While there have been a number of pioneers and inventors who have revolutionized the spirits industry, too often the women who have made spirits history are excluded, or the importance of their contributions are diminished. In this post, we would like to highlight the brilliance and ingenuity of the many women who have led to the vibrant spirits culture that we now live in.
The first alchemist
Without the work of Mary Hebraea in the 1st Century, the world may never have experienced the spirit at all. Hebraea, an alchemist, is often credited with having invented the first alembic still, which is a still wherein vapor is carried through a tube from a heated vessel into a cooling vessel where it recondenses into liquid. This distillation method is, in principle, the very foundation of the spirits industry. Anyone who loves a stiff drink owes much to Hebraea’s invention.
Pioneer in distaff distillation
Helen Cumming was not an inventor, but she was a fierce fighter for the love of spirits during an era when the high taxes on their production were illicitly avoided. In the 1800s Cumming worked the stills at Cardow Farm, owned by her and her husband John. Cumming was known for craftily avoiding the excise men who had come to cut the couple’s profits: she would bake bread to cover the yeasty smell of fermentation, often inviting the tax collectors in for tea and scones, and even invented a flag-based signalling system to alert fellow distilleries of the presence of government officials.
Her Majesty of Scotch Whisky
Queen Victoria, who reigned for the last 63 years of the 19th Century, was notoriously fond of Scotch whiskey. Her passion for it, as well as her popularizing the now common Scotch & soda mixed drink, led to the decline of Cognac as the most popular spirit and the rise of the whiskey-dominated market we see today. Without her support, the Scotch industry would undoubtedly be much more marginal than it is now. In addition, Queen Victoria serves as the icon of Bombay Sapphire due to her leadership at the time of its distillery’s first formulation.
Pauline Morton Sabine
The Society Queen Who Dethroned Prohibition
Though it might seem strange to include a fierce backer of Prohibition on this list, Pauline Morton Sabin switched sides when she realized how ineffective actually-existing Prohibition really was: after supporting heavy restrictions on alcohol in public, politicians would frequently toast with alcoholic beverages behind closed doors. Bootleggers and other nefarious business dealings troubled her, as well. Resigning from the Republican National Committee, she founded the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform which served a vital role in the eventual repeal of Prohibition. Without her change of heart we might still live in a dry country.
Gertrude ‘Cleo’ Lythgoe
Queen of Rum Row
Gertrude Lythgoe is one of the most famous bootleggers of the Prohibition era. Upon the announcement of Prohibition, Lythgoe moved from her New York home to the Bahamas where she dominated in a male-driven industry. She was renowned for her intellect and beauty, but also for her fierce actions: when men believed they could disrespect her, she would haul them to her office and make clear that they could desist or take a bullet. Primarily a smuggler of whiskey, she was once charged with importing over 1,000 cases into New Orleans but managed to secure her acquittal.
The mother of Japanese whisky
Rita Cowan is the woman who is single-handedly responsible for the entire Japanese whiskey trade. She met her future husband, Masataka Taketsuru, while studying at Glasgow University and he asked her for her help and knowledge in producing Scotch-style whiskey in his native Japan. The two were married in 1920 and moved to Japan shortly thereafter. Their venture was a huge success, and Cowan is now often referred to as the “mother of Japanese whiskey.”
To all these women who have made spirits history and to those who have yet to make their mark, cheers to you!
Experience Sirvo for yourself
Sign up now to find hospitality jobs and hire top industry talent.