Mythbusters: The rise, fall, and rally of female distillers

Mythbusters: The rise, fall, and rally of female distillers

Women’s historically critical role in the brewing and distilling industries

Mythbusters | 03 May 2024 | Issue 199 | By Chris Middleton

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There was a time when women dominated distilling, with female distillers numbering in the tens of thousands — a time when every home could be a distillery. Women have been household brewers and bakers since antiquity, and the introduction of small alembic stills in the 1400s was an artefact evolution in the culinary arts and a transition in the preparation of household victuals.


The portable alembic still traces its origins to a female polymath and alchemist in Egypt. In the 4th century, scientist Zosimus attributed Maria Hebraea of Alexandria as the inventor around 150AD. She fashioned the newly invented use of blown glass for the alembic head with a copper cucurbit base, the precursor still suited for controlled fractional vapour distillation of alcoholic spirits.


Household brewing hails back to the earliest accounts in Mesopotamia and Egypt when brewers were female. The same gender convention immigrated to Europe; from the beer cultures of Celtic to Anglo-Saxon Britain, beer and bread became daily nutritional necessities. By Tudor times, small household alembic stills became omnipresent in kitchens, and distillation became an extension of brewing. Women distilled malt spirits as potent medications, morning stimulants, and ‘strong waters’ for social and convivial drinking occasions, and some practised as apothecaries, alchemists, and druggists, but men were the visible faces in the distillation businesses and early authors on distilling from the 14th century.


Following the Black Death, major social upheavals diminished and removed women from distilling and brewing. Male guilds dominated labour, and most craft trades excluded women. Royal houses and government favoured male organisations with patents, privileges, and access to capital. Edward III had created an employment precedent by granting the University of Oxford the right to brew all the beer in the city, denying brewsters (female brewers) the chance to ply their trade. Male surgeons and barbers of Edinburgh were granted sole privilege to manufacture aqua vitae in 1506 by James IV. In 1638, the Worshipful Company of Distillers became the first distillers guild, and allowed only a few distillers’ widows and daughters conditional ‘femme sole’ membership before negating their accreditation in the 18th century. Women were alienated, driven, and even slain for being in the liquor trade.


The Protestant Reformation proved the most pernicious for women. While improving female access to literacy for biblical studies, it subordinated their gender roles to archaic biblical interpretations. Women were expunged from the ecclesiastical realm, and secular duties were restricted to domestic chores, children’s welfare, and marriage — in subservience to their husbands. Not only were women marginalised, but this new religious attitude saw malicious and unprincipled males accuse women of evil intent to gain control of their property and trade. In 16th-century Europe, 80,000 women were killed as witches. The most vulnerable were women distillers and brewsters who were accused of witchcraft, where their working utensils became sinister satanic tools: cauldrons to distil and brew liquor; cats to control mice infestations in their granaries; alestakes or brooms hung outside alehouses to advertise beer was for sale; and distinctive tall black hats to identify them at busy markets stalls. Young, promiscuous temptresses and old, haggard crones became tropes for luring men astray with liquor. The Industrial Revolution beget large-scale breweries and distilleries, taking the female presence in liquor manufacturing to its lowest ebb.


But women did not disappear from distilling. They became invisible and illicit, continuing as homestead distillers and spirits retailers. Most played instrumental roles in the black market. Historical publications sporadically identified females as proprietors and producers. Starting as a trickle in the 19th century, women began to hold positions in every sphere of the liquor industry. Today, their proliferate redux presence as distillers and consumers make them a social and economic force in whisky. 

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