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Women of High Spirits

Some of the best whisky makers and blenders are women. Charles Cowdrey met some of them at a special roadshow.
By Charles K Cowdery
A couple of issues back Whisky Magazine reported that more women than ever are drinking whisky, a revolutionary albeit welcome development, but women making whisky? If there still is a male-dominated bastion left, surely that is it.But as a matter of fact, yes, women do make whisky and other fine spirits too, though in part this depends on exactly how you define ‘make.’ To raise awareness of this fact, the drinks company Brown- Forman is spotlighting several prominently placed women on the production side of the industry.Its ‘Women of High Spirits’ road show features five esteemed female blenders, tasters or distillers of spirits products sold by Brown-Forman.The ‘Women of High Spirits’ are: Rachel Barrie, malt whisky master, Glenmorangie. She is responsible for all sensory and quality-related aspects of new product development for the company’s distilleries including Ardbeg.Lynne Tolley, master taster, Jack Daniel’s, and incidentally Jack’s great-grandniece. She is one of the distillery’s official taste testers and creates many Jack Daniel’s food recipes.Peggy Stevens, master taster, Woodford Reserve. She was the first female taster in the bourbon industry and is believed to be the only one. She focuses on pairing bourbon with food.Joy Spence, master blender, Appleton Estate Jamaica Rum.She was the first female master blender in the spirits industry and is responsible for creating and maintaining that brand’s extra-aged expressions.Caroline Steger, PhD, master distiller, Amarula Cream Liqueur. She makes the underlying spirit for this unusual South African Liqueur, made from the fruit of the marula tree.Brown-Forman Corporation owns Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve, and manages the U.S. distribution of Ardbeg, Appleton and Amarula. Women of High Spirits debuted in Louisville, Kentucky, where Brown-Forman is based. The five appeared at the national conference of the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs organization there, then went on to events in New York, and Chicago where we caught them.Rachel Barrie was unable to attend the Chicago event so Karen Fullerton, brand ambassador and business development manager for Glenmorangie, was subbed in. Karen is a wood management expert, schooled by Glenmorangie’s Dr. Bill Lumsden. The Chicago event was held at TRU, one of the city’s hottest restaurants, chosen because its well-known pastry chef is Gale Gand.After cocktails and socializing with the audience of retailers, restaurateurs and writers, each woman made a short presentation and talked us through a tasting of one of her products.As a tasting it was peculiar because we sampled five different products that had little relationship to each other, except via the five women who presented them. It was, however, interesting to learn from Ms. Spence that Appleton Jamaican rums are aged in used Jack Daniel’s barrels and that Caribbean rums, because of the tropical climate, age three times faster than spirits aged in more temperate climes.The three women representing whisky products are all tasters and each has other responsibilities at the distillery. Tasting is justly considered a crucial part of making whisky, as it is the primary form of quality control.Tasters sample whisky from barrels newly selected for bottling and compare it to a standard for that particular expression. Tasters are not necessarily looking for the ‘best’ whisky, but for whisky that best matches that product’s profile in its colour, nose, taste and finish.Every distillery has its tasting panel, all of whose members have other duties as well.At Ardbeg, Ms. Barrie leads a panel of 50 tasters. The Jack Daniel’s panel on which Ms. Tolley serves has 24 members. In addition to serving on the tasting panel at the Jack Daniel Distillery, Ms. Tolley runs its restaurant. Since Jack Daniel’s is made in a Tennessee county where liquor sales are prohibited, she slips a cocktail into her food.Every day a different menu item is made with Jack Daniel’s. Her tip for other cooks is that Jack Daniel’s can be substituted for vanilla in virtually any recipe, with good results.All of the samples we tasted had been poured before the event, into tall wine glasses, and covered with paper caps to preserve the nose. Upon uncapping the Jack Daniel’s Gentleman Jack sample we were greeted by a very strong aroma of what might uncharitably be described as turpentine and more kindly as overripe bananas.This quickly settled down and the other signature aromas of vanilla, caramel and almond began to show through.American straight whiskies in general have such potent scents that this practice of covering pre-poured samples does not always work to their advantage. Giving them a few minutes to air out is frequently a better strategy.Ms. Stevens, the other American whisky taster present, also comes from a culinary background. She currently is preparing a cookbook for Woodford Reserve that will be released in the Spring.Compared to the Jack Daniel’s and Ardbeg Uigeadail we also tasted, the Woodford Reserve sample was actually the most subtle of the three whiskies on offer, unusual status for a bourbon. Woodford Reserve is a nicely balanced medley of vanilla, dark fruit and toffee, finished with a suggestion of mint.Among her various duties, Ms. Stevens is responsible for tourism at the brand’s historic Kentucky distillery. Restored and reopened in 1996, Woodford draws 60,000 visitors a year, an impressive performance until Ms. Tolley mentions that Jack Daniel’s draws four times as many.Like the Jack Daniel’s sample, the Ardbeg Uigeadail single malt hardly needed help expressing its signature aroma. I kept discovering its rich, smoky, peaty scent in my nostrils for days after the event. Ms. Barrie’s able substitute, Ms.Fullerton, talked us through going beneath the peat and uncovering some of the spirit’s other characteristics. She described it as ’charming a snake out of its basket.’ She compared the whisky’s flavour to ‘Christmas pudding covered in treacle’, – a reference almost completely lost on her Midwestern American audience.The only distiller of the group, Caroline Steger of South Africa’s Distell Corporation, makes the marula brandy that is blended with cream and flavourings to create Amarula Cream liqueur, the second largest selling cream liqueur in the world.Compared to number one Baileys Irish Cream, Amarula has a fruity, fig-like taste beneath its cocoa and cream. Asked if the marula brandy is ever sold separately, Steger reported that they had tried that first, without success. When they mixed it with cream it became a hit.Dinner followed the tasting and since TRU is considered one of Chicago’s leading restaurants, that bears a mention. Tasting several different spirits really is not the best way to precede a fine meal, because alcohol at high proof tends to numb the taste buds, but everything was very enjoyable nonetheless.If there ever was any doubt, it now has been amply proved that the absence of a Y chromosome clearly does not limit a person’s ability to make fine spirits.