More whiskey, grandma?

While more and more women are drinking whiskey nowadays, they’ve had a decades-long history with this spirit. Let’s make a toast to those heroines!

If you are a woman and have an inclination for whiskey instead of say, vodka or rum, hearing sarcastic comments or getting the raised eyebrow when you order might be an all too familiar scene. A couple of years ago, in New York, Julia Ritz Toffoli and some of her friends reached the conclusion that they were tired of this. Wasn’t it ridiculous that whiskey was still considered a man’s drink? They created a social circle around whiskey, and thus, Women Who Whiskey was born. At a recent gathering in Manhattan, young female professionals enjoyed paired tastings and cocktails with a renewed sense of freedom. The club now has six chapters and nearly 2,000 members all over the world, and is one of many initiatives that embrace the feminine side of the spirit. “Today’s woman doesn’t live by the same parameters as their mothers and grandmothers, they drink what they want,” says Fred Minnick, journalist and author of the book Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey. In the book, Minnick discovers how the womanliness of the drink is far from being new. As a matter of fact, women are part of the liquor’s history from its very roots. Historical records from both sides of the ocean show that women did not only distill spirits at home for decades, (the first distillations, called aqua vitae, or water of life included “everything, from rosewater to potatoes”) but had primordial roles in the distilling industry since its early days.

Back in the 17th Century, the owner of Bushmills, the “Protestant whiskey of Ireland”, would employ women and buy barley from widows. After his death, he left the business to his wife. She later sold it for 3,000 pounds, having gained the respect of her peers in a time and place that didn’t offer women leadership positions. Across the mountains, women snuck their unaged spirits into weddings, funerals and fairs. “They created cocktails using creamy goat’s milk and mint leaf, and added butter and honey.” The alcoholic drink had acquired great importance for countryside social gatherings. More so, it had become the way many women made their living.


But the relationship between women and whiskey wasn’t always pretty. Soon, many were accused of witchcraft and heavily punished for illegally making and selling the spirit. Legends such as Kate Kearney, Ireland’s most famous distiller, were born in a time of famine and death, soothed by the beautiful woman that would give away her comforting mixture, reportedly so good that “travelers showed up for a taste, even twenty years after her death.” Once the spirit arrived to the Americas, it didn’t take long before its popularity grew; and so did the number of women who knew how to make it. “It might have been the first true mail-order bride industry,” says Minnick, about men who would pay women to move to America “just to make liquor.” And so, American women soon succumbed to its charm also. “Poor women drank it and so did the rich.” Even the Lady’s Complete Guide, by Mary Cole, considered that a housekeeper “cannot be said to be complete without a competent knowledge in the art of brewing.”

Women stayed loyal to their drink with the arrival of illegal spirits. It was the time of Belle Starr, the Bandit Queen that stole whiskey from the whites and sold it to Native American tribes with her Starr Gang. By the time Prohibition was enforced, most women remained part of the underground trade, selling so well that “agents believed that female bootleggers outsold male five to one.” Operating from Nassau, Bahamas, Gertrude Leo Lythgoe was one of the stars of a female network that smuggled whiskey in big and small quantities, in baby carriages, under their skirt, or in financed ships that carried up to 100,000 dollars of illegal booze.

It took decades until women could openly have an alcoholic drink without societal reproach. They had to wait for the ‘60s, ‘70s and even the ‘80s for an equal opportunity to drink. At the same time Julia Ritz Toffoli and her colleagues were founding Women Who Whiskey, another group of ladies in the heart of Kentucky were kicking off the first American female drinking club, in the state governor’s mansion. They called it Bourbon Women. A local reporter, Fred Minnick recalls, in the words of the founder Peggy Noe Stevens: “We, ladies, love our Bourbon, and we’re here to show the world it’s not just a man’s drink.”