I was meeting up with a friend recently in London. Being early, I had sat down at a coffee shop to await her arrival and continued pouring over the latest whisky book I was entranced by. Being so absorbed in its tales, I hardly noticed her arrival until she happened to say, “My god, that is the perfect book for you.” I couldn’t help but agree.
Entitled ‘Whiskey Women, The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey’ I was, naturally, hugely interested as soon as I got wind of its imminent bookstore arrival back in early 2013. The author, Fred Minnick is – like many people interested in whisky – a part of what Johanne McInnis calls the ‘Whisky Fabric’ – people from around the world who tend to talk, discuss and network over social media and in person at events. I’d, therefore, come across him before and found out more about the book when he asked if he would be able to use a small amount of material from this site within it, a huge honour.
As background, Fred is a Wall Street Journal best-selling author and former army journalist, who now specialises in spirits and wine – a sure hand to take on this vast subject.
The book is a first of its kind and I was very keen to see how Fred would tackle the subject. As it turns out, he did it with such style and fascinating insight that I could barely put it down for enjoying it so much.
As background, Fred got the idea for it after attending the first meeting of the Bourbon Women society, founded in 2011 in Kentucky by Peggy Noe Stevens, a master taster for Brown-Forman. He was inspired by the messages that came from that launch: the fact that women have always been an integral part to the whisky (or, in his case since he’s writing from the American perspective, the whiskey) industry but who have often had their contributions forgotten about.
Throughout the book’s 161 pages, Fred takes the reader from ancient Mesopotamia (where, we learn, women had long been a part of the brewing industry) through early distillation in Europe and across the Atlantic to the Wild West and Prohibition, before running through the major changes and advancements in the whisky industry that women have been a part of throughout the latter 20th and start to the 21st century.
As mentioned, I was hooked from the beginning. Half history lesson, half comedic, anecdotal story, the book sheds light on so many women I had no idea had played a part in the whisky industry in the past such as Gertrude ‘Cleo’ Lythgoe – known as the Queen of the Bootleggers for her role in helping to get the drink into Prohibition era US – and Marge Samuels, who created the famous red wax topped label by experimenting with melting wax in her family’s deep fat fryer in the 1950s after her husband Bill Samuels Sr. founded the Maker’s Mark distillery.
Perhaps the most fascinating sections for me are those detailing just how many female ‘outlaws’ and bad girls of whisky there were in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and how this has affected the way women and drink have been perceived in the following decades. In chapter six, for instance, Fred details how women and whiskey were often used to lure men into brothels and taverns in the late 19th century and how much a money maker it was. “New York prostitutes sold more liquor in 1847 than the net revenues of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Missouri combined. Women of the oldest profession were arguably the most important whiskey retailers in the 1800s, but their unsavoury nature tarnished the whiskey industry and forced cities to ban women from taverns.”
The fact women were intrinsically linked with the ‘unsavoury’ side of alcohol helped to later cause a trickle down effect of banning women from working behind bars in many US states until the (unbelievably) 1970s!
Equally interesting are the chapters on how Bessie Williamson – pictured left, who worked at and then ran Laphroaig from the late 1930s until selling her shares in 1972 – helped to market single malt Scotch abroad and the chapter on all of the women who are shaping and changing the whisky industry globally in this day and age.
I could go on – I found something hugely intriguing in almost every page of this book. It has been written clearly but with great admiration pouring off each page for the hundreds of women who have lived and breathed whisky for centuries. It is not just a book for whisky lovers, or those women keen to learn more about the role of their sex in this industry, but for people fascinated with history and how sociological changes throughout centuries can have a trickle down effect on everything from industry to marketing and gender stereotyping.
It was with sadness that I finished Fred’s book but I will no doubt go back to it from time to time to refresh my memory with the stories and facts that are bursting from each page. A job truly well done.
With thanks to Fred Minnick for providing images and arranging for a review copy.
The book is available online and in bookshops in the UK and abroad, with an RRP of £17.99.
For more information on Fred, his work and other books, visit: http://fredminnick.com/