This is a man’s world… or is it?

To celebrate International Women’s Day which is celebrated on the 8th March, our Senior Visitor Assistant, Jacqui has been doing some research into the women of the whisky world. Read on to learn about some inspirational and strong-minded women..

It’s long been thought that whisky is very much a man’s drink, much too strong for the feint-hearted wee lassies who would be better suited to a nice gin or a glass of wine. When you think of a whisky drinker, do you instantly imagine an older gent in a tweed jacket, sipping a single malt by the fire? Most do. However, women have been instrumental in the Scotch whisky industry over the years and nowadays just as many women drink whisky as men. To celebrate International Women’s Day, we’re taking a look at some of the industry’s most prominent women.

Helen and Elizabeth Cummings – Cardhu Distillery, Speyside

In the early 19th century, the Cummings were distilling whisky (without a licence) on their family farm, then named Cardow. Although not quite legal, this was common practice at the time. When visiting excisemen would come to investigate, Helen Cumming would invite them to stay at the farm lodgings and while the gentlemen sat down to tea, she would hoist a red flag to warn her whisky distilling neighbours of the danger. Helen was a powerful and knowledgeable businesswoman and oversaw distilling at Cardhu for over 60 years. Eventually Helen’s daughter-in-law Elizabeth became involved and the two women ran the distillery side by side for many years. Even in the 1800s, distilleries were being pioneered by women.

Elizabeth “Bessie” Williamson – Laphroig Distillery, Islay

When talking about women in whisky, it’s impossible not to mention Elizabeth “Bessie” Williamson. Originally from Glasgow, Bessie graduated as a teacher in 1932 aged 22. In the absence of a teaching position she took a summer job as a typist at Laphroig distillery in 1934 and planned to stay on Islay for three months. That three-month position turned into a lifelong career and before long she had become ‘right-hand woman’ to Ian Hunter, the distillery manager and owner at the time. When Hunter passed away in 1954, he bequeathed to her £5000 and the distillery itself, along with the adjoining Ardenistle House and Texa Island. In doing so, Bessie became the first female distillery owner and manager of the 20th century. As well as running Laphroig very successfully over the years, Bessie travelled to the United States to lecture on behalf of the Scotch Whisky Association, took part in a great deal of charity work for Islay inhabitants and was even elected “Great Britain’s Woman of the Year” at one point.

Rachel Barrie – Master Blender

During her almost 30 year career, Rachel Barrie has worked all over Scotland, focussing on quality maturation and honing her craft as a master blender. Starting off her distillery journey in 1995 at Glenmorangie, she then moved to Ardbeg to help bring a suffering underdog distillery back to its former glory. Rachel has also worked at Bowmore distillery, and in 2017, she took the job as head whisky maker for BenRiach, Glenglassaugh and Glendronach distilleries. Rachel’s prowess as a blender has gained her immense respect within the industry, and in recognition of her dedication she was made a Keeper of the Quaich in 2019.

Kelsey McKechnie – Apprentice Malt Master, The Balvenie

Proving to everyone that neither gender nor age have anything to do with one’s ability to appreciate and create great whisky, 26 year old Kelsey McKechnie was named as The Balvenie’s apprentice malt master in 2018. As the youngest ever woman to hold such a title, Kelsey has spent the last two years working with and learning from David Stewart, the industry’s longest serving malt master. Stewart called her “a precious talent, with a real flair for distillation, a dedication to her craft and a self-assurance and poise that completely belies her young age”, and with an endorsement like that I think we should all be very excited to see what she comes up with.

And if you’re still looking for strong, inspiring women in the world of whisky, you really need look no further than the Scotch Whisky Experience itself. Headed up by multiple female Masters and Keepers of the Quaich and many female tour guides and tasting hosts, we’re certainly proving that whisky can be, and is, enjoyed by everybody. Happy International Women’s Day – Slàinte Mhath!

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