Celebrating Female Distillers
March is National Women’s Month, so we-re featuring women who aren’t only calling the shots, they’re making them.
Story by Ruksana Hussain
The spirits industry is booming and the number of distilleries across the U.S. is growing. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States reported record spirits sales in 2017, with a four percent increase for a total of $26.2 billion. While the majority of American distilleries are male-owned, the number of women helming the stills is on the rise. Since March is National Women’s Month, we’re featuring seven women who are shaking up the status quo. Here, they share some of the highs and lows of their work.
Motivation: My husband and co-owner had a family tradition of making sloe gin back in England. It had a relatively bad name in the U.S. because none of it was made with actual sloe berries. We wanted to change that by introducing traditionally made sloe gin with real fruit, in Sonoma County, where that commitment to quality matters.
Best Bits: Anything hands-on: mashing, pumping, distilling—even cleaning!
Preferred Drink: The Millionaire: rum, sloe gin, apricot and lime. It’s tart, tangy, and bright!
Coming Soon: Available this year, a navy strength gin, an aquavit, and hopefully an unsweetened sloe gin called Bitter Sloe.
Visit: Tours are offered Friday-Sunday at 2 and 4 p.m. for $20/person at 6790 McKinley St., Suite 100, Sebastopol, California. There’s also a tasting room. Find more details here.
Motivation: My husband came up with the idea, so I challenged him to write a business plan. I was never worried about my ability to perform the technical parts of the job, only about making enough money to support a business. Almost 10 years later, we’re delighted to be facing the challenges of growth!
Challenges: As a chemical engineer, I’ve always worked in industries populated mostly by guys. There are always challenges making oneself heard, especially since I tend to be a more reserved personality, but no one can outwork me.
Best Bits: I enjoy the creative parts of working with my different suppliers for new product ideas. I only wish I had more time and budget.
Preferred Drink: A classic Sazerac—with Catoctin Creek, of course!
Coming Soon: Our upcoming 10th anniversary will feature a limited release of our first Bottled-In-Bond Rye Whisky as well as a second limited release of our 8-year-old XO Virginia Brandy.
Visit: Tours and tastings are offered daily except Mondays at 120 W Main Street, Purcellville, Virginia. Get the scoop here.
Motivation: I wanted to bring to life one of the greatest American stories you’ve never heard: The story of the first African-American master distiller on record, Nearest Green.
Challenges: I don’t see distilling or the whiskey business as a man’s world. I see it as a world with far too few women pursuing. But we are also the sex that will shake up this industry for the better. Our share of the population is nearly 50 percent, and I’m excited to see when that is also our share of the spirits industry.
Best Bits: Working with the end game in mind. For our team, the focus is not on where we will be in the next five years. Our focus is where this brand will be in the next 200 years and working our way backwards from there. We grind daily to ensure that even if our great-great-grandchildren have no idea of our involvement in the founding or growing of this brand, when they go to choose a drink on a shelf of a restaurant anywhere in the world, they will see Jack, Johnnie, Jim, and Nearest.
Preferred Drink: Uncle Nearest 1820 or Uncle Nearest 1856 neat (hold the rock). Coming Soon: Uncle Nearest 1856 Tennessee Silver. It is the first time in spirits history a super-premium clear whiskey has ever hit the marketplace. We began with seven-year-old Uncle Nearest premium whiskey and carefully and methodically removed all the color using natural carbon from coconut shells. It has been a project more than two years in the making. We have thrown out a lot—and I mean A LOT—of batches in order to perfect this and we could not be more proud.
Visit: Tours are limited but available at 3125 US-231 North, Shelbyville, Tennessee. Find information here.
Motivation: I graduated with a master’s degree in chemical engineering from University of Louisville’s Speed School of Engineering, spent 15 years working as a process engineer in industrial scale distillation, and then another decade as a high school chemistry teacher. My husband grew up as a dairy farmer: We still live on the farm and it’s where we raised our children. When he came up with the idea to open a family distillery, it reignited my passion for distilling. I love seeing the crops we’ve grown on our family farm transformed into spirits that are true to our Kentucky roots. It’s exciting to work in an industry that allows combining my biggest passions: family and distilling.
Best Bits: When I get to be alone and run the stills at night. Our still setup is beautiful, especially with a night sky in the background. And when it’s quiet, the rhythmic sounds from the still are calming. I love getting to appreciate the beauty of the stills, our building and our products!
Preferred Drink: Until our bourbon is released, my signature libation is our Blueberry Lavender Lemonade, made with our Jeptha Creed blueberry flavored vodka. Just three ingredients: Blueberry flavored vodka, lavender simple syrup, and lemonade.
Coming Soon: Jeptha Creed Kentucky Straight Four Grain Bourbon made from our homegrown heirloom non-GMO bloody butcher corns is scheduled to be released late Spring 2019.
Visit: Tours and tastings are offered Thursdays through Sundays at 500 Gordon Lane, Shelbyville, Kentucky. Learn more here.
Motivation: A bartender and rum fanatic from my early days, I worked my way through college and grad school tending bar and making craft cocktails. The prospect of owning a craft distillery offered me three channels: a bar to make the cocktails I loved, a distillery to make the rum I wanted to drink, and an entrepreneurial challenge at a moment when I sensed craft spirits would take off.
Challenges: I have a mantra: “I am not in a prisoner of war camp. I am not floating in a lifeboat in the Pacific.” That may give you a sense of how hard some days can still be. I travel all over the U.S. visiting bars and bartenders, hosting events. I am often fending off advances while trying to work or mistaken for the hired booth hand. It has taken ten years, many groundbreaking recognitions and relentlessness to break out of these limitations. Women-founded companies get two percent of the venture capital deals that benefit my male colleagues. In addition to establishing myself as knowledgeable about rum, I have to do it with less financial backing. And yet, I persist.
Best Bits: When someone says, “Wow, I didn’t know I loved rum until Montanya Rum.” To be winning over a generation of skeptics and contributing to the rebirth of American rum is a dream come true for me. I am also incredibly proud of growing a company that has a triple bottom line: planet, people and profit.
Coming Soon: Montanya Valentia rum to be released in 2019. Valentia means courage, bravery, grit, tenacity in Spanish. It will be a tribute to women breaking the glass ceiling in rum, craft spirits, and the alcohol beverage industry.
Visit: Tours and tastings are offered daily at 212 Elk Avenue, Crested Butte, Colorado. Get more information here.
Motivation: I was very much inspired by the craft distilling boom and have always been a big whiskey drinker. I was ready to quit my job so just jumped off the cliff into business ownership.
Challenges: It’s more fun than anything. I don’t face as many challenges as much as I experience assumptions about the business, such as people who assume that my male distiller who works for me is actually the business owner, or that my parents own the business and I work for them, etc.
Best Bits: Bottling a barrel-aged spirit for the first time makes the hard work feel worth it. Also seeing local bartenders’ creativity and what they can do to highlight our product.
Preferred Drink: Scotch neat with a splash of water. I’m also really getting into mezcal.
Coming Soon: Looking into releasing a Genever-style spirit, our twist on the standard gin.
Visit: Tours and tastings are offered at 55 East Patrick Street, Frederick, Maryland. Get details here.
Motivation: My husband and I were transferred to Kentucky 22 years ago with a steel/magnetics manufacturing company. I ended up as a distillery relief supervisor for Beam where I met the then Beam Master Distillery Jerry Dalton. As hard as this job was, I loved it and I knew I was hooked on the process and the industry very quickly. Five years ago, I was approached about joining the Michter’s team. I loved the quality-focused philosophies and our goal to make the best American whiskey regardless of cost.
Best Bits: The varied aspects. The challenges. The opportunities. I interact with our production people, consumers, sales reps and distributors, bartenders and mixologists, and many others. As a small organization we all wear many hats. I am never bored!
Preferred Drink: I love all of our products neat. I am especially fond of our toasted bourbon and rye but I also enjoy our products in many cocktails,a particular favorite is a Blackberry & Rye. It’s made with 1 oz. Pinot Noir, 1 oz. Michter’s U.S. #1 Rye Whiskey, ½ oz. fresh lemon juice, ½ oz. simple syrup, garnished with three blackberries and a lemon twist,and served in a cocktail or coupe glass.(The recipe was created by Victoria Chow and Alex Pun for The Woods in Hong Kong.)
Visit: Tours with tastings are offered at Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery, 801 West Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky. Find out more here.