Women in Whisky

VisitScotland highlights a selection of women, past and present, who have made their mark on an industry that has traditionally been seen as a man’s world in light of International Women’s Day this coming Monday. 


History Makers 

Helen Cumming – Cardhu Distillery, Speyside 

Helen Cumming and her husband owned Cardow Farm, which would later become known as Cardhu, in the early 1800s. The location of Cardow Farm in Speyside was perfect for illicit distillation, with easy access to water and peat, and Helen worked illicitly for decades taking charge of the stills while her husband worked in the fields. To keep the excise men from suspecting anything, Helen would ensure that she had been baking bread to disguise the smell of fermentation, invite them in for food and raise a red flag at her back door to warn other distillers, of which there were many, of their visit to the area. When the 1823 Excise Act made legal distilling viable, the Cummings bought a license. Cardhu is the first distillery to be officially pioneered by a woman and in later years, the distillery was passed down to Helen’s daughter-in-law Elizabeth Cumming.  Elizabeth took over the running of the distillery and set about refining the flavour and character of the whisky that is known and loved today.  

More information here: https://www.malts.com/en-row/distilleries/cardhu/history-of-cardhu  

Elizabeth Leitch ‘Bessie’ Williamson – Laphroaig Distillery, Islay 

Elizabeth Leitch “Bessie” Williamson was a Scottish distillery manager and former owner of the Laphroaig distillery, noted for being the only woman to own and run a Scottish whisky distillery in the 20th century. Bessie joined Laphroaig for a summer job as a shorthand typist and eventually became office manager. In 1938, when Ian Hunter, the owner of the distillery, suffered a stroke she took on the responsibility for distribution to the United States. By the time of World War II, she had become the full-time manager of the distillery and, as production was mothballed to help with the war effort, Bessie ensured the distillery’s safety and prevented the looting of stock or equipment. Production restarted after the war and, following the passing of Hunter, Bessie inherited a controlling interest in the distillery. Bessie would go on to travel to the US to promote Laphroaig and the Scotch Whisky Association in her role as its American spokesperson and is widely credited with forecasting the interest in single malt whisky. 

More information here: https://www.laphroaig.com/gb/brand-house-history-heritage  

Rita Cowan – Nikka Whisky, Japan 

Rita Cowan was a Scottish woman who left a lasting mark on the Japanese whisky industry. Born in 1896 in East Dumbartonshire she went on to study at the University of Glasgow where she met Masataka Taketsuru, a Japanese chemist. They fell in love and married in Scotland in 1920 before they moved to Japan with a shared dream and ambition: to produce a Scotch-style whisky in Japan. In 1935 they were able to secure funding to set up their own independent distillery, Dai Nippon Kaju, which would later become the Nikka Distilling Company. The distillery was located in Yoichi on the island of Hokkaido, a location that was selected as its climate and geography were similar to Scotland and would hopefully be the perfect spot to produce a whisky with the character and quality of a Scotch. Cowan is often regarded as the “mother of Japanese whisky”, and as Japanese whisky garners fans, accolades and admiration from around the world, so too does her legacy. 

More information here: https://www.nikkawhisky.eu/nikka-story/

Leading The Way 

Rachel Barrie – Master Blender, BenRiach, GlenDronach, Glenglassaugh, Speyside  

Rachel Barrie is one of the most renowned Master Blenders in the whisky world and is one of only a handful of female Master Blenders. With over a quarter of a century of experience, Rachel first worked as a Research Scientist at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, optimising flavour character in distillation and maturation. She then moved into production at The Glenmorangie Company, where she worked on Glenmorangie, Ardbeg and Glen Moray single malts as well as Bailie Nicol Jarvie and Martin’s blends, becoming Master Blender in 2003. During this time, Rachel also managed the stocks for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, giving her a deeper insight into a great many more distilleries. She moved to Morrison Bowmore Distillers in 2011 where she developed the whiskies for Bowmore, Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch single malts, also working latterly with Laphroaig and Ardmore. Rachel has tasted over 150, 000 casks and can intuitively bring together an expression. In 2017, Rachel joined the Brown-Forman family as the Master Blender for The GlenDronach, BenRiach and Glenglassaugh distilleries. 

More information: https://www.benriachdistillery.com/en-gb/  

Annabel Thomas – Founder and CEO, Nc’Nean Whisky, Highland 

Nc’nean is a small, independent, organic distillery based on the West Coast of Scotland. Founder Annabel Thomas left her job in the city of London back in 2013 to build the distillery from the ground up. The team have been distilling since early 2017 and are on a mission to make light and delicious spirits which can exist in harmony with the planet we call home. Sustainability is at the forefront of everything Nc’nean do, with the zero-waste distillery being run solely by renewable energy and the whisky being bottled in the industry’s first 100% recycled clear glass bottle. In September 2020, Nc’nean launched its maiden whisky, the first organic single whisky in the UK. 

More information: https://ncnean.com/   

Kirsty Black – Master Distiller, Arbikie, Highland 

Master Distiller, Kirsty Black is responsible for all aspects of running Arbikie Distillery; working with fellow distillers Christian Perez and Mark McNulty to ensure that the history, tradition and provenance of Scottish distilling is built into the DNA of each Arbikie spirit.  After graduating with a degree in plant science Kirsty had a career in medical devices before going on to pursue a master’s degree in brewing and distilling at Heriot Watt University. From R&D projects exploring the use of legumes in distilling, to maintaining the plants, Kirsty is at the heart of Arbikie’s sustainable spirits production. In conjunction with working at Arbikie Distillery, Kirsty sits on the board of examiners and the awards committee for the Institute of Brewing & Distilling (IBD), she co-chairs the CanDo Green Economy Collab that supports entrepreneurial Scottish businesses in the drive for net-zero, and is conducting her PhD studies in Abertay University and the James Hutton Institute, researching both the potential to use legumes in intercropping systems and the conversion of the resulting crops into beverage grade alcohol. 

Later in 2021 Arbikie Distillery will be opening a visitor experience where visitors will be able to see a working distillery and enjoy tours led by people who are passionate about Arbikie’s field to bottle ethos. 

More information: https://www.arbikie.com/  

Emma Walker –Master Blender, Johnnie Walker 

Women have been integral to Johnnie Walker since its inception. John Walker & Sons bought Cardhu distillery (a key malt used in Johnnie Walker Black Label) from Elizabeth Cumming back in 1893 and John Walker’s wife, Elizabeth, was fundamental to the conception of his first blended whisky. Today, Emma Walker, no relation so the Walkers, is one of 12 master blenders on the Johnnie Walker team. 

In 2021, Diageo will open its flagship visitor experience in Edinburgh. Johnnie Walker Princes Street will be a three-storey immersive space exploring whisky making and the blended Scotch brand’s 200-year history. More information: www.johnniewalkerprincesstreet.com  

Kirsteen Campbell – Master Whisky Maker, The Macallan, Speyside 

Kirsteen Campbell is the first female Master Whisky Maker in the almost 200-year history of The Macallan. She takes great pride in being a custodian of The Macallan and currently heads up the Whisky Mastery Team, using her skills, knowledge and craft to oversee key aspects of the whisky making cycle, from cask lay down and maturation through to bottling, to ensure the quality and consistency synonymous with The Macallan single malt whisky. Originally from Thurso in the Highlands, Kirsteen graduated with a BSc in Nutrition and Food Science from Glasgow Caledonian University before entering the drinks industry in 2001. While working in a spirits’ laboratory, it became clear she had a remarkable sense of smell – an essential skill for a Master Whisky Maker. Kirsteen is renowned throughout the whisky industry for her knowledge and expertise. She has been at The Macallan’s parent company, Edrington, since 2007, working first as a Whisky Quality Technologist, before quickly becoming Master Blender for Cutty Sark. Over time she was promoted to Master Blender for The Famous Grouse and Naked Grouse and she was appointed Master Whisky Maker for The Macallan in 2019. She aims to make her own contribution to The Macallan’s legacy by selecting and nurturing special casks for the next generation of whisky makers to craft their own unique single malts. 

Sarah Burgess – Lead Whisky Maker, The Macallan, Speyside 

With more than 20 years’ experience in the industry Sarah Burgess joined The Macallan’s parent company, Edrington, in 2017 and quickly became a key member of the team, focusing primarily on delivery of The Macallan’s core portfolio and innovation. She also plays a key role in quality control.  Born and brought up in Aberlour, Speyside, where she was surrounded by distilleries and where whisky is a way of life, Sarah began her career in whisky as a tour guide. Through explaining the processes involved in whisky making to visitors, her knowledge grew and, after studying Management at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, she undertook increasingly senior operational roles. Over the years her responsibilities have included cask quality and consistency, site management, and supporting brand activity such as sponsorships. She has also attained several professional qualifications including a General Certificate in Distilling. To Sarah, working in whisky is the norm and she cannot imagine doing anything else. Complementing her passion for whisky, is her interest in art and she is an avid collector.

SOURCE: Visit Scotland 

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