The Whisky Girls

The Whisky Girls

Discover the women behind the spirit

Whisky & Culture | 05 Feb 2014 | Issue 117 | By Rob Allanson

  • Share to:
Why do we consider whisky to be a man's drink? Perhaps, because almost exclusively whisky is named after men. However times are a changing with bottles and labels now becoming more feminine and flavoured whiskies are on the increase. Without Sumerian women inventing beer and Mesopotamian women inventing early distillation techniques, whisky may not have come along.

In this book the author details the production and consumption of all kinds of whisky by all kinds of women and explains why 1600s Scottish aqua vitae makers were accused of witchcraft and why 1800s Irish tax collectors targeted female whisky makers.

'This book gives credit to the women who perfected the recipes we enjoy today and helped build iconic brands worth billions of dollars. They may not have a whiskey named after them, but the world of whiskey owes then a debt of gratitude.' The book starts as far back as 4000 BC when many anthropologists believed that women cultivated barley for beer and not for bread and Sumerians used beer for religious rituals and recovered plaques thought to be dated from 2550 to 2400 BC show women sipping beer during funerals and more pleasurable pastimes. During the middle ages there were many women Apothecaries making 'hard water' or aqua vitae or eau due vie in French. From the 15th century through the 17th century, this term related to distilled wine, beer or potatoes and it was applied to any and all ardent spirits and in certain instances was given to women in labour. The art of distillation found its way to Ireland as far back as the 12th century and women were distilling whiskies or uisge-beatha that today would range from 95 to 120 proof. English demand for this whisky increased and the English influenced the name from the pronounced " isk'ke-ba-'ha" which became whisky due to the English not being able to pronounce the Gaelic. However with the increase in demand it was soon realised that both Irish and English governments were losing significant taxation and in 1661 the Irish government imposed a tax of 4p per gallon which effectively forced one-still women to either go out of business or sell the whiskey illegally. By the 1780s England was taking more and more control of Ireland and when Ireland became part of Great Britain in 1800 Ireland's taxation systems were brought into line with Englands and Excise agents were employed to crack down on 'illegal' stills. This caused huge resentment within the Irish community and it led to increased violence and with this the English decided to form the Revenue Police which had expansive powers. During this time Kate Kearney, Ireland's most famous whiskey distiller gave away large quantities of her whiskey especially during the Potato Famine. Her beauty and her whisky were so legendary that this prevented any law enforcer arresting her. The Revenue Police were disbanded in 1857 but women feared them for decades afterwards.

Another interesting development was happening in the north of Ireland where Bushmills distillery built its foundation by equal opportunity which was extremely rare at the time. When the distillery owner Patrick Corrigan died in 1865 he left the distillery to his wife Ellen Jane who ran the distillery very effectively until selling up in 1880. Today Diageo owns Bushmills and the master blender is Helen Mulholland and is it a coincidence that Bushmills is one the whiskies most widely enjoyed by women?

Like Ireland, Scotland also had women distillers and in the 1800s Helen Cumming and her husband started distilling at their Cardew farm. This later became Cardew distillery which is better known today for producing malt for Johnnie Walker. The influence of women in the American whisky industry started in the 1800s but by the time the 1870s came along, the temperance movement was gaining momentum and in 1874 the Woman's Christian Temperance Union soon had a huge influence on both schools and influenced laws at every level of government. By 1918 Prohibition had been adopted by 27 states authorities.

Women running whisky companies in Ireland, Scotland and America were devastated by this as it meant that their largest target had been taken away. One American owner Mary Dowling simply decided to pack up her family's Waterfill and Frazier distillery and move it to Mexico. When it came to bootlegging the illicit whiskey, women were the best. By 1929 the Women's Organisation for the National Prohibition Reform was formed. Run by a Republican called Pauline Sabin soon enlisted the help of powerful politicians wives including the daughter in law of President Roosevelt and by 1932 prohibition had ended.

By the 1970s the whisky industry was asking the question 'how do we appeal to women' and the answer lay in making the spirit more palatable by introducing flavours such as honey. The problem lay in that women were only the customers when their husbands purchased the whisky. By 2009 there were dozens of honey and cinnamon flavoured whisky brands on the market which have proved to be extremely popular for both women and men.

With some very good research and more than 20 pages of photographs the author has produced a fascinating insight into the history of women and their influence in the whisky industry which for many of us will be a revelation. To order a copy of this book at 20% off please visit

Whiskey Women

Fred Minnick

ISBN 9781612345642

Bookclub offer: £14 plus P&P (RRP: £18)
Magazine Archive

From the archive

Select an issue

Subscribe Now

Subscriptions for
Whisky Magazine are available
in print, digital or as a
complete package

The Benefits

8 print editions a year

Enjoy the convenience of home delivery

Full access to every digital edition via desktop, iOS or Android device

Latest Issue Subscribe Now

The Whisky Encyclopedia - Coming Soon 2024

Discover the world of whisky with our comprehensive encyclopedia
Featuring companies, distilleries, brands, glossaries, and cocktails

Join The Community

Sign up to the Whisky Magazine
newsletter letter and get access to the latest
in all things whisky

paragraph publishing ltd.   Copyright © 2024 all rights reserved.   Website by Acora One

Consent Preferences