More and more, we see women sparking a drinking revolution and taking back what is rightfully theirs—whiskey. Chattanooga has their own social circle built around it, the Whiskey Women, and they are owning it. Nashville’s Whiskey Festival even has an evening dedicated to learning how women are climbing their way to the top in the world of whiskey, the Whiskey & Women Panel. In whiskey writer Fred Minnick’s upcoming book, "Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey" (you’re welcome), he tells us that women were actually the first to invent distilling, once upon a time in Sumeria. And, as it turns out, distilling was pioneered to make perfume, and it doesn’t get much more ladylike than that.
As we begin to take pride in both the art of creating and drinking whiskey, I think it is most important to know exactly what we are talking about and where it came from.
So what is whiskey, exactly? Most simply, it is a spirit distilled from grain. Think of this as an umbrella, under which there are many different types of whiskey.
While we now know, thanks to Minnick, that women in Sumeria first practiced distilling the spirit, we take a detour before whiskey became popularized. We can attribute the distillation of barley wine to monks in Ireland and Scotland, when other popular forms of alcohol, such as wine, were scarce.
As far as consumption goes, its first purpose and use was medicinal. By 1608, Bushmill’s was the first established distillery, and trendsetters like Queen Elizabeth I helped popularize Irish whiskey as the fashionable beverage in England. Eventually, the spirit made its way to the states, and we began to look around to see what resources we could use to make the spirit ourselves. Rye was abundant at the time and became the dominant grain for many years. Eventually, corn became plentiful as a means to feed cattle and began to take the place of rye. We now have the makings of our country’s native spirit—bourbon whiskey.
Women played a part in bourbon, too, and some of it is still very evident today. Do you know who designed the Maker’s Mark packaging or who named it in the first place? A woman. Margie Samuels, the wife of Maker’s Mark master distiller Bill Samuels, modeled the square bottle after those she was so fond of in her cognac collection. The wax seals were originally hand-dipped by Margie Samuels at home in her fryer. The term "Maker’s Mark" refers to a mark left by the creator of beautiful English pewter pieces, which she also collected.
Although we did play a part in the instigation of Prohibition, we also did our part to turn it around. It actually helped level the playing field in the drinking world. Whereas saloons of the day were a man’s world before Prohibition, it wasn’t long into the dry spell that you could see women and men alike sipping on whatever libations they could get their hands on.
We now have some serious women players in the world of whiskey, and I only expect to see that trend grow. So ladies, pour yourselves a glass, kick back, and enjoy. After all, it’s what the queen would do.
Laura Kelton is a recent graduate of UTC and currently runs the bar program at Easy Bistro & Bar. Feel free to reach out to her by email with any questions, comments or requests. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.