Though the whisky industry is more inclusive than ever before, fewer than 8% of distilleries in the U.S. are owned and operated by women. Regardless, dozens of hard-working women have helped build some of the brands we love and drink today. Defying the status quo and using their talents to revolutionize the industry, they have paved the way for the next generations of successful women in whisky.
Today, there are many women working in the whiskey – and whisky – industry. Here are just five women-led brands to consider in celebration of International Whiskey Day as we close out International Women’s Month.
Maker’s Mark owes its name, iconic bottle design, logo, tourist-friendly distillery campus, and signature red wax dip to the late Margaret “Margie” Samuels (1912-1985), wife of Maker’s Mark Founder Bill Samuels, Sr., a Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Famer and the first woman involved with a distillery to be inducted. A noted collector of fine English pewter, Margie knew the “maker’s mark” was a symbol of handcrafted quality, so she suggested the name Maker’s Mark to her husband, with whom she co-founded the brand in 1953.
She was a marketing genius ahead of her time, creating the distinctive look that has made Maker’s Mark one of the most recognized brands in the business. The red wax that adorns every bottle is still done entirely by hand today. Beyond the bottle, some claim that Margie created bourbon tourism by restoring Star Hill Campus and opening the distillery to welcome visitors.
Bessie Williamson (1910 -1982) came to Islay for three months to work as a secretary for the Laphroaig Distillery and ended up staying for more than 40 years. She began her career at Laphroaig as a shorthand typist, working directly with master distiller Ian Hunter. She quickly worked her way up the ranks of Laphroaig, serving as distillery manager and taking over the distillery as per Hunter’s will upon his passing.
She is noted as the first woman to manage a Scotch whisky distillery in the 20th century. As one of Islay’s most in-demand whiskies, Williamson first helped to expand the distillery and modernize their production facilities, turning the brand into the recognized global symbol it is today. She is credited as being instrumental in promoting single malt whisky, in particular Islay malts and Laphroaig, during the then-emerging U.S. trend for single malts.
Fawn Weaver and Victoria Eady Butler
Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey
Fawn Weaver is the Founder and CEO of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, and the first Black woman to lead a major American spirit company. Its core 1856 Premium Aged Whiskey and 1884 Small Batch Whiskey are must-buys for whiskey lovers and anyone looking to support female-run businesses.
Created to honor Nearest Green – the former enslaved black man who mentored Jack Daniel –Weaver has grown the brand from the ground-up in nearly half a decade. Weaver, with the help of a team of archaeologists, genealogists, historians, archivists and conservators, uncovered many key details in the lost story of Nearest Green and has made it her mission to bring it to light.
In addition to its incredible backstory, the whiskey has received rave reviews thanks to master blender Victoria Eady Butler, who is also the great-great granddaughter of Nearest Green and the first African American master blender for a major spirit brand. Eady Butler blended the most-awarded whiskey for the past four years and was given the Master Blender of the Year title two consecutive years in a row at the American Icons of Whiskey Awards – all without having had any prior experience in the whiskey business.
With Weaver at the helm an all-female exec team, Uncle Nearest is now also the fastest-growing whiskey brand in US history and the top selling Black-owned and founded spirit brand of all time.
The Busker Irish Whiskey
Caroline Martin is no stranger to whiskey, having come from a 35-year-long career working with brands such as J&B, Bell’s, Johnnie Walker and Old Parr, as well as Roe & Co. and Indian Signature. Her wealth of whiskey knowledge, experience, and dedication to the craft has brought her wide recognition across the industry, earning her the prestigious titles of Keeper of the Quaich and Blender of the Year by The Spirits Business in 2019 for her role with Roe & Co. In December 2021, Martin was appointed as the first female master blender of the Royal Oak Distillery, home of The Busker Irish Whiskey. Martin also proudly carries her reputation as a mentor and pioneer for women in whiskey.
Jack Daniel’s Family of Brands
As director of global innovation and trademark, Howell leads the all-female innovation team that convinced the 150+ year old brand to think differently, leading to the creation of Jack Daniel’s Bonded – Whiskey Advocate’s “Whiskey of the Year.”
Bottled-in-Bond at 100 proof (50% abv), the Bonded Series packaging was inspired by the original design of the 1895 Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey bottle. As stipulated by the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, a bonded whiskey must be distilled by a single distiller during a single season, matured in a government bonded warehouse for at least four years and bottled at 100 proof. Since Jack was one of the few brands around when the Bottle and Bond Act took place, Howell wanted to channel history to innovate. As she says, dipping into the past to pull into the future, keeping the balance between the brand’s rich history and staying relevant.