In 2018, the three founders of Milam & Greene, a distillery in Blanco, Texas, made their first trip to the San Antonio Cocktail Conference, one of the state’s largest gatherings of bartenders, distillers and their legions of fans. They were excited to introduce their new whiskey, until they found their assigned table — stuck in a corner, far from the action.
The cold shoulder might have come because they were new to the scene, or because a portion of their whiskey was made outside Texas. But it didn’t help that all three of them — Marsha Milam, entrepreneur; Heather Greene, CEO and master blender; and Marlene Holmes, master distiller — were women, trying to make it in an industry well known for its assertive, sometimes aggressive masculinity.
“There were literally complaints, like, ‘Why are they in here?’” Greene said.
Undaunted, the Milam & Greene team persevered, winning competitions and critical acclaim, including an award at the Texas Whiskey Festival in April. And three years after that first, frosty reception, they find themselves not just accepted, but celebrated by other Texas distillers.
“It was a total turnaround,” Greene said. “We just had to dig in and say, ‘We’re here, and we’re one of you guys.’”
Similar stories abound in the American whiskey business, where women have long played a quiet and underappreciated role, often in places like the bottling line or the marketing department. In the past few years, though, women have started to take on leadership roles in production — distilling and blending — at corporate operations like the Cascade Hollow Distilling Co. in Tennessee and startups like Milam & Greene.
In the process, they’re not just getting long-deserved credit — they are reshaping what remains a male-dominated profession.
“There have always been women in the industry,” said Andrea Wilson, master of maturation at Michter’s, a distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. “What’s different today is that they’re getting recognition for the contributions they made through time.”
Distilling used to be considered women’s work, part of their duties around the hearth and home. In his book “Whiskey Women,” Fred Minnick writes that women in medieval Europe used their distilling acumen to make medicine, but also were persecuted when those same skills were denounced as black magic.
That tradition continued on the early American frontier: Catherine Spears Frye Carpenter, a widowed mother and distiller in early 19th-century Kentucky, was the first to record a recipe for sour-mash whiskey.
As modern, industrial distilling emerged after the Civil War, and as gender roles became more rigid, women played less of a role in whiskey production, though they left their stamp in other ways. In the 1950s, Margie Samuels designed the bottle and label for her husband’s new whiskey brand, Maker’s Mark — and even developed its signature red-wax seal.
A few women managed to get hired for production roles. Both Pam Heilmann, master distiller emerita at Michter’s, and Holmes, of Milam & Greene, spent decades working at Jim Beam.
Holmes, 65, says that when she started out in the early 1990s, she had to overcome not just the usual sexist stereotypes about women, but also the many myths about women and distilling — for example, that their hormones might interfere with fermentation.
“If it was that time of month, if you’re on your period, you’re going to mess up the yeast,” she recalled being told.
Smarter heads at the company prevailed, and Holmes took on more and more production responsibilities. “When I left Beam 27 years later,” she said, “I was making that yeast.”
There’s a reason besides hard work that women make natural distillers and blenders. Scientists have long known that women have more nuanced senses of smell than men — Linda M. Bartoshuk, professor of food science at the University of Florida, estimates that 35% of women qualify as what she calls supertasters, while only 15% of men do. That keen sense can be a big asset when you’re trying to decide if a fermentation is ready, or if you need to tweak the spice notes in a batch of whiskey.
Women like Holmes and Heilmann have opened doors for younger women distillers, many of whom arrive with technical training in chemistry and engineering — important assets, they say, for breaking through what can still seem like an old boys’ network.
Among them is Nicole Austin. She studied chemical engineering in college and was working for a wastewater-treatment company in New York City when, in the early 2010s, she started volunteering at the Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn.
Her hobby soon turned into a new career. Austin, 37, helped found the New York State Distillers Guild in 2013, and later worked with Dave Pickerell, a consultant who jump-started dozens of craft distilleries, and at the sprawling Tullamore Distillery in Ireland.
In 2018 she returned to the United States to become the manager at Cascade Hollow in Tullahoma, Tennessee, home of George Dickel whiskey. There, she has revitalized a once-sleepy brand — Whisky Advocate named her first major release, a 13-year-old bottling, its whiskey of the year in 2019 — and won recognition as one of the nation’s best young distillers.
Austin said she was lucky to start her career at a time when a new generation of whiskey makers, more comfortable with women playing an equal role, was ascendant, even though she still has to deal with people who resent the idea of a woman doing what they see as men’s work.
“In moving to the whiskey industry, I’ve experienced the best and the worst,” she said. “The most dramatic inequity in pay and the most dramatically misogynistic corporate cultures, but I have also experienced an industry that has elected to have me as a leader multiple times.”
That tension is a challenge for women like Austin and the Milam & Greene team, who say they want to be respected for their achievements, not their gender — but also recognize that their standing makes them role models, with a responsibility to support other women trying to break in.
It’s a paradox that weighs especially heavy on Victoria Eady Butler, master blender at Uncle Nearest, a Tennessee distillery founded by entrepreneur Fawn Weaver in 2017. This year, Whisky magazine named Butler its blender of the year, but she said she still sometimes worries about how people perceive her, especially as a Black woman.
“I think we have been an example in this industry by showing that women can carry these roles and not just be a figurehead,” she said. “I fully understand that eyes are on me as the first African American master blender in history, and I embrace that responsibility — but I don’t focus on it.”
Dealing with residual sexism in the industry is hard enough — for many women distillers, the problem is not their co-workers, but their customers, especially men who bristle at the possibility that a woman might know more about whiskey than they do.
Marianne Eaves studied chemical engineering in college before starting at Brown-Forman, the Louisville company that makes Jack Daniel’s, Old Forester and Woodford Reserve whiskeys. There she found a mentor in Chris Morris, the company’s master distiller, who in 2014 gave her the role of master taster — a job focused on sensory analysis and quality control — and worked with her to develop new whiskeys like Jack Daniel’s Rye and Woodford Reserve Double Oak.
But she recounted her frustration when, during a public event where Morris had highlighted her work, a retailer pushed past her to shake his hand.
“He glanced at me and said, ‘Oh, you’re that taster girl,’” she recalled. “Chris said, ‘No, she is our master taster.’ But the guy said it a second time, and Chris corrected him a second time.”
Eaves left Brown-Forman in 2015 for a startup distillery, Castle & Key, where she was a partner and the master distiller — the first woman in Kentucky to hold that title since Prohibition — and in 2019 struck out on her own as a consultant. (Two other women have followed her in top spots at Brown-Forman: Elizabeth McCall, assistant master distiller at Woodford Reserve, and Jackie Zykan, master taster for Old Forester.)
Eaves has won plaudits for her recent work, developing ultrapremium whiskeys for brands like Sweetens Cove, which is backed by a group of sports stars including Peyton Manning and Andy Roddick.
Nevertheless, she still finds herself under the occasional sexist attack, especially from trolls online.
“At first it really got under my skin, but after a while, I stopped reading the comments,” she said. “I don’t feel I have to fight every battle. People follow me, I don’t have to justify myself every time someone challenges my accomplishments.”
But, she added, a lot has changed in the 12 years since she got into the business. Not only are more men open to learning about whiskey from a woman, but women also now make up an estimated 36% of American whiskey drinkers, according to 2020 data from market research firm MRI-Simmons. The change is borne out by the success of groups like the Bourbon Women Association, founded by Peggy Noe Stevens, another former master taster at Woodford Reserve, which organize women-only tastings and distillery tours.
“I love having the opportunity to get in front of women, answer questions, share stories and not worry about side glances or judgments,” Eaves said.
While most women distillers say they try not to play up their gender, many also are intent on using their experiences to make the industry more inclusive.
After Lisa Wicker became president of Widow Jane distillery in Brooklyn, she set about restructuring the culture from one in which employees were pushed to compete with one another to a more collaborative, even egalitarian environment.
Wicker came to distilling relatively late in her career, after working in a costume shop in Columbus, Indiana, and at a nearby winery. At Widow Jane, she has challenged the idea that distilling is a sort of priesthood, inaccessible to the uninitiated.
When she noticed one of her office assistants, Sienna Jevremov, hanging around the still room, she asked if she’d like to learn how to use the equipment — and soon promoted her to run the day-to-day operations.
Wicker has hired women for other leadership jobs as well, and she laughed off the idea that there was anything surprising about a woman working in a distillery.
“It’s the only job,” she said, “where you can wear Carhartts and a cocktail dress in one day.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.