In 2021, Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey became the top-selling Black-owned and Black-founded spirit brand in history. The brand, a tribute to Nearest Green, who is recognized as the world's first Black master distiller and mentor to the real-life Jack Daniel, has become a liquor store shelf staple since its founding in 2017. Its meteoric rise to the top owes a lot to its founder and CEO, Fawn Weaver, and the brand's all-female executive team.
"I came in like a wrecking ball and didn’t ask for permission," Weaver says. "So I’m not sure whose feelings I may have hurt along the way, but it certainly ensured that me being a woman would not be a hindrance to the overall mission."
While we can today laud the unique makeup of this spirit brand as part of its success, it is the exact reason why Uncle Nearest encountered some difficulty getting off the ground.
"Coming into the business, no one would respond to the needs of my all-female executive team," Weaver explains. "No one was returning our calls, from distributors to bottling partners and whiskey sourcing partners, et cetera. We all realized one day in the very beginning that we were all having the same issue."
The answer to getting replies came in the form of Weaver's husband, Keith Weaver. Katharine Jerkens, the brand's chief business officer, and Sherrie Moore, its director of whiskey operations, detailed everyone they had tried to contact and gave that information to Weaver, who tasked her husband with reaching out to those same people.
"With every person my team had been trying to reach for weeks, he either got through right away or they called him back by the end of the day," Weaver says. "In most instances before the end of the call, the person on the other end was asking if he’d like to go grab a beer or if he golfed."
This Remington Steele act, as Weaver calls it — referencing the '80s TV series in which a female private investigator uses the guise of a fictitious male character to gain respect —helped to push Uncle Nearest forward in the early going. But the brand is far past that stage now, having sold over 1.5 million bottles of whiskey since its founding.
The male-dominated industry has always had women — just not visibly. Men have long been the face of distilleries, from their founders and leaders to the people working on the floors. But history shows women have played an important part in whiskey for ages.
Helen Cumming co-founded the Cardhu distillery in 1824, and it was later bought by Johnnie Walker, which used the distillery's whiskey-making operations to propel the Johnnie Walker brand into what we know today. Ellen Jane Corrigan, the first CEO of a major spirits brand, ran Bushmills distillery after her husband died, and in the 1880s, took the Irish whiskey brand international. Elizabeth "Bessie" Williamson was the distillery manager, and later owner, of Laphroaig in the early 20th century, and she's credited with shifting tastes from Scotch blends to single malts.
The prevalence of women in the whiskey business took a backseat in the 20th century as the brown spirit was marketed more towards men. Rachel Barrie, the master blender for Benriach, GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh, notes that in the 1990s, "there were very few women in senior positions, and few, if any, to be found in distillery production, warehousing and blending roles," with women mostly holding administrative positions or working on the bottle lines.
Barrie, who in 2003 became the first woman in Scotch whisky to be officially given the title of master blender, says that her accomplishment is "perhaps surprising today" because now about 50 percent of master blenders are women.
Many whiskey brands seem to be making a concerted effort to put women in the forefront of their business. Stephanie MacLeod, the master blender at Dewar's and the first female to be awarded Master Blender of the Year by the International Whisky Competition, applauds the focus being placed on involving women in the whiskey industry. Dewar's has a graduate program that brings students into the industry to train them in different fields, and MacLeod has found that most of those brought onto the program are women.
"Young women coming through high school going into university can now see this positive communication around women in whiskey, then perhaps see the whiskey industry as being a place where they can work and develop a career," MacLeod says.
Besides hiring women to work in whiskey, brands are changing who they market their whiskey to, revisiting the very notion of who the typical whiskey drinker is — and it's very often not a man. According to a recent MRI-Simmons study, about 40 percent of whiskey drinkers are women.
"For a long time it was considered taboo for women to consume alcohol, depending on the society and era," says Elizabeth McCall, assistant master distiller at Woodford Reserve. "We have come a long way from this belief system. Marketing efforts are no longer focused on men — they now include women. Women hold the purchasing power; we are the ones driving the whiskey category."
As Jackie Zykan, master taster at Old Forester, points out: "You will never get as accurate of a portrayal of a female consumer’s wants or needs with an all-male team as you would with a diverse team."
Zykan had originally pursued a career path in the medical field, earning biology and chemistry degrees. While in college, she worked as a bartender, which led her to pursue a career in the drinks space. She set out to learn more about spirits, especially the "alchemical process which is creating cocktails," as she says.
When it came time for Old Forester to hire a public-facing figure, it tapped Zykan, then a beverage director, for the job because "[Old Forester] needed a voice of someone who not only understood the science behind the process, but also could relate to those in the trade," she says.
In addition to hiring more women for roles that have a direct impact on the whiskey being made, bringing more women into marketing roles helps diversify the consumer base. It should not, however, be seen as filling some sort of imaginary hiring quota.
"Let’s not forget that dehumanization can present as many forms, and gender washing for the sake of checking boxes doesn’t serve as a sustainable practice," Zykan points out. "I hope we continue to embrace diversity in meaningful ways and invest in developing a more balanced workforce from the ground up by acknowledging the current discrepancies and taking a holistic approach to solving them."
Indeed, sexism in the whiskey industry has long been an issue. Jim Murray, a hugely influential whiskey reviewer who could single-handedly sell pallets of whiskey with a good word, was long known for using sexist language in his descriptions of the spirit. In 2020, his vulgarity caught up with him when whiskey journalist Becky Paskin called him out on Twitter, prompting other whiskey writers and even brands to condemn Murray. Though he has denied the allegations, Murray has since become a pariah in the whiskey world.
Paskin's allegations against Murray prompted other women in the industry to share their experiences with sexual harassment from men at work. Certain groups like Bourbon Women and Women Who Whiskey have created safe spaces for women to drink and talk whiskey without fear of harassment. Along with women supporting women, it's critical for men in the industry to lift up their female peers.
"Being a woman in a male-dominated field, I have been lucky to find so many allies that have contributed to my success," says Lexie Phillips, assistant master distiller at Jack Daniel’s. "From past distillers, to my husband [Josh Phillips, who is a processor at the distillery], to my mentors at the [Jack Daniel's] Stillhouse, I can honestly say that I have had a truly uplifting journey in this industry."
As newer distilleries crop up, diversity feels inherent in the makeup. That's what Hannah Lowen, the vice president of operations and general manager at New Riff Distilling, says drew her to the brand. She describes a "nonchalance" about women at New Riff because since day one, women have been featured in all levels of power, and they've been "promoted, engaged [and] supported."
"We never needed to make a big change or statement — it is just part of the fiber of the company," Lowen explains. "Right now two-thirds of our senior leaders are women. And so, at New Riff my gender, and for that matter, sexual orientation were never an issue and have certainly never been a hardship."
The industry as a whole has opened up to having women in the business, leading to a greater variety of excellent whiskeys on the market. But that doesn't mean some folks don't continue with their micro-aggressions towards women in whiskey.
"The only time I’ve felt friction or resistance has been with some old-school customers. Just moments where there is an assumption that a young woman must be a secretary — but certainly not in charge," Lowen says. "For me, and a lot of the women I work with, it can be frustrating but also fun when you get to blow up someone's assumptions or misjudgment about your position or bourbon IQ."
For women, seeing folks like them in executive positions allows them to picture themselves in similar situations. A greater representation of women, especially those in higher levels, creates an environment in which women being at the top is no longer a rarity but the norm.
"I’m proud of all the BIPOC and women coming into this industry because we’ve made it inclusive at the top," Weaver says. "For so long, what little inclusion was represented was beneath middle management. Who wants to enter an industry in which you’ve never seen anyone who looks like you succeed? With our success, they can now see it, which makes it easier for so many to dream it."