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Women & Whiskey

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Women have always played role in whiskey, says author

By Randy Patrick

In the 1660s, women who made Scotch whisky could be tried as witches, and in Ireland at that time, women distillers hid in the hills to elude authorities who considered it an insult to their manhood for lady bootleggers to ply their trade.

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Before the Civil War, it was prostitutes in America who dominated the sale of liquor, and in the 1930s, bootleggers like Cleo Lythgoe, who supplied customers ranging from Al Capone to, allegedly, one of the Kennedys, were famous — or infamous.

These days, women’s role in the whiskey industry has become respectable, but it is as potent as it ever was.

“Women are one of the main reasons why whiskey has grown to where it is today,” said Fred Minnick, journalist and author of “Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey.”

Speaking at Spalding Hall Wednesday, Minnick gave an outline of the importance of women in whiskey, telling stories about such luminaries as Laphroaig’s Bessie Williamson, the “Queen of Scotch,” and Margie Mattingly Samuels of Maker’s Mark, who was posthumously inducted Wednesday into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame during The Kentucky Bourbon Festival.

Minnick said Samuels was “perhaps the most important woman in bourbon history,” because she created Maker’s Mark’s name, label, slender bottle design and distinctive dripping wax trademark.

“When this came out on the shelves in the late 1950s, the bottle just stood out,” Minnick said. “You know, every bottle looked exactly the same, and then you had this red wax in a sea of gray.”

This “powerful color” on a liquor bottle, he said, “completely changed the packaging industry in liquor.”

Samuels also had the vision before anyone else for what is now the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Minnick said. The distilleries are “beautiful places,” so Samuels turned her family’s distillery into a “visitors’ experience.”

The writer ended his talk by mentioning women he described as the future of whiskey, such as Woodford Reserve’s new master taster, Mary Ann Eades.

“Technically, there are no female Kentucky master distillers, but almost all of the master distillers who are men report to women, so do you want to be the master distiller or the boss of the master distiller?” he asked.

Although he has written two other books, the author said, he thinks the one about women and whiskey will be his “legacy.”

Among those in the audience during Minnick’s talk were two sisters, Debbie Payne and Pat Weaver of Louisville, who were surprised to see their great-grandmother Josephine Mitchell’s 1906 picture on the cover of Minnick’s book.

“I remember her,” said Weaver. “I used to go to her house as a kid.”

Josephine Mitchell and her husband, Arthur, worked for the old Oscar Pepper Distillery, now Woodford Reserve’s Labrot and Graham Distillery near Midway, where Payne’s son James Payne now works.

The son arranged for his mother and aunt, his wife, Jennie Gibson, and Pat’s daughter, Joanna Kilburn, to attend the event with him.

“I had no idea there were this many women involved in the making of what my grandmother used to call hard liquor,” Weaver said.

After the talk, Minnick autographed copies of his book, which were given to each person who bought a ticket.