Whisky pioneer

Whisky pioneer

In the male-dominated world of whisky, the contributuin of women is oftern overlooked. Helen Arthur puts the record straight

History | 16 Feb 2001 | Issue 14 | By Helen Arthur

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A formidable, able tyrant who ruled the family with a rod of iron – and half the countryside as well!” This is how John Bruce Lockhart described his great grandmother Jean in an interview with The Strathspey and Badenoch Herald in May 1989. Jean Macgregor took over the running of her husband’s distillery, Balmenach, on his death in 1888. A leading Elgin lawyer said at the time that she was “worth all the distillers put together both in character and in business acumen.”Jean Macgregor disagreed with many local people – including the local minister. As a result of this particular dispute she built a second church of her own in the village of Cromdale. This building is now Cromdale Village Hall. There is no doubt that without her the Balmenach distillery would have closed. Jean kept the Balmenach distillery going for quite some time until another member of the family, Jim Macgregor, was finally persuaded to come back from New Zealand. Unfortunately, its present owners mothballed Balmenach in 1993. However, Jean was not the first woman to run a distillery. Indeed, when her father-in-law, James Macgregor of Balmenach took out one of the first licences to distil whisky in 1824 he was in good company. George Smith of Glenlivet, the owner of Mortlach at Dufftown and a Mrs Gordon of Ballintomb also applied for licences. The success of Ballintomb was short-lived: it closed in the late 1860s when a Mr John Stewart Smith took over the distillery from its second lady owner, Ann Gordon. The Dalmore whisky distillery, among others, owes its survival to a woman, Margaret Sutherland, who took over the business in 1850. Unfortunately, we know very little about many of these women but the histories of two other distilleries, which owe their continued existence to two very different women, are well recorded. The most famous widow to continue running her husband’s distillery at Cardow – now known as Cardhu – is Elizabeth Cummings. When he died in 1872, Elizabeth, who was 24 years younger than her husband, found herself widowed with three young children and another on the way. She decided that the only way to survive was to continue distilling whisky with the help of her mother-in-law, Helen, whom had gained a reputation in the local area for outwitting the excisemen. Before licensing was introduced customs officers made surprise visits to areas where distillation was known to take place in an effort to collect taxes from the distillery owners. Not unsurprisingly distillers were loath to pay taxes and tried to conceal their activities! The customs officers often stayed with Helen and her husband and whilst they were eating their meal she would warn other distillers of their arrival in the area by raising a red flag above the barn door. When Alfred Barnard visited Cardow for the first time he noted that the “buildings were of the most straggling and primitive description and although water power existed, a great part of the work was done by manual labour.” In spite of the rickety appearance of the buildings Cardow had already gained a reputation for producing an exceptional whisky for blending purposes. The Cummings family did not own the land and without any security of tenure the future of the whisky was not assured. Elizabeth was to change all this. She showed remarkable business acumen and courage. In The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, Barnard records his second visit to the distillery. He writes that in 1884 Elizabeth obtained “a feu to a piece of ground in close proximity to the old work, and an entirely new distillery had just been built on the most approved plan, and with all the latest improvements and appliances.” Under Elizabeth’s guidance the new distillery started to produce 60,000 gallons of whisky annually which “competent judges ... pronounced to be similar in character to that made at the old distillery ... our guide told us that a single gallon of it is sufficient to cover ten gallons of plain spirit, and that it commands a high price in the market.” An article written about the purchase of Cardow Distillery by John Walker & Sons Limited of Kilmarnock in 1893 said: “After her husband’s death, Mrs Lewis Cumming conducted the business for nearly 17 years, and to her efforts alone is the continued success of the distillery entirely due.” Drinkers of Johnnie Walker owe a huge debt to Elizabeth for keeping the distillery going and continuing to improve the quality of the whisky, for Cardhu still distils the malt described as the ‘heart’ of this famous blend. “I found her addressing a large group of East End publicans, telling them all about Laphroaig and why they should stock more of it. She had a lot of guts,” said Ian Wilson of Bessie Williamson, the owner of Laphroaig Distillery from 1954 to 1972. Bessie Williamson graduated from Glasgow University in 1932 during the economic slump – not a good time to be looking for a job. She worked in a number of temporary positions until her uncle Willie, an accountant, received a letter from one of his clients – Mr Ian Hunter at Laphroaig. He was looking for a “reliable woman for the office” while his secretary was away ill. Bessie fell in love with Laphroaig and the island of Islay and didn’t want to leave. She wrote: “Roe deer find shelter there, and the tawny owl can be seen in the evenings on its favourite perch.” It wasn’t very long before Ian offered Bessie a full time job and she started to immerse herself in the life of the distillery and the island community. In 1938 Ian left for a sales trip to America, visiting a friend in Jamaica on the way, where he had a stroke. He wired Bessie to come out and join him and she continued the sales trip on his behalf. This was to be the first of many sales visits to America including attending the New York Trade Fair for the Scotch Whisky Association. Ian’s health never fully recovered and he began to worry about the future of his distillery. He was a very secretive man and kept the recipe and method of distillation for Laphroaig close to his heart. Visitors were not allowed at the distillery and he was extremely wary of photographers and journalists. As his health deteriorated he began to rely more and more on Bessie and to those that knew him he made a very uncharacteristic decision for he started to teach her everything about Laphroaig. It is not
unreasonable to speculate that without Bessie Williamson this particular distillery would have died. During World War II Laphroaig, like many distilleries, stopped producing whisky. After the war Ian placed the management of the distillery in Bessie’s hands and when he died in 1954 he left the distillery to her. Her niece, Helen Powell, spent childhood holidays with her aunt at Ardenistiel House and said, “she was great fun, always keen to show what changes had taken place at Laphroaig since we were last there.” Laphroaig was to prosper under Bessie’s stewardship. Graham Nown writes in his book Laphroaig no half measures. “Her lifetime’s work for Laphroaig was to preserve the whisky’s bold, hand-crafted character without concession or compromise.” When looking at women in whisky the contribution made by them in the founding of two whisky dynasties should also not be overlooked. William Teacher after several false starts started working for a Mrs McDonald in her grocery shop in Glasgow. In 1830 she obtained a license to sell liquor in part of her shop and by the time William had married her daughter Agnes the wines and spirits side of the business had taken over from traditional grocery sales. In his history of Berry Bros. & Rudd, the wine and spirit merchants, Tom Johnson says that it should be noted “that the enterprise which was to develop into a section of a virtually all-male profession, was started by a woman.” However, history relates it wasn’t just the Widow Bourne but her daughter as well who was instrumental in laying down the foundations of the company. Widow Bourne founded a small coffee shop in 1698. The company prospered and the Widow Bourne seems to have been reluctant to allow her only daughter, who would inherit her fortune, to marry. In time, however, Elizabeth married William Pickering an apprentice painter and stainer. The business soon expanded into groceries, arms painting and heraldic furnishing. William was an ambitious man with plans for rebuilding the stores and some adjacent houses, but unfortunately he died in 1734 before he could put them into action. His wife Elizabeth took over the business, completing his plans, until her two sons William Junior and John had completed their apprenticeships. Pickering Place still exists as the smallest public square in London and Berry Bros. & Rudd occupies the same premises on three sides.It would be hard to imagine a situation today where an individual woman or man could find themselves called upon to rescue a distillery, as for the most part they are owned by large companies. So perhaps the time of pioneering women running distilleries on their own has long gone, but who knows what the future will bring?The Scotch Malt Whisky Society now has some 15,000 members. Many people will recognise the role played by Anne Dana in the society’s growth when she became managing director in 1983. Recently, Anne Cooper opened the new London member’s room for the Society and the fact that it has a completely different ambience to that of the Edinburgh branch has much to do with her influence. Consumption of whisky, whether blends or single malts, by women is growing and this now accounts for some 30 per cent of the market. Recent advertising and other marketing campaigns show that whisky companies recognise the demographic change taking place. Who knows, maybe one day there will be a pioneering lady chairman of a large distilling group – history suggests this isn’t impossible.
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