Spend much time around bourbon makers and you begin to wonder, where are all the women?
Louisville spirits writer Fred Minnick has the answer: they are there; you just have to look for them.
"Nobody was really studying this," he said in a recent interview. "I hope it begins a quest to learn more about how important women are to the history of whiskey. Since I've filed my manuscript, I've found so many more women."
In his Whiskey Women, The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey, Minnick, left, unearths such beauties as "the Poteen Queen of Scotstown," the early 20th century Irish equivalent of a bootlegger. And Belle Starr, the "Bandit Queen," who stole whiskey from whites in Western Arkansas and sold it in Indian Territory.
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"I truly believe that women are more important than men when it comes to the history of whiskey," Minnick told an August gathering of Bourbon Women at the Kentucky Governor's Mansion in Frankfort. "Sumerian women invented beer. Mesopotamian women invented distillation for perfume. An Egyptian woman created the alembic still and you can still find prototypes of this in Kentucky and Tennessee for moonshining."
Some images are less than appealing, such as the madams operating riverboat brothels or the Temperance crusaders who hatcheted saloons and fought for Prohibition.
But, Minnick writes, it is thanks largely to women that American whiskey survived the era. One woman moved her family distillery to Mexico and flooded the market with her bourbon.
And women bootleggers were wildly successful, whether they were tucking bottles under their skirts or flying in planeloads of Canadian hooch.
More influential was Pauline Morton Sabin. Once an advocate for Prohibition, she founded the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform in 1929 and successfully lobbied to repeal the act, arguing it created more problems than it solved.
Despite the importance of women to whiskey's history, they have traditionally not been given much credit for its success.
One case stands out: Bessie Williamson, who became the driving force at the Laphroaig distillery on Islay, in Scotland in the 1930s.
Minnick credits Williamson with not only protecting the distillery throughout World War II, but with the innovative move of selling the smoky, peaty Laphroaig as a single malt, rather than just blending it with other scotch.
Williamson's prominence helped establish a precedent that has brought many modern women into the whiskey and bourbon business, including Victoria MacRae-Samuels at Maker's Mark, Kate Shapira Latts at Heaven Hill, Lynne Tolley at Jack Daniel's, Hollis Bulleit at Bulleit, and Britt Kulsveen Chavanne at Willett.
And the Bourbon Women, founded in 2011 by former Brown-Forman executive Peggy Noe Stevens, have tapped into a well of enthusiasm that extends beyond Kentucky.
But in general, whiskey makers still haven't quite figured women out. Most target the female audience with honey and flavored "entry-level" whiskies, ignoring women's acute sense of smell and taste, Minnick points out.
"Though no study indicates women can taste whiskey better than men, women are on nearly every whiskey tasting panel in the world," Minnick writes. "Before the whiskies go into the bottle, these super tasters analyze for impurities and promotional flavor notes. From Bushmills' all-women tasting panel to Maker's Mark's woman-led tasters, distilleries trust the noses of women over men."
If you go
Fred Minnick will sign Whiskey Women, The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey ($26.95, Potomac Books) at 6 p.m. Friday at the Morris Book Shop, 882 E High St., Lexington, with a bourbon tasting. Minnick also will speak to the Women Leading Kentucky Nov. 20 roundtable at Sal's Chophouse. For tickets and more information, go to Womenleadingky.com.