Women in Whisky

In celebration of International Women’s Day on 8th March each year, we asked some of the Scotch Whisky Experience team to take a look at the whisky industry’s inspiring, pioneering women – the ones breaking new ground, doing things their way and holding their own in what has been a traditionally male-dominated industry.

This list is mainly Scotch whisky, but you’ll find a pretty inspirational figure in the Japanese whisky industry in here too, because we just loved the story (written by Recruitment Manager Alison).

Janet Sheed Roberts
William Grant & Sons

I first became aware of this remarkable woman when I worked at Glenfiddich Distillery almost 20 years ago.  As the last surviving grand-daughter of the distillery’s founder, William Grant, Janet Sheed Roberts had a number of exceptionally rare bottles released in her honour, including the Hazelwood Centennial Reserve which I was lucky enough to receive during my time there. Mrs Roberts studied law at university in Edinburgh (and Glasgow) – the only woman in her class.  While at university she was a keen hockey player and during one mixed game she is reported to have found herself marking Eric Liddell, of Chariots of Fire fame. After practising law for many years, Mrs Roberts went on to become a director of William Grant & Sons, promoting Glenfiddich around the world and witnessing many changes at the distillery in her lifetime.  Mrs Roberts celebrated her 110th birthday in August 2011 making her Scotland’s oldest resident at that time, sadly she passed away in April 2012.  Eleven bottles were released to mark her 110th birthday, many of which were later auctioned raising huge sums for charities like Water Aid and Walking with the Wounded.

  • Angela Dineen, Operations Director

Watch Angela’s story of The Bottle I Never Opened here

Helen Cumming

In the early 1800s Helen Cumming and her husband John started making whisky on their farm Cardow, which would later become the distillery Cardhu. Whilst John would take care of the farm, it was Helen who ran the household and was in charge of the whisky operations. The distillers and farmers would work together to conceal their illicit distilling from the agents and Helen had a really clever way of doing so. She distracted the tax collectors by inviting the in, offering food and shelter, and in the meantime also raising a red flag above the farm house to warn the others in the neighbourhood. There are also stories about Helen that say she used to walk all the way to Elgin, approximately 20 miles, with whisky tied up underneath her skirts, to sell the whisky to potential customers. Helen was a savvy businesswoman who lived until the old age of 98. Her daughter-in-law Elizabeth took over after Helen and managed to increase the business even more, eventually moving on to becoming a key blending house for one well-known Mr Walker.

  • Moa Nilsson, Senior Visitor Assistant

Read Moa’s latest blog post on exploring Edinburgh here.

Stephanie Macleod

With International Woman’s day approaching, I had the pleasure of visiting Dewar’s Aberfeldy distillery recently, and it was a delight and an inspiration to learn a more about John Dewar and Sons’ Master Blender Stephanie Macleod. As one of the few women in her field and the first female Master Blender for John Dewar and Sons, she is leading the way to encourage more woman to join the whisky industry, helping prove that Scotch whisky is moving forward to break gender stereotypes. Over her career she has been a great ambassador to help show that woman can be very successful in the industry. Looking to the future, hopefully Stephanie’s work will help will lead the way in the whisky industry no longer becoming such a male-dominated field. After all it is a person’s passion for whisky that should be the most important factor!

  • Elizabeth McGrath, Tour Bookings Coordinator

Maureen Robinson

Diageo’s Maureen Robinson provides an inspiring example of the role women have played in the Scotch Whisky industry over the years – more than forty years in this particular case. Starting as a scientist at DCL’s Glenochil Research Station, then moving on to a role in quality assurance, and eventually becoming a Master Blender, she has frequently been described as an “innovator”. This description tells us that she is someone whose creativity and expertise have combined to shape elements of the industry and ensure the international success of whiskies such as Talisker, Lagavulin, and countless special releases. It is through her dedication, and skill of exploring every detail of a Scotch Whisky’s character, that she has been able to create excellent new flavours and continue this craft for an incredible four decades.

  • Rebecca Orr, Senior Visitor Assistant and Marketing Apprentice

Watch Rebecca’s story of The Bottle I Never Opened here

Rita Cowan
Nikka Whisky

As a Scottish exchange student in Japan, one of the first questions people would excitedly ask me was “Have you watched Massan?” Massan, it turns out, was a Japanese drama loosely based on the story of Rita Cowan- a Scotswoman who left an impressive mark on the Japanese whisky industry. Yet, despite her fame in Japan, this was the first time I had heard about this humble woman from Kirkintilloch.

Rita was born in 1896, and despite health issues hindering her schooling, she was an intelligent woman and at the age of 18 she was accepted into the University of Glasgow to study English literature and music. In 1919, a young Japanese man by the name of Masataka Taketsuru arrived in Scotland to study the art of whisky distilling. Whilst boarding in the Cowan family home, Rita met and fell in love with Masataka and married him in January 1920. The couple knew that this marriage would be extremely controversial, but despite objections from her own mother (who had asked for the marriage to be annulled) Rita headed off across the world with her new husband to live with him in Japan.

Masataka was said to have been happy to settle in Scotland if that was what his wife wished, but Rita was an explorer excited to head off to an unknown exotic new world. There, she was said to have fully immersed herself in Japanese life. She learned to speak Japanese and earned a living teaching English and giving piano lessons.  

Masataka and Rita were determined to produce a Japanese whisky of higher quality than any of their competitors and in 1935, through business connections Rita had made with her English tutoring, they were able to secure funding to set up their own distillery. They felt that the climate and geography of Yoichi on the island of Hokkaido was similar to Scotland, and therefore would be the perfect place for them to produce whisky with the character and quality of that from Rita’s homeland.  

Once again, Rita undertook a large-scale move, leaving behind friends to travel nearly 1000km to Hokkaido. She had to adapt her distinctive Kyoto dialect, but quickly settled into life in northern Japan becoming a well-liked member of society. She was said to have enjoyed skiing and hillwalking along with hosting dinner parties.

Despite enduring a great many personal and political hardships during the second world war, Rita remained strong, vivacious and held her head high. The couple remained very much in love until the end of Rita’s life in 1961.

Today, Rita’s name lives on in Yoichi with both a kindergarten (that she helped to found) and a road named after her. A recreation of her home (including her Scottish style dining room) can even be seen in the distillery museum. In wider Japan, her story is known thanks to the recent television drama Massan (the nickname Rita affectionately gave Masataka), and a manga comic about her life.

Worldwide, her face can be seen on bottles of Taketsuru Blended malt, which- Rita and Masataka would have been proud to learn- was voted the world’s best blended malt in 2007.

This amazing pioneer was a strong and determined woman who helped shape with Japanese whisky industry, and I will sip a dram in her name this International Women’s Day.

  • Alison Shearer, Recruitment and Induction Manager

Bessie Williams

When it comes to celebrating female icons, as a whisky fan, I have to nominate Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Leitch Williamson, the only woman to own and manage a Scotch whisky distillery in the 20th century. It just happens that Laphroaig is one of my favourites…

Bessie originally trained as a teacher in Glasgow, earning clerical and secretarial skills along the way. It was in 1934, while she was on holiday with a friend on Islay, that Bessie’s whisky story truly starts: she successfully applied for a short term clerical vacancy at Laphroaig distillery – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Bessie became Ian Hunter – the owner’s – right hand woman, and following Hunter’s death in 1954, she inherited the distillery company, D. Johnston & Co.

Laphroaig thrived under Bessie’s management: looking ahead, she saw the need for long-term investment in Laphroaig and oversaw the transfer of controlling interest to Long John Distillers. Bessie remained as chairman and managing director until retiring in 1972.

In the 1960s, the Scotch Whisky Association invited Bessie on several tours of North America and Canada with them, to lecture on the production of Scotch whisky – this is how she met her husband, Wishart Campbell.

Bessie was a loved part of the Islay community and in 1963, was awarded the Order of St John by the Queen for her charity work.

  • Paula Arthur, Retail Manager

Watch Paula’s story of The Bottle I Never Opened here

Which inspiring women in whisky have we missed? You can find a few more in last year’s International Women’s Day piece here, but in the meantime, let’s raise a dram to these inspiring women helping to bring the love of whisky to the world.

Slainte mhath!

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