Women Who Broke Glass Ceilings & Shaped Modern Liquor Industry
Image Credit: Representational image via Wikimedia Commons.

MEN have always been at the forefront of alcohol and mixology for centuries, while women went as far as drinking during the Prohibition Era, when speakeasies made drinking popular among them.

However, they have been at the forefront of innovation when it comes to cocktails; just that the limelight was never shone on them adequately. To conclude Women’s History Month, let’s take a detour and shine the spotlight on the women who made a splash in the world of liquor, making their mark in a male-dominated space and shattering glass ceilings. (You might just be familiar with some of these names.) 

The Alchemist – Mary the Jewess and Distilling Equipment (around 0-200 CE)

Distillation technology that is behind alcohol making was invented by Mary, and was called the tribikos (the distilling machine) in early texts of the alchemists. She lived in Egypt and was the first of her kind to invent many apparatuses and different methods of processing chemicals that are used even today. She is revered in Arabic and Christian writing for the same reasons. 

Hildegard of Bingen and Beer (1098-1179)

Bingen was a German Benedictine abbess and polymath who is believed to have provided one of the earliest written records noting hops' use in brewing to prevent beer spoilage. Her wisdom on various subjects, including brewing with hops and barley, was remarkable for a woman in the patriarchal 12th century when most were illiterate. 

Queen Anne and Gin (1665-1714)

The Queen of Ireland and Great Britain between 1665 and 1714 was said to be behind “mother’s ruin” (misogyny) or the gin craze that gripped Britain. She was said to be fond of brandy, but she unintentionally caused this craze by cancelling a charter that gave the rights of distillation to one sole company in the UK. This caused a ripple effect and distilleries started popping up and gin became dirt cheap by the 1730s. It was said that about 10 million gallons of gin were being produced in the capital alone. 

Barb-Nicole Ponsardin and Champagne (1777-1866)

Barb-Nicole Ponsardin is better known as Veuve Clicquot, one of the world's most famous champagne brands. She took over her husband's failing Champagne business after his death in 1805. Amid the Napoleonic Wars, she gambled on the Russian market's taste for sweet Champagne. Her smuggled wines reached Russia first, winning over Tsar Alexander I. To meet demand, she innovated the riddling method still used today. Veuve Clicquot became one of the largest Champagne houses globally due to Barb-Nicole's business acumen and innovative temperament.

Hellen Cumming – Scotch Whisky (1824)

She’s said to be one of the pioneers behind every modern and vintage man’s favourite scotch whisky. She founded the company called Cardhu, in the 1800s and was the first woman behind this whisky. An OG bootlegger, she passed down her talents to Elizabeth, her daughter-in-law. A good businesswoman, Elizabeth expanded her mother-in-law's business and sold some of the company’s apparatus to the then-startup Glenfiddich. 

Savoy’s Head Bartender Ada Coleman (1899-1926)

In the early 1900s, Ada "Coley" Coleman was a trailblazing female head bartender at London's renowned American Bar at The Savoy Hotel. She created the classic cocktail called Hanky Panky for comic actor Charles Hawley. She had also served famous men from Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, and Mark Twain. When she left in 1926 after 23 years, newspapers heralded her as the "queen of cocktail mixers." 

Maggie Bailey’s Vallant Bootlegging (1920s)

Known as the "Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers," Maggie Bailey began bootlegging moonshine in Kentucky at age 17 in the 1920s to support her siblings. Though arrested dozens of times, she was only convicted once. For 50 years, the beloved Bailey used her earnings to help the community, even paying for college tuition. She quit at 95 and was nationally mourned upon her death at the age of 101.

Rita Taketsuru’s Japanese Whisky (Early 1900s)

Born in Scotland as Jessie Roberta Cowan, she helped her husband Masataka Taketsuru set up the company called Nikka, which uses single malts and grain whiskies from Hoichi and Miyagikyo. She brought whisky to Japan from Scotland making it one of the most popular choices of drink on the volcanic island. To honour her, she's today known as the mother of Japanese whisky. 

Valentine Goesaert’s fighting gender bias (1947)

In 1947, Michigan passed a law prohibiting women from bartending unless related to the bar owner. Valentine Goesaert, who owned a tavern in the city, employed her daughter and sued the state claiming gender discrimination. Though her case lost 6-3 at the Supreme Court, it set a precedent for examining gender bias. Her attorney Anne Davidow later convinced Michigan to repeal the law.

Bessie Williamson – Distillery Queen (1954)

Bessie Williamson was the only woman to own and run a distillery in the 1900s. After working at Laphroaig for 20 years, she became the owner when the previous owner, Ian Hunter, left her the distillery in his will. Williamson started working there over the summer and quickly rose through the ranks.

Lorena Vásquez – Rum Risks (1991)

Lorena Vásquez joined the rum company, Zacapa where she made a significant impact. She insisted that the distillery be built 2300 metres above sea level and was given the role of master blender, becoming the first woman ever to hold that position in the rum industry.

Joy Spence – Master Blender (1997)

Joy Spence joined the Appleton Estate in 1981 as chief chemist. In 1997, she became the first woman to hold the position of master blender in the spirits industry. Spence is highly regarded and has been awarded the Order of Distinction by Jamaica, making her a Commander in the Order.