Featured above: Dewar's Master Blender Stephanie MacLeod
It's easy to say that women are shaking up the whiskey industry. The problem with saying that, however, is that women have always been there — we're just now finally taking notice. Executive and management roles used to be held almost exclusively by men, while women worked on the bottling line, the distillery floor or in administrative roles. Women now hold many leadership roles at distilleries and whiskey companies, which means they're calling the shots on what ends up in that bottle you're drinking. From presidents and founders to master blenders and distillers, here are just 20 women who are making a huge impact on the whiskey world.
Ale Ochoa is the whiskey scientist at Texas-based Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co., which produces TX Blended Whiskey and TX Straight Bourbon. As a student at Texas A&M University, she just so happened to link up with another student, Rob Arnold, the former master distiller at Firestone & Robertson. As whiskey scientist, Ochoa ensures that the whiskey is up to par from beginning to end, which means she does a lot of tasting and smelling.
Andrea Wilson has had a long career in whiskey, with her current positions being mater of maturation at Michter's. Her responsibilities include everything to do with whiskey aging, whether it's sourcing the barrels or filtering the whiskey for bottling. She's the first woman to serve as chair of the Kentucky Distiller's Association — and she also worked for over a decade at Diageo, holding multiple whiskey-related positions.
Willett Distillery has been family owned and operated since its founding in 1936. The brand kept it that way in 2018, when Willett appointed Britt Kulsveen, great-granddaughter of founder A. Lambert Willett, as its president and chief whiskey officer. As president, she oversees pretty much everything major at the iconic distillery.
Before Elizabeth McCall became Woodford Reserve's assistant master distiller, she was looking for a job after graduate school. That job came in the form of sensory technician at Brown-Forman, where she did quality control taste testing to ensure the whiskey tasted like it should. She later took an internal class on spirits, after which she started to train to become a master taster. Now, as Woodford Reserve's assistant master distiller, McCall continues to do quality control while also working on product innovation.
Fawn Weaver and her all-female executive team have grown Uncle Nearest into one of the top whiskey brands in the world. Six years after its founding, Uncle Nearest became the top-selling Black-owned spirits brand in history. The brand itself is an homage to Nearest Green, the first recorded Black master distiller, the man who mentored Jack Daniel himself.
Before she became vice president of operations and general manager at New Riff, Hannah Lowen had a career in politics and non-profit voter engagement. Lowen, who says she "kind of fell into the industry," knew Ken Lewis, New Riff's founder, and he reached out to her to join the team. Before she had an actual role or specific title, Lowen essentially helped get New Riff off the ground. It is now one of the top craft distilleries in the country.
Jackie Zykan was bartending in college, where she had planned to pursue a career in medicine. She got her degrees in biology and chemistry, but she didn't go into medicine like she thought. Instead, after becoming a beverage director, she was hired by Old Forester's Campbell Brown, who was looking for "a voice of someone who not only understood the science behind the process but also could relate to those in the trade," she says. She is now Old Forester's master taster, responsible for both product development and marketing.
For the past 15 years, Jane Bowie has worked at Maker's Mark, starting off as its global brand ambassador before transitioning to the distilling side of things. Now, as Maker's Mark's master of maturation and director of innovation, Bowie has a hand in developing some of the brand's most exciting projects, like its Private Select program and experimental releases.
Jill Kuehler is the founder of the Portland-based craft distillery Freeland Spirits. Although she already had a career in agriculture and food education, she wanted to get into the whiskey-making business. Named after Kuehler's grandmother, Freeland Spirits is one of the few women-owned distilleries in the world. Kuehler champions women in leadership roles, and she tapped Molly Troupe to be the distillery's master distiller.
Julia Ritz Toffoli founded Women Who Whiskey after facing harassment from men in the whiskey industry. The global networking organization for women who love whiskey has grown since its 2011 founding, and it now boasts 16,000 members across five countries. Toffoli provides women with a safe space to drink and learn about whiskey, and the organization continues to grow with the addition of new chapters around the world.
Generations of Lexie Phillips's family have worked at Jack Daniel's. After graduating with a degree in agribusiness, Phillips started taking classes about fermentation sciences, which led her to work at Jack Daniel's. Her great aunt, who worked in bottling at Jack Daniel's, told her that the distillery was hiring, so Phillips came to work there, handling both bottling and quality control. She is now an assistant master distiller, serving as a brand ambassador, conducting tastings and in-depth tours.
Lisa Roper Wicker, president and head distiller at Widow Jane, got her start in the wine industry before getting into distilling. Part of her responsibilities at the Brooklyn-based distillery include distilling, sourcing barrels and blending. Check out the distillery's flagship 10 Year Bourbon or the 2021 limited-edition The Vaults — if you can find it.
In 2016, Marianne Eaves became the first female master distiller in Kentucky, at Castle & Key. She's been recognized by multiple publications for her impact on the whiskey industry, from Forbes, which included her in its 2015 food and drink 30 under 30 list, to Wine Enthusiast, which added her to its top 40 under 40 tastemakers list. She now works as a consultant for distilleries while running a subscription-based whiskey tasting service called Eaves Blind.
For 27 years, Marlene Holmes worked as a distiller for Jim Beam. At 62, instead of retiring, she took on a new job: master distiller at Milam & Greene Whiskey, where she works on distilling, aging, blending and the like. The distillery is owned and operated by women, and in 2020, Milam & Greene took home two gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Monica Pearce opened Tenth Ward in her hometown of Frederick, Maryland, after working in the environmental science field. Tenth Ward produces all kinds of spirits, like gin, whiskey and absinthe, as well as canned cocktails. And using her degree in environmental science and policy, Pearce aims to ensure that all of the practices at the distillery are sustainable.
A quick google search for Myra Barginear will turn up her profile as an oncologist. But besides her medical career, Barginear is behind Paul Sutton Bourbon, which she founded in 2014. It shouldn't have come as much of a surprise: generations of her family have been in the business. Now, Paul Sutton Bourbon is one of the top distilleries in the country, earning numerous awards for its juice.
Officially, Nic Christiansen is Barrell Craft Spirits' single barrel program manager. But she's also a mixologist and bourbon lover who originally wanted to be a chef before settling behind the bar. Christiansen is responsible for batches and special releases, and she also creates cocktails to help showcase Barrell Craft Spirits.
Nicole Austin is the brains behind some of Cascade Hollow Distilling Company's most exciting releases, including George Dickel Bottled-in-Bond and Dickel Bourbon. As general manager and distiller, Austin works on both operations and marketing for the distiller. She is also a founding board member of the American Craft Spirits Association.
When Dr. Rachel Barrie was a college student studying chemistry, the future master blender for Benriach, Glendronach and Glenglassaugh enjoyed sampling and collection Scotch single malts — but only the miniatures because that's all she could afford. Barrie grew up in distilling country, close to Glendronach, and her father was always a fan of single malts, so she has sort of come full circle. Since becoming master blender, she's been responsible for Benriach's relaunch, which was met with huge acclaim.
Since 1846, Dewar's has had only seven master blenders. Its latest — the first woman to hold the role — is Stephanie MacLeod. She is also the first woman to be awarded Master Blender of the Year at the International Whisky Competition — and she has done so for the past three years. MacLeod, who has a degree in food science, started in Dewar's quality department over two decades ago. She was then put in charge of the lab, where she established a sensory team. She was promoted to master blender in 2006, and she has since helped launch expressions like Japanese Smooth and Double Double 32-Year-Old.
Whiskey being a man's spirit is an old-fashioned stereotype. Women are smashing it … and finally getting their due.