By Fred Minnick

The First ‘Kentucky' Lady

Bourbon County has its first female Master Distiller
History has been made this year. In February, I learned a prominent whiskey female would be leaving her 'Master Taster' post at Brown-Forman to take a 'Master Distiller' job title at the former Old Taylor Distillery. This move was historic for two reasons.

Known for its castle structure, Old Taylor closed in 1972 and the new owners plan to change the name and are currently refurbishing one of the most-important distilleries in bourbon history. When they named Marianne Barnes their Master Distiller, she became the first woman with the coveted Kentucky Bourbon Master Distiller title since Prohibition and perhaps ever.

A chemical engineer, Barnes had worked for Brown-Forman since 2009 and became most known for blending the Old Forester Whiskey Row 1870 Original Batch. I knew Barnes would one day become a Master Distiller; she's a true talent. But I always assumed it would be at Brown-Forman. Although surprised by her move, I was not shocked another company saw her skills.

My enthusiasm for Barnes' accomplishment was a little more subjective than the normal job switch story. When I wrote Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch & Irish Whiskey, no woman had risen up the ranks at a major company and earned Master Distiller in Kentucky. Based on my research, I found several 1800s era women who could qualify for the title, but there was no evidence they were actually called Master Distiller. Of course, what does Master Distiller even mean? You have some contemporary so-called Master Distillers who work for companies that don't operate their on distillery. (Perhaps, I should table the Master Distiller rant for another column!)

Coming out of Prohibition, women were very much a part of the Bourbon business, but they did not compete for Master Distiller jobs. As a 1940s-era female distillery chemist told me, women were not considered for these positions because the bosses were afraid men would look up their skirts when they walked up the stairs. (In the 1940s Kentucky distillery, women did not wear trousers, only skirts and dresses.)

Thus, Barnes' appointment is historically significant, to say the least.

Coincidently, other women were in the works of being named Master Distiller for their respective Kentucky facilities. Namely, Necey Stidham is the Master Distiller at the new Glenns Creek Distillery, formerly the Old Crow Distillery, near Barnes' facility. Barnes edged Stidham by a couple weeks. And Lisa Roper Wicker, a former production worker at the Limestone Branch Distillery, was named the distiller for the Starlight Distillery, an Indiana distillery on the Kentucky border.

Add these new distiller women to the growing list of power women in Kentucky, including Michter's VP of operations Pamela Heilmann, Maker's Mark's VP of operations Victoria MacRae Samuels, Brown-Forman's president of North America Jill Jones, and Four Roses CEO. They also join women in great female blenders in Scotland and Ireland.

And then there's the whiskey drinking women phenomenon capturing the world like wildfire and catching the attention of seemingly every media outlet in the world. But amongst the industry, women, such as King County distillery's Nicole Austin, are tired of the women-drinking whiskey stories. They offer the counter argument: Women also drive cars and vote now, often finding the whiskey story somewhat insulting to women.

While I appreciate this side, I also know I can't be objective. So I asked the first female Kentucky Master Distiller what she thought of the storyline.

"I believe that there is a little rush that a lot of women get from being 'the cool girl.' The one that sips her whiskey neat and constantly surprises bartenders, waiters, liquor store workers, and her friends. The cool girl likes the attention and the double takes. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with this. I hope the cool girl keeps making and drinking whiskey."

I'll drink to that!