The 2016 season of The Legends Series at the Kentucky Derby Museum started with a bang last week with Whiskey Women. At this point in history it should be no surprise to anyone that women work in the whiskey business as well as imbibe in the spirit from time to time. What many people don’t realize, though, is there was once a time when women were prohibited, either by law or by unwritten industry rules, to work in certain parts of a distillery.
Victoria Macrae Samuels found herself at the dinner table of Booker Noe’s house almost 3 decades ago after earning a degree in theoretical physical chemistry. Booker asked her to join Beam as a research chemist in R&D. Eventually when she wanted to move out to the production floor there was resistance, but now she’s the Vice President of Operations at Maker’s Mark. Pam Heilman of Michter’s met with similar resistance when she began at the Booker Noe plant in Boston, Kentucky though she’s now risen to become the Distiller and Vice President of Production at Michter’s.
Younger generations of women don’t have as much resistance in the whiskey industry these days. Andrea Wilson worked as a consultant for Diageo for over a decade before joining the Michter’s team as the Vice President/General Manager. Chemical engineering degrees are apparently the way to go if you want to be fast tracked to the top at a bourbon distillery, and the industry is constantly clamoring for more talent as it grows. Marianne Barnes started off as in intern at Brown-Forman before becoming their Master Taster in line to become the next Master Distiller for Woodford Reserve. She then left to become the Master Distiller at Castle and Key at the former Old Taylor Distillery.
It’s important to acknowledge the strides women have made in the whiskey industry because there was certainly a time when women were not invited to participate. Now that women have reached all levels of the American whiskey industry our presence is ceasing to be particularly noteworthy. Kudos to Fred Minnick and The Kentucky Derby Museum for tackling this topic in a way that acknowledged but didn’t pigeonhole women’s struggles and contributions. For more information on upcoming programs click here.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl