Rewriting Women into the History of Spirits

Rewriting Women into the History of Spirits

Throughout the ages women have been banned and barred from the Spirits world. This International Women’s Day we’re highlighting their place in history and celebrating how they shaped the industry.

Women have always been present in the drinks industry; from working clandestinely in distilleries, to bootlegging during the prohibition, working in bars, particularly in World War Two, and upholding family traditions and preserving secret recipes through the generations.

We’ve put together a historical timeline of some of the greatest females and most defining moments where women changed the industry.

0-200 CE: Mary the Jewess

We wouldn’t be drinking Spirits at all if it wasn’t for Mary, who invented distilling technology.

Mary the Jewess is the perfect proof that women have an integral part in the world of alcohol. The earliest alchemist writings attribute the invention of the tribikos (the distilling machine) to her, it had three arms and purified substances using distillation.

1665-1714: Queen Anne

Queen Anne, who was the last of the Stuarts in England, was originally a Brandy lover. She had a gargantuan impact on Gin in the UK and popularised it among the British public.

She did this unintentionally when she cancelled a charter that gave just one company sole rights to distilling in London. As soon as she had, hundreds of back street distillers popped up and the Gin craze and rumours of “mother’s ruin” we’ve all heard so much about had begun.

1824: Helen Cumming

One of the most important women in Whisky, Helen Cumming founded Cardhu in the early 19th century and was the first female founder of Scotch Whisky.

She was an original bootlegger - distilling Whisky in secret and passed her legacy on to another female pioneer, her daughter-in-law Elizabeth. Elizabeth was dedicated and savvy, and expanded the Cardhu business and sold some of the older stills to the little-known startup Glenfiddich.

1920/30s: Rita Taketsuru

Rita was born in Scotland as Jessie Roberta Cowan, and is highly regarded and known as the Mother of Japanese Whisky.

Rita with her hubby Taketsuru. Source: Wikimedia

She helped her husband Taketsuru Masataka set up the Nikka distilling company, and bring Whisky to Japan. It’s now one of the most popular Spirits in the country.

1954: Bessie Williamson

Bessie was is the only woman to own and run a distillery in the 1900s. She became the owner of Laphroaig after working there for 20 years. She started working there over the summer and soon rose in the ranks, and was left the distillery in the will of the previous owner Ian Hunter.

1991: Lorena Vásquez

Lorena joined Zacapa where she’d go on to make a huge impact. She insisted that the distillery be built 2300 metres above sea level and was given the role of master blender, which made her the first woman ever to become a master blender of Rum.

1997: Joy Spence

Joy joined the Appleton Estate in 1981 as chief chemist, and then in 1997 became the first woman to hold the position of master blender in the Spirits industry. She's so highly regarded that she’s a Commander in Jamaica's Order of Distinction

2005: Jassil Villanueva Quintana

At 28 years old Jassil Villanueva Quintana became the youngest master of Rum and is head distiller for Brugal Rum. She shows how the younger generation is continuing to break barriers in the Rum industry.

2008: Bertha Gonzalez Nieves

Bertha Nieves became the first female “Tequila master” as certified by Academia Mexicana de Catadores de Tequila (Mexican Academy of Tequila Tasters) a distinction usually only held by men who’ve risen to the top of the industry. She’s the co-founder of Casa Dragones where she’s dedicated to small batch high quality Tequila production.

2011: Lynnette Marrero

This renowned bartender founded the national competition for female bartenders: Speed-Rack. The competition has been going on for 8 years to showcase female talent in the industry - and raises money for breast cancer research at the same time. This is helping to redress the balance around male-dominated international competitions. She’s also the Director of Llama Inn.

2016: Bacardi’s S.H.E Summit

One of the first women for leadership summits was born in 2016 that demonstrated commitment from the industry to empower women in the world of alcohol.

2018: Lala Noguera

A specialist in Mexican agave, Lala Noguera started a dedicated space for artisanal Mezcal called Agaveria.

2018: Heather Nelson

Not since Helen Cumming at the beginning of our timeline has a woman headed a Whisky distillery on her own in Scotland. Heather Nelson has broken that almost 200-year-old dry spell, and joins some incredible female Whisky connoisseurs.

2018: Georgie Bell and Becky Pasking

Georgie Bell and Becky Pasking created #ourwhisky to promote equality, gender parity and inclusiveness and challenge stereotypical views about Whisky drinkers.

2019: Angela Cochrane and Kirsty Olychick

Angela Cochrane and Kirsty Olychick become Diageo’s first female apprentice coopers. A cooper is someone who makes oak casks that Scotch Whisky can be matured in.

2021: Victoria Eady Butler

Five generations after her great-great-grandfather, Nearest Green, made history…the legacy continues.

Victoria Eady Butler is the first African-American woman master blender. On February 2, 2021, Nearest’s descendant, won the Master Blender of the Year in the Whisky Magazine Icons of Whisky Awards 2021.

The list could really be endless, and only highlights some of the immense moments where women have left their mark on the industry and changed the way we consume drinks.

From creating distilling technology and introducing new Spirits to different nations, to distilling the world’s most popular Rums and Whiskies, there’s a huge amount to celebrate.

Are there any women you think we should add to the timeline? We’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments below.

Back to blog