado” blended style of Quebranta, Torontel, Italia, and Moscatel grapes. They also make a luxury line. With its vodka-like neutral base, pisco is ideal for cocktails, but as it can also be aged similarly to whiskey, some types are great for sipping as well. In addition to being a founder, Asher also acts as master distiller and blender, upending the male-dominated world of pisco in South America and sharing it around the globe.
Maria Teresa Lara gave women in tequila a lot of firsts, dedicating her life and career to Tequila Herradura, a 150-year-old tequila producer based in Jalisco, Mexico. Starting out as a quality controller, over the years she rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the first female tequila master distiller in Mexico. Although she is now retired, her work and impact as a trailblazer for women distillers in the tequila industry has helped open the doors to other female-owned and operated tequila and mezcal enterprises, like 21 SEEDS and Yola Mezcal. And her protege, Karinna Enriquez, continues to work in the tequila industry as a master tester.
You can’t drink Kentucky whiskey and not know the name Marianne Eaves: In 2015, she became Kentucky’s first female master distiller since prohibition when she accepted the position at the Frankfort-based Castle & Key Distillery. Approached by the distillery’s founders, who wanted to build a new project on the site of the ruined Old Taylor Distillery, Eaves oversaw the creation of a brand-new distillery and legacy from the ground up, using her expertise in chemistry and as a Kentucky bourbon and whiskey master taster to create renowned brands of London-style Dry Gins, vodka, and rye whiskey. In a move that surprised many, she left Castle & Key in 2019 to pursue new projects, and if her previous success is any indication, whatever comes next will be even greater.
In the spirits industry, Joy Spence is a legend. In 1997, she became the first woman in the entire industry to achieve the position of master blender for her work with rum at Appleton Estate, a Jamaican rum enterprise. Starting her career as a chemist at Appleton, she rose through the ranks to master blender, making history along the way. For all her work and dedication to elevating Jamaican rum, she’s received multiple awards and distinctions, including the National Medal of Science and Technology, making her the first Jamaican woman to earn this honor.
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