Trailblazing Distillers

Long dominated by men, the spirits industry—from Mexico to Scotland, Jamaica to Kentucky—has been upended by these four women.

Whiskey poured into a glass in front of barrels

Photo by fotoknips / Shutterstock

What is a ‘girly’ drink, really?

As someone who often gets side-eye or a laugh when I ask for a whiskey neat at a bar, I know too well that the world of spirits—particularly the brown stuff like Scotch, rye, bourbon, and rum—still has a decidedly male reputation. It seems shocking, frankly, that what you drink is gendered. It’s like saying tacos are for the ladies and burritos are for the gents. And socks, such a guy thing!

The homogeneity starts on high, as the makers and tasters of spirits have long been men, for centuries in some industries. Thankfully—and globally—a number of smart, creative, pioneering women have broken through the upper ranks to bring diversity to their respective clans. As I edited these stories, I started to notice a few commonalities: All of these masters of their craft were the first women in their role; they’re often scientists—chemists and engineers; they rose to senior positions in marketing and business development with out-of-box thinking. They’re passionate about innovation and helping other women. And to a person, they love what they make. Even if they can’t always drink it. —Laura Dannen Redman, digital content director

A woman in a hat squats in an agave field.

Courtesy of Casa Dragones

Sipping Tequila With the Boss: Casa Dragones CEO Bertha González Nieves

It was a little bit of diplomacy—and a lot of love for tequila—that catapulted Bertha González Nieves’s career into the spirits industry. At age 22, González Nieves was studying business administration at a university when she applied to a cultural exchange program called Ship for World Youth and was chosen to represent Mexico as an ambassador to the Japanese government. As part of her training, González Nieves traveled throughout Mexico to learn about the country’s industries, economy, and history. One of her stops was in Tequila, Jalisco, where visits to agave fields and distilleries started her passion for tequila that eventually led her down her career path.

Joining forces with MTV founder Bob Pittman in 2008, she created Casa Dragones, hoping to reimagine tequila and prove that it can compete alongside luxury spirits like cognac and whiskey, and even give wine a little competition when it comes to pairings within fine-dining experiences.

“I wanted to seduce that tequila drinker and the spirits connoisseur by expanding the repertoire to showcase tequila in a different light,” said González Nieves. González Nieves isn’t just producing one of Mexico’s most well-known tequila brands—she’s also honoring her Mexican culture by weaving in cultural identity and family celebrations. “Tequila is part of our social fabric in Mexico,” said González Nieves. “We have meals with our family with tequila. We pray with tequila. We declare our love with tequila. It’s part of our culture. I am selling the Mexico that I grew up in and the one that inspires me every day.”

Read on for the full interview by Yolanda Evans.

A woman in a purple leather jacket holds a dark glazed glass

Courtesy of Marianne Eaves

Sipping Kentucky Bourbon With Master Distiller Marianne Eaves

In 2015, Marianne Eaves made history when she was named master distiller at Frankfort, Kentucky–based distillery Castle & Key—a title that ruffled some industry feathers.

“A lot of people questioned whether I had the right to take that credential,” she says. Some argued that it needed to be bestowed by a veteran distiller, “like a knighthood.” The Kentucky bourbon industry is notably insular, dominated by conglomerates with legacy family ties and still largely run by white men. Those demographics have eroded somewhat over time, as upstarts and outsiders have built distilleries.

For Eaves, earning that title was the culmination of nearly a decade of training: pursuing a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Louisville, followed by five years at Brown-Forman, the company behind legacy whiskey brands including Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, and Jack Daniels. There, she climbed from intern to master taster, mentored by master distiller Chris Morrison.

By carving an untraditional path, Eaves continues to show that there’s more than one way to build a career—and a life—while working within the spirits industry. A key barometer of change: She’s no longer the only woman to hold a “master” designation in the Kentucky bourbon world.

Read on for the full interview by Kara Newman.

A woman holds a glass of rum in a maze of barrels

Courtesy of Appleton Estate Barrel Warehouse

Sipping Jamaican Rum With Master Blender Joy Spence

It was science and good timing that led Jamaican-born Joy Spence to her current role in the rum world. Spence’s high school chemistry teacher—a mentor who was “like her second mother”—sparked Spence’s interest in science, so much so she’d even hang around after class just to learn more. “My chemistry teacher played an enormous role in developing and cultivating my passion for chemistry,” says Spence.

After she earned her master’s degree in analytical chemistry, she took a leap of faith and submitted her resume to J.Wray and Nephew Ltd., the owner of Appleton Estate, the oldest rum distillery in Jamaica. That move paid off: The brand was so impressed with her work, it created the position of chief chemist for her in 1981. At that time, Spence never thought about becoming the master blender, but when she began working with Owen Tulloch—who held the title at the time—and learned the tricks of the trade from him. When Tulloch retired in 1997, Spence was appointed master blender. This year, she celebrated 40 years with Appleton Estate.

Read on for the full interview by Kristin Braswell.

A woman with long black hair stands behind three glasses of liquor atop a barrel.

Courtesy of Julieann Fernandez

Sipping Scotch With Master Distiller Julieann Fernandez

Mom, master blender, and forensics fanatic, Julieann Fernandez has helped reshape the Scotch whisky-maker mold. Last year, she was named master blender for Distill Group Ltd., which owns Deanston Distillery near the historic Scotland town of Stirling (about an hour north of Glasgow), as well as Bunnahabhain Distillery on the Isle of Islay and Tobermory distillery on the Isle of Mull. Today, Fernandez oversees all the malts, blends, and inventory for the group. Fernandez has also been instrumental in their foray into new categories, including gin.

Right now, the one thing you won’t find Fernandez doing, ironically, is drinking that gin. Or whisky. Or anything.

“We’ve just launched four new limited editions across our malt’s portfolio, which were some of my last projects before I finished up. I’m currently on maternity leave for my second son. It’s safe to say I’m enjoying my own personal adventure,” she says, happily, “but, I must admit, I’m excited to get back into the swing of things in the new year.”

Read on for the full interview by Jenny Adams.

Laura Dannen Redman is AFAR’s editor at large. She’s an award-winning journalist who can’t sit still and has called Singapore, Seattle, Australia, Boston, and the Jersey Shore home. She’s based in Brooklyn with her equally travel-happy husband and daughters.
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