Interview

The power of visibility

Taking a closer look at the experience of one former STEM student who has paved the way for a more gender-diverse future of whisky
By Phoebe Calver
There are many levels of appreciation to be explored when discussing whisky; at a surface level we have the packaging that draws our attention, or the style that we recognise, then there’s the process of creation and the science behind it that we could delve into for hours on end. However, one thing that, in my experience, has gone under-explored and under-discussed is the path well-travelled by whisky makers in their formative years. To all intents and purposes whisky is a science and an intricate one at that, but for many budding STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students, the idea of forging a career in the whisky industry is non-existent. This particularly applies to women entering the industry, who have lacked a visible powerhouse that they can not only see themselves in, but also be inspired by.

In the fifth annual survey released by global technology and engineering company Emerson, named the Emerson Global STEM Survey, the company noted a growing interest in STEM careers in the US but also a lack of encouragement, especially for women. The study’s findings stated that although six out of 10 Americans have shown an interest in pursuing a STEM-related career, fewer than four out of 10 have felt encouraged to do so.

The survey then took a closer look at gender balance and discovered a greater disparity among women, with around two out of three stating that they were not encouraged to pursue a career in STEM. The statistics presented in the study strike a somewhat disheartening tone. However, it is hoped that the tables are turning with younger generations and that platforms such as social media can help to shine a light on the career options available.
Marianne Eaves with whiskey in hand

One such individual shining a light on this very subject is Marianne Eaves, industry consultant, Kentucky’s first female Bourbon master distiller since Prohibition, and founder of palate development and Bourbon education programme Eaves Blind. Looking at the impressive roles Marianne has fulfilled so far in her career, it is important to understand how she got there. She explains, “I went to college for chemical engineering, but I didn’t know it was what I wanted to do right away… I initially thought I wanted to do something through vocational school since I loved Auto Shop in high school. I toured some mechanics schools, and even went to see ITT Tech, and then decided to just hold off a little while because nothing was really clicking.

“I decided to look into what chemical engineers do. I learned pretty quickly that they do some of everything, basically every major industry employs them, so I would have a pretty varied list of potential careers waiting for me, which was exciting.”

However, the varied list of potential careers didn’t open up Marianne’s eyes to the possibilities in the world of spirits. “It wasn’t until I was offered an internship with Brown-Forman that I really even thought of spirits as one of those exciting potential opportunities. Really, I didn’t know anything about alcohol, but my mom advised that Brown-Forman, if nothing else, would be great to have on my resume, which has absolutely been true,” she says.

Although Marianne was born in Tennessee and raised in Kentucky, she grew up in a dry county; this meant that there were no bars or liquor stores and alcohol was not something she would interact with around the house. Combining that fact with the lack of awareness about progressing into whisky careers for those studying chemical engineering at the time made for a fresh pair of eyes when she finally discovered her passion.
I am really excited and proud to have been a little bit of a face for the... rise of women in distilling

“I had no idea what it took to make spirits, so when I discovered it was a playground for an engineer I started to feel more and more that I had found my place, and a budding passion,” explains Marianne. “Mostly I just wanted to learn, I wanted to know it all, every nuance of the science and the art that make grains, water and wood come together to make really beautiful, flavourful spirits.”

Although her reasoning for setting out on a chemical engineering course was not initially the same as the outcome, had it not been for this educational pathway Marianne fully acknowledges that she would never have got the internship that ‘started it all’. It’s important to consider just how many talented female whisky makers, in particular, of the future are missing out on their chance to shape the spirit because of a lack of visibility.

Marianne continues, “I wouldn’t have got the internship that started it all, or risen through the ranks at Brown-Forman the way I did without the technical/scientific education. I wouldn’t have so quickly accumulated the knowledge that allowed me to make the huge move from BF to reviving The Historic Old Taylor Distillery and becoming Kentucky’s first female master distiller without being a chemical engineer first.”

During her years of studying chemical engineering, from 2007 to 2012, the diversity there was limited. “In my class of 40-ish students, we had six females, and I believe we only had one black student, a few Latin students, and one Middle Eastern student. It was mostly male and mostly white, which for an engineering campus in Kentucky is probably not surprising.”
Marianne on site during renovations at the now Castle & Key Distillery

Looking to the future, with the assistance of stories like Marianne’s and the platform that social media provides to publicise how it all came to be, there is reason to hope that statistics such as those mentioned in this article will begin to reach a more level playing field. As Marianne adds, “I think through visibility of the opportunities that are out there for women, we definitely hope to see more young ladies choosing this route. Personally, with the interest in my story and being a ‘first’ I have lots of young women, particularly young women engineers, reach out to me to ask for advice or to ask questions about the path I took. I am really excited and proud to have been a little bit of a face for the movement and rise of women in distilling, and it will continue to build, without a doubt.”  

Although the heightened visibility of role models is invaluable, we have to acknowledge that one of the root causes is the way in which educational pathways are often depicted as one linear road for a particular type of person. There are many students that this appeals to, however, for others the options and encouragement to pursue them needs to be improved.
Marianne elaborated on this point, “I think it’s partially the responsibility of educational establishments to ensure that their recruiting efforts are targeting diverse groups and that they do a good job of displaying an equal representation of diverse people working in these different roles.

“I knew I would make a good master distiller, but I had no idea that I could be one, until I was offered the chance to train at Brown-Forman. I would have never, as a young female, said I want to do what Chris Morris does, having the knowledge that every master distiller for every Kentucky distillery up to that point had been a white man.

“I also think it’s the responsibility of employers to highlight their own efforts in diversity and show young women that even though most STEM careers at this time are male dominated, it’s not because women don’t stand a chance, or somehow just innately can’t do those jobs as well. Visible representation makes a difference.”

With the combined efforts of educational institutions, spirits brands, and those individuals who have paved a way for themselves in the whisky world, the future looks a lot more diverse and I, for one, am excited.