By Katie Foote, Epicure & Culture Contributor
Lady Gaga and Rihanna sing about it, while George Washington distilled it. Whiskey has always been a big part of the American identity. Traditionally, whiskey was often enjoyed in gentlemen’s parlors, alongside cigars and political conversations. But thanks to the growing number of women distillers, whiskey’s appeal has extended beyond the “old boy’s club.”
Back in the early colonial days, women used whiskey as a versatile medicine to treat anything from itches to headaches. In the 1990s, only 15% of whiskey drinkers were female. According to Fred Minnick, author of Whiskey Women, women nowadays represent 37% of American whiskey buyers. The increase in female consumers corresponds with more women working in the industry as distillers, blenders, tasters and business owners.
Meet some of the leading women distillers in the United States, who will boost your love of scotch, bourbon and whiskey with their inspiring stories and delicious whiskey-based cocktails.
Note: Spellings of the word whisky vs whiskey is based on how the distillery spells it. Traditionally most places use the spelling “whisky” while “whiskey” is American and Irish. According to Kitchn, a trick is to remember that most countries without an “E” in the name spell whisky without an E, where as IrEland and the UnitEd StatEs spell it with an E.
1) Carin Luna-Ostaseski
SIA Scotch Whisky (San Francisco, California)
When Carin Luna-Ostaseski founded SIA Scotch Whisky, her aim was to challenge the idea that scotch is an old man’s drink. It was a break-up that sparked her love of whiskey, as she started heading to a nearby whiskey shop to heal her broken heart. By the end of the year she had almost 300 bottles in her collection.
Carin recalls, “When friends came over to my house, I’d ask them to taste different whisky brands. That’s how I started to get to know what people liked, didn’t like and why.”
Eventually Carin developed SIA as a delicious, affordable whisky that works well in cocktails. She never imagined that her product would be such a success.
She explains, “I was expecting to be knocking down doors in an old boys club, but I’ve been lucky. It’s been mostly women in this industry who have opened doors for me”.
Carin recommends a Glasgow Mule; a SIA Scotch on ice, with ginger beer and a squeeze of lime. It’s delicious, refreshing and easy to make.
2) Becky Harris
Catoctin Creek Distilling Co. (Loudoun County, Virginia)
Becky Harris is the chief distiller and co-founder of Catoctin Creek Distilling, the first legal distillery in Loudoun County, Virginia since Prohibition. They make whisky from scratch, using 100% rye that is certified kosher and organic. Becky’s background in Chemical and Process Engineering helps her run the whisky-making side of Catoctin Creek, a business which she started with her husband in 2009.
She says, “Many family-run distilleries have women taking care of the business side of the operations and men running the production side. We flipped those roles because our skills fit the opposite assignments”.
Becky recommends a “Walnut Old Fashioned” created by Paul Trahan Taylor of Southern Efficiency in Washington DC.
Recipe for Walnut Old Fashioned
- 2 oz Roundstone Rye (Catoctin 92-proof distiller’s reserve selection works well)
- ½ oz honey syrup*
- ½ oz Don Ciccio Nocino (walnut liqueur, made by Don Ciccio, a DC-based distillery producing liqueurs from old family recipes from the Amalfi coast in Italy)
- A dash of Angostura aromatic bitters
- *Honey Syrup (Combine equal parts local honey and hot water. Stir to combine and store for up to three months in the refrigerator.)
Combine the ingredients in a rocks glass with a big ice cube, stirring gently.
3) Dana Weddell
Hewn Spirits (Bucks County, Pennsylvania)
As an Irish-American, Dana grew up with a cultural reverence towards a fine glass of whiskey and the conversations that it creates. When she moved closer to her hometown, she embraced the opportunity to work as the manager for Hewn Spirits in Peddler’s Village. She explains that the distillery embodies everything she loves about Pennsylvania, from local grain fields and reclaimed barn-wood to aged American Scotch.
Dana loves to walk women through the process of whiskey-making, while offering them a safe space to ask questions.
She recommends their “Dirty Duck” cocktail, which uses Hewn Spirits Red Barn Rye Whiskey with a dash of bitters, topped with ginger ale. According to Dana, “it’s simple and scrumptious and it makes rye whiskey accessible to people who may have previously skipped that part of the menu.”
4) Heather Bass
Rabbit Hole Distilling (Louisville, Kentucky)
Heather Bass started enjoying bourbon in college. Years later, she deepened her appreciation for the spirit itself and opened Rabbit Hole Distilling with her husband.
She says, “My initial love of the spirit probably came from a connection I felt to Kentucky, and missing home a bit.”
Heather loves the female bourbon community in Louisville.
“It feels almost like a sisterhood, or sorority of sorts, but the only admission is a love of bourbon,” she explains.
Heather Bass recommends a “Rabbit Hole Rye on the Rocks,” but she also suggests another drink.
“If you want something a little sweeter, you can’t go wrong with a classic Manhattan. The Rye is just slightly spicy with an incredibly smooth finish, so it makes an amazing cocktail.”
5) Monica Pearce
Tenth Ward Distilling Company (Fredrick, Maryland)
Monica Pearce is one of the owners and founders of Tenth Ward Distilling Company in Fredrick, Maryland. Known as “boss lady,” Monica has always loved whiskey and integrates her Environmental Science and Policy degree to making whiskey and barrel-aged brandy using the most sustainable and local means possible. In fact, the company’s website allows you to track the origins of all their ingredients.
Monica explains why she enjoys being a woman in the industry.
“There are times when people will direct questions to one of my male volunteers at a festival, for example, and overlook me until they realize I’m the one that knows the answers to all their questions. Those moments just make me giggle.”
She recommends trying a “Manhattan” with Tenth Ward Carway Rye and Solerno’s blood orange liqueur.
6) Molly Wellman
Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar (Covington, Kentucky)
Molly Wellmann from Wellmann’s Brands empire is known for her unique take on cocktails and her enthusiastic knowledge of whiskey and bourbon. She fell in love with bourbon while working at a restaurant. This passion turned into The Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar and a bourbon festival that is held every October in Covington, Kentucky called ‘Oak, Toast and Two Aging Barrels.’ Molly also conducts bourbon tastings every week.
She claims, “Bourbon is a woman’s drink! Women have more taste buds than men do, so we can taste more intricate flavors. The trick is to slow down, sip and pay attention. I’m not surprised that I have more women than men ordering bourbon at my bars. Women are attracted to beautiful things, and bourbon is a beautiful thing.”
If you visit Molly at Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar, she’d probably pick three of the 400 whiskies they serve and walk you through a tasting and the history of each. She also loves to make a “Seelbach Cocktail” for new bourbon drinkers.
Recipe for Seelbach Cocktail
- 1 1/2 ounce bourbon
- 1/2 ounce Cointreau
- 7 dashes Angostura bitters
- 7 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
- 4 ounces chilled brut Champagne
- 1 orange twist, for garnish
Pour all of the ingredients, in the order given, into a mixing glass, add ice and stir. Strain into a Champagne flute. Add the garnish.
7) Kate Mead
Wyoming Whiskey (Kirby, Wyoming)
Kate and her husband Brad are 4th generation cattle ranchers. Their company, Wyoming Whiskey, uses hand-selected non-GMO corn, wheat and barley, all grown in the Big Horn Basin. The couple also use water sourced from a local mile-deep limestone aquifer that hasn’t seen the light of day in over 6,000 years.
The idea for the distillery started when Kate and Brad bought a new cattle ranch. They wanted to add some agricultural diversity, so Brad visited Kentucky for inspiration and brought back a 38′ still whiskey. This sparked their venture into the bourbon business.
As a cattle rancher, a lawyer and a distiller, Kate knows what it is like to be outnumbered as a woman. She encourages other women to try their product.
She explains, “The first reaction of most gals is ‘I don’t drink whiskey!’ which reminds me of how many women automatically say, ‘I’m no good at math.’ When pushed to try our bourbon, women actually like it—a lot!”
Kate recommends a shot of Wyoming Whiskey mixed with a little Bundeberg Ginger Beer and a twist of lemon.
8) Marianne Barnes
Castle & Key (Frankfort, Kentucky)
Marianne Barnes has always loved problem-solving, diagnostics and mechanics. She thought about pursuing engineering, but when it came time to looking for internships, she had second thoughts.
She recalls, “My decision came down to renewable energy or bourbon. Then I thought, of all the things you can make with corn, why in the world would you make fuel when you can make bourbon?”
Marianne was working as a process engineer in R&D at Brown Forman when she fell in love with spirits. She was eventually approached with the opportunity to be the master distiller at Castle & Key, a new distillery scheduled to open in spring 2017. She’ll be the first female Master Distiller in Kentucky, where her gender may give her an advantage.
“It’s scientifically proven that women have a better sense of taste,” says Marianne.
Castle and Key isn’t open yet, but Marianne is having fun creating modern versions of the Old Fashioned, experimenting with different spirits and bitters.
She explains, “Drinking an Old Fashioned and thinking about ways to create spirits that play well makes me very excited, because you can’t hide a poorly thought-out spirit in such a simple, stripped down cocktail. I want our spirits to shine through and be something that consumers want to taste, not cover up!”
9) Hannah Lowen
New Riff Distilling (Newport, Kentucky)
Hannah is the General Manager of New Riff Distillery at the northern-most point on the craft bourbon trail. The distillery is two years into a four-year aging process with the first batch of New Riff Bourbon. In the meantime, the company offers OKI Bourbon, Kentucky Wild Gin, and other products.
Growing up in Kentucky, Hannah says that a love of bourbon is actually in her bones. Living in beer-famous places like Oregon, Wisconsin and Western Europe has increased her appreciation of alcoholic beverages. Her professional background is in political organizing and nonprofit management, but Hannah found that she could use the same skills to run a brand new distillery.
At New Riff, Hannah isn’t the only woman.
“Females are in every position in the company, from distilling to marketing and executive leadership. Women drink bourbon, so it only makes sense that they’re making it too,” she explains.
Hannah recommends a “Ramos Gin Fizz” with New Riff Kentucky Wild Gin. To make it, you have to shake the egg whites for a good 8-10 minutes before mixing anything else, so it’s a drink made with effort.
10) Nicole Hassoun
Joseph Magnus Distillery (Washington DC)
Nicole Hassoun is the Head Distiller at Washington DC’s Joseph A. Magnus. She works with Nancy “The Nose” Fraley, the Master Blender, and other distillers using Kentucky bourbon barrels to recreate the flavor of Magnus’ original product, finishing the bourbon in sherry and Cognac barrels. The first batch was released in September 2015 and won a double gold medal at the 2016 San Francisco World Sprits Competition, and a gold medal for Best Special Barrel-Finished Bourbon.
Nicole recalls, “Growing up in Southern Ohio, so close to bourbon country, bourbon was always a mystical and fantastic spirit to me. It was my first love in booze, though I’ve had many since. It is delicate, powerful and exciting.”
Her favorite Magnus-made Old Fashioned consists of Murray Hill Club blended bourbon, blood orange reduction and homemade Magnus bitters.
She adds, “Another drink I would have every evening is a Boulevardier using our Joseph Magnus Bourbon, Don Ciccio & Figli Luna Amara and Capitoline white vermouth. It is made from all DC spirits and is just out of this world.”
Have you tried any spirits produced by women distillers in the US? Please share in the comments below!
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