History

7 Women Who Shaped Spirits History

A woman holding a snifter of bourbon.
Marianne Barnes, the first female distiller at a Kentucky bourbon distillery since Prohibition, is one of many women forging new paths for women in the spirits industry.

While the history of distilling — and drinking in general — is often dominated by men’s stories, there is a lesser-known undercurrent of women who have made vital contributions to the field. From chemists to entrepreneurs, the spirits world boasts plenty of amazing ladies. In fact, it’s very likely that drinking as we know it wouldn’t exist without them. Below, just a few of the many women who forged a path in the booze world:

1. Maria Hebraea

As one of the first known alchemists, Maria Hebraea spent much of her time conducting scientific experiments in an attempt to turn other metals into gold. But along the way, she is credited with building an instrument that would change the course of spirits production forever: the alembic still. This new process revolutionized distillation, creating purer, more flavorful alcohol.

2. Marie Brizard

From Bordeaux, Marie Brizard didn’t discover her aptitude for alcohol until she was in her 40s; a West Indian sailor whom she had nursed through an illness gave her the recipe for aniseed liquor as thanks. Because women weren’t allowed to own companies, she enlisted a family friend, Jean-Baptiste Roger, as her business partner, and an enduring brand was born. Brizard’s anisette, along with a range of other liqueurs, are still available today.

3. Gertrude ‘Cleo’ Lithgoe

Though many of us would like to forget Prohibition and the damage it did to cocktail development, it did provide us with plenty of memorable characters, like Gertrude Lithgoe, also known as the Queen of the Bahamas. She used her formidable intelligence, fearlessness and omnipresent pistol to run her wholesale liquor business from Nassau. The business, as well has her rum-running side project, were a huge success, making Lithgoe a savior to the many Americans who just wanted a gin and tonic at the end of a long day.

4. Marjorie Samuels

A successful product isn’t just about what’s inside of the package; it’s also about the package itself. Marjorie Samuels seemed to have an innate understanding of this when she created the bottle, name, and distinctive red wax seal for Maker’s Mark bourbon. The whiskey world is certainly grateful for her contribution — in 2014 she was inducted into the Bourbon Hall of Fame.

5. Joy Spence

Though she never set out to change the history of spirits, that’s exactly what Joy Spence, the first female Master Blender, did when she took over blending duties at Appleton Estate Jamaican Rum. A chemist by training, Spence was originally hired to ensure that the distillery’s products met specific requirements, but her “organoleptic talent” (the ability to pick out different aromas) soon led her down a more creative path. Spence’s perfect blending of art and science paved the way for many women after her.

6. Marianne Barnes

As the first female Master Distiller in Kentucky since Prohibition, Marianne Barnes is aware of the impact her position has on other women in the industry: “I hope that my appointment in some small part has opened new doors for young women in STEM.” With a degree in chemical engineering, Barnes began her career under Woodford’s master distiller, Chris Morris. In 2015, though, she announced that she would be leaving for an even more adventurous path: starting her own label, called Castle and Key. And as for those who might question her credentials? “I hope that one day it will no longer be a shock to people that I am a Master Distiller. That a young female can make bourbon that stands up against the big boys.”

7. Melanie Asher

When Melanie Asher was a girl in Peru, she dreamt of making pisco. Now, she’s made that a reality with her brand, Macchu Pisco, becoming the first woman to found a pisco export business along the way. Asher believes that her gender influences her distilling, saying, “As a woman, I believe that my feminine sensibilities are expressed in my creations — Macchu Pisco, La Diablada and Nusta — making them gentler to the taste.” And those more delicate, floral piscos have resonated with consumers in the United States: sales have increased by 30% every year since its 2006 launch. Having blazed her own trail in the pisco world, Asher hopes that her work will lay the groundwork for other women who want to get into spirits: “I aspire to be unapologetic about my success as the master distiller of Macchu Pisco and hope my results as a human being and producer will encourage following generations of women to enter the industry.”

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