6 Women in Whiskey to Watch
From a bar director to a whiskey scientist, here are some of the names you need to know right now in the world of America's favorite booze.
There I was on a chilly day along the Potomac River, a delicate-tongued wine drinker among dozens of professional whiskey makers, stirring – well, rowing, to use the technical term – the sweet-smelling mash in George Washington’s Distillery. I was there to distill our nation’s native spirit using techniques and equipment harking back to the olden days. But what I learned as I rowed the bubbling mash, using a heavy wooden rake, within a 120-gallon oak vat that resembled a giant Japanese soaking tub, was less about the age-old methods of making whiskey, and more about the present state of whiskey in America. Namely, that women are pushing the envelope.
Of course, women have been involved with whiskey production and distribution throughout history. But, as Fred Minnick says in his authoritative and entertaining book Whiskey Women, "They just never received credit.”
“Women have always had a role in the distilling process. In colonial America, women were responsible for producing liquor while the men farmed," explains Becky Harris, co-owner and chief distiller at Virginia-based distillery Catoctin Creek, explains.
But looking around me though steamy penumbra, as flames licked the base of the copper pot stills and the distilled liquor trickled into hand-coopered barrels, I was heartened to observe that, after a dormant period from the 1960s-1990s, women are a hugely important part of the new American whiskey revival as distillers, mixologists, business owners, and of course, consumers. Here are six extraordinary women in the whiskey world you should know.
Pia Carusone: Co-Owner, Republic Restoratives
Pia Carusone, co-owner of Washington, DC-based Republic Restoratives – the nation’s first 100 percent female-owned distillery – says women are making a splash in the whisky world as makers and drinkers today for many reasons. “I think, when television shows like Mad Men re-introduced Americans to cocktails like the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan in the mid-2000s, women figured there was no reason why we wouldn’t enjoy those cocktails as much as Don Draper did.” That’s when Carusone, along with her friend and business partner Rachel Gardner, began trying whiskey. “Since we were both born in the early 1980s and raised in New York state, we didn’t grow up with bourbon. It wasn’t a college drink, and it wasn’t something we’d have in a cocktail.”
Post-college, both women landed in Washington, DC.; Carusone as Chief of Staff for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and Gardner working in natural resource management. As their passion for bourbon deepened through visiting emerging craft distilleries like New York’s Hudson Whiskey, Carusone’s life changed in January, 2011, when her “boss and friend” Congresswoman Giffords, was shot and nearly killed.
“Suddenly,” Carusone says, “it became very crystal clear that life is short and you’d better make something of it. That was the catalyst that propelled our dream of opening a distillery from idea to reality.”
On Mother’s Day, 2016, the two women opened Republic Restoratives, following a successful crowdfunding campaign that raised just over $400,000. “Our facility is in an up-and-coming D.C. neighborhood,” says Carusone, “and we get a lot of people coming in for cocktails and weekend distillery tours.” One of the brand’s most popular whiskeys, “Rodham Rye,” is a tribute to Hillary, she continues. “Every time our current president says something disparaging about women, we see a spike in sales!” And when the popular women’s social club, The Wing, opened a new D.C. location recently, with District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser as the launch party’s guest of honor, they served Republic Restoratives spirits. “Since The Wing is going nationwide, we hope to expand with them to all their new locations,” says Carusone.
Becky Harris: Master Distiller and co-owner, Catoctin Creek Distilling Company
Becky Harris and her husband, Scott, left their previous professions to launch Virginia-based Catoctin Creek in 2009. “It was my husband’s idea,” Harris says. “He likes to joke that working in government contracting gave him a love of drinking!” A chemical engineer, Harris admits she wasn’t a big drinker before getting involved in the distilling business. “Like many women of my generation,” she says, “I thought whiskey was harsh and unpleasant because I had only tasted bottom-shelf whiskeys in college during the 1980s.”
During the company’s first year, as the only employee, Harris quickly mastered the trade, from production to tasting. “What was interesting to me,” she says, about her rapid learning curve, “was that I found so much more variety in flavor than I would have guessed from my first impressions.”
Although Catoctin Creek makes a variety of spirits from locally-sourced and organic ingredients, Harris admits to a soft spot for her award-winning organic Roundstone Rye 100 percent rye whiskeys. “They are so smooth and sip-able,” she says. “Our particular whiskey has a really fruity mid-palate, has nice spice on finish and banana esters up front.” That’s not the case with every rye, she continues, noting that her whiskey’s flavors are distinctive because she sources from three or four local providers, instead of a wholesaler.
Harris encourages new whiskey drinkers – especially women, she says – to trust their taste and not the experts. “Your body chemistry and your individual experience is just as valid as everyone else’s,” she says. “When you like something, that is the one for you. Who cares what the others think?”
Marianne Eaves: Master Distiller, Castle & Key
When Kentucky’s first female Master Distiller, Marianne Eaves, was given the choice between pursuing internships in renewable energy research or at the Brown-Forman distillery as part of her chemical engineering degree, “I chose the bourbon,” she says, launching a career that has been an inspiration to many young women in the industry.
“It’s been an interesting journey,” she says. “I joined Brown-Forman after graduating and, during my six years there, worked my way up the ranks from research and development to master taster of Kentucky bourbon and whiskey.”
Then, as now, “there weren’t many women in production, she says, “probably because women have proven to be more acute in terms of sensory abilities.” But, following the advice she gives young women today who want to get involved in the traditionally male spirits industry, “I sought career growth.” And when she showed interest in distilling, Brown-Forman gave her the opportunity.
Eaves is not afraid to take risks, either, like when she left Brown-Forman in 2015 to join the start-up team charged with resurrecting Castle & Key, on the site of one of Kentucky’s oldest distilleries. “I left all the perks of my previous job,” she says, “for a once in a lifetime opportunity to be part of the original Castle & Key team, to create new products and to mold my career.” There, at 28, she was named master distiller.
“I had to have it pointed out to me,” Eaves says, with typical modesty, “that I had become the first female Master Distiller in Kentucky since Prohibition.” Later she learned that, in the 1960s, another female scientist was up for promotion to Master Distiller but was denied the position because the skirted uniform females were required to wear at the time would prevent her from completing the work required on the production floor.
Looking to the future, Eaves is “excited for what the future holds for ladies in bourbon and the whiskey world.” She says she feels fortunate to be in her position but admits that “I just can’t wait for the day when being named Master Distiller, as a woman, is not shocking news.”
Ale Ochoa: Whiskey Scientist, Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co.
American whiskey production has spread far beyond the nation’s tradition whiskey-producing heartland and, in doing so, includes young women like 24-year-old Ale Ochoa, whose Mexican family settled in College Station, Texas, before she was born.
Ochoa, whose job title is “Whisky Scientist,” joined Fort Worth, Texas-based Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. in July, 2017. “I became interested in whiskey,” she says, “when I learned about Scottish whiskies in an undergrad history class at Texas A&M.” Ochoa, who went on for a masters in flavor chemistry and sensory science, says that “when people would ask me what I wanted to do when I graduated, I told them I wanted to work in whiskey because, after all, you don’t celebrate with juice, you celebrate with whiskey!”
Her professional responsibility is “to make sure everything we produce is the highest quality and tastes great, from grain to glass.” She is proud of the Texas straight bourbon she helps produce. “We work with a farm that grows different Texas grains for us to try. Our bourbon contains yellow Texas corn, Texas soft red winter wheat, a special distillers malt, also from Texas, and our own proprietary strain of yeast derived from pecans.” As for whiskey, she also has her own opinions. “When people think of whiskey, they often think of it as a man’s drink,” Ochoa says. “Of course, I don’t agree with that,” she continues, “I love our Texas whiskey because the notes of vanilla, oak and pear are very inviting to me.”
When she tells her friends she makes whiskey, “they want to hear more,” she says, adding that “it stands out when you say you’re a whiskey scientist. People tell me it’s their dream job, and I say that it’s mine too!”
Julia Ritz Toffoli: Founder, Women Who Whiskey
Women Who Whiskey, an “experimental cocktail club for women” – as founder Julia Ritz Toffoli describes the international association of women interested in gathering to learn more about whiskey – was born in 2010 when Toffoli moved to New York City for graduate school. “My dad is from Italy and my mom is French, so I didn’t grow up sitting on grandpa’s knee smelling cigars and bourbon,” she jokes. “At our house in Massachusetts, wine was the beverage of choice.”
But after discovering whiskey while studying in Canada, where whiskey is popular, she was determined to continue drinking her favorite spirit in the Big Apple.
Fortunately, that was the era of the speakeasy revival, she says. “A decade ago,” she continues, “I got some pushback, being a female whiskey drinker. Guys would say ‘Wow, I’ve never seen a woman drink whiskey before, are you sure you can handle it?’ and that made me feel slightly indignant.”
So Toffoli – a self-described “organizer” – decided to assemble a group of female students who wanted to discover New York together through its whiskey bars. “That was the cusp of the social media explosion,” Toffoli continues, "so we came up with our name, 'Women Who Whiskey,' and we started getting replies from a lot of women who wanted to join us. Then, after we graduated, we took jobs around the country and started clubs wherever we landed. Soon, other women began contacting us, asking if they could start a chapter in their town.”
Toffoli, who works in international development and runs the clubs on the side, says that “off the top of my head, I think we have about 22 active chapters with about 20 in the pipeline.” Each group is different, she says. “Some are run by women in their 50s and 60s and some, like the ones in Chicago and New York, by younger women in their 30s.” With a global membership of just over 10,000, she says Women Who Whiskey is the ultimate proof that “the environment for women who like whiskey has really evolved over the past 20 years.”
Stacie Stewart: Bar Director, Whiskey Dry
“I’m from rural Kentucky,” bar director Stacie Stewart says, “and I love bourbon.”
So, when Mind of a Chef star Edward Lee launched his Louisville, Kentucky, bar, Whiskey Dry, earlier this year, he tapped Stewart to round up the over 200 bottles of whiskey. Stewart, who says that, “if you grow up in Kentucky you are born to love bourbon, kind of like how everyone in England knows the lyrics to all the Beatles songs,” learned to bartend at Proof on Main, the bar inside Louisville’s renowned 21C Museum Hotel. That’s where she began talking to out-of-towners about how to approach whiskey, she says.
Stewart says that “when you’re visiting Louisville, you want to learn about bourbon, it’s as simple as that.”
For example, you can get excellent bourbons at great prices in Kentucky that you can’t get out of state, she says. “At Whiskey Dry, our delicious well bourbon is Heaven Hill Green Label which, if you are buying in the store here is so cheap that you wouldn’t think it was worth it!” With so many whiskeys at the new Entertainment District hotspot, she encourages customers to sample from the range on offer. “We have whiskeys from Kansas City, India, Scotland, Ireland as well as a bunch of cool American single malts that need more love,” she says. “Whiskey is being made really well in so many places.”
“I think it’s an exciting time for American whiskey,” Stewart says, “In the past we’ve seen cheap expressions that could have been made better, but now people are improving the process with selective water sources and careful maturation processes that makes for some really distinct and delicious whiskeys from around the country.”