Pioneering Scotch whisky women of the past & present
It’s no secret that, until quite recent times, the Scotch whisky industry was run almost exclusively by men. They were responsible for every stage in the production of the liquid and held the vast majority of roles in management, finance, sales and marketing. Although many women were employed in the business of whisky making, they were generally to be found in secretarial and junior clerical positions, or working in bottling halls in towns and cities across the country.
Yet the whisky industry was not originally a male preserve.
Like brewing, distilling began as a household industry in Scotland, whether in urban areas or the countryside. As working men (and many younger women) spent long periods away from the family home each day – working on the land, in manufacturing or at sea – the making of beer was commonly entrusted to the women who stayed behind, along with cooking and other household tasks. Many of those women also learned how to distil their beer in small stills to make whisky.
Women whisky makers are occasionally mentioned in the records of the town councils of Glasgow, Edinburgh and others. Whisky-making and retailing was particularly popular with those (often widows) who kept inns, hotels and lodging-houses. They found customers at every level of society: the Rector of Glasgow University, for example, bought large quantities of whisky from a woman called Jonet [sic] Cochrane in the early 17th century, as gifts for men employed on university business.
There are few surviving descriptions of domestic whisky making in Scotland, but the historian Iseabel Glen’s research uncovered intriguing details of the trade in Kintyre in the early 1800s. Among the papers of a Campbeltown coppersmith, Robert Armour, were details of his business making and repairing stills, mostly for local people. More than a fifth of his customers were women – often working in partnerships with other women or men, taking turns to work their communal still in fermtouns (that is, a collection of cottages for the workers on a farm) and other small rural communities. Distilling provided a welcome source of income for poor and not-so-poor families, who had access to supplies of grain and could earn cash on a finished product that required only a small, shared capital outlay on a pot, a head and a worm. They sold their ‘barley bree’ to smugglers and dealers who would find ready buyers for cash in Scotland’s towns and cities.
Gregor Adamson, in his history of the whisky industry on Arran, found many references to women making whisky on the island before the 1820s. One of them, Peggy Donaldson, was employed as the brewer at the Glenshant Distillery in the early 1790s. But very few women appear in the records of distilling after the Excise Acts of 1822 and 1823, when the controls over whisky production – and the means of suppressing the illicit trade of the small distillers – were increased dramatically by the British Government. The Scotch whisky industry grew at a dramatic rate thereafter, and even pot still whisky making became a relatively large-scale manufacturing process in which jobs such as those of maltmen, brewers and stillmen were almost exclusively entrusted to men.
Yet women continued to own distilleries, albeit in smaller numbers. Among the best-known were Jane McGregor at Littlemill, Elizabeth Conacher at Blair Atholl and Elizabeth Phillips at Glenturret. The ‘M’ of M. Mcfarlane & Co, proprietor of the famous Port Dundas Distillery in Glasgow, was Marion Mcfarlane, a member of a wealthy dynasty of distillers who had married the distiller, Robert. Like Marion, most of these women were widows and (as was the case later, at distilleries such as Glenmorangie, Laphroaig and Ardbeg) it is often unclear the extent to which they managed the businesses themselves, rather than putting their affairs in the hands of male family members, trustees and other agents. As Fred Minnick points out in his excellent book, Whiskey Women (Potomac Books, 2013), that was certainly the case with Margaret Sutherland. She was the widow of Donald, owner of Dalmore Distillery in Alness, and took up the management of the business after his death. Sadly, her father and brother persuaded her to let them take charge of the distillery’s affairs and their ineptitude resulted in Margaret being declared bankrupt in 1860.
While many of the Victorian female distillery owners may have taken a back seat when it came to managing their businesses, that was certainly not the case at Cardow in Moray. Helen Cummings was the wife of an illicit distiller at their farm there and was known to have played a prominent role in the illicit distilling business they conducted there. Her husband obtained a distillery licence in 1824 and ‘Granny Cumming’ is said to have continued to take an interest in the business long after it was transferred to her son Lewis in 1832. She lived to the remarkable age of 97 – two years after Lewis passed away in 1872 – and had eight children and 56 grandchildren.
The famous Victorian whisky writer Alfred Barnard described Helen as ‘a woman of many resources; she possessed the courage and energy of a man…’ – an epitaph which reveals the respect in which she was held locally, as well as the prevailing and rather patronising Victorian attitude often shown to women in business!
Lewis’ widow (and Helen’s daughter-in-law) Elizabeth Cumming inherited the distillery in 1872 and proved herself to be an equally energetic proprietor. The family did not own the ground on which the original distillery had been built, so in 1884 Elizabeth shrewdly purchased land nearby and erected a new distillery there, with three times the production capacity of the old one. She subsequently built another warehouse along with cottages for her distillery workers, supplied with running water. She also registered the name ‘Car-dhu’ as a trademark.
Alfred Barnard wrote that she:
“…personally conducted the business for nearly seventeen years, and to her efforts alone is the continued success of the distillery entirely due. In order to properly conduct the concern, she qualified herself for the business, studying the art of malting and distilling, and making herself generally acquainted with every detail. … As a book-keeper and correspondent, Mrs Cumming has not, in her own sex, an equal in the country... [she possessed] business acumen and a thorough knowledge of commerce that could not be excelled by one of the sterner sex [ie: a man!].”
Elizabeth’s son John eventually joined her in the management of the business. In September 1893, when she was 65, they sold it to the blenders John Walker & Co for £20,000, with John receiving a seat on the board of the blending company and remaining in charge at Cardow, and Elizabeth retaining her house and farm there.
If anything, the first 80 years of the twentieth century saw women play even fewer leading roles in the whisky industry than they had in Victorian times. There, were two notable exceptions.
Janet Harbinson was the daughter of Roderick Kemp, the owner of the Macallan Distillery in Moray. Her husband became managing partner of the business when Kemp died in 1909, but when he too passed away, in 1918, Janet stepped in as his successor to manage the business – R. Kemp Macallan-Glenlivet – on behalf of the family.
Janet was nearly 50 years of age when she took on the management of Macallan, with no known experience in commerce or distilling. But she found sound advisors and went on to become a solid and shrewd businesswoman herself, guiding the distillery through the difficult inter-War years when the whisky industry was buffeted by the effects of worldwide recession, falling consumption, high taxes and Prohibition in the USA. She could claim to have laid the foundations for Macallan’s post-war success.
Bessie Williamson began working at Laphroaig as a secretary-cum-administrator in 1934 and became the trusted lieutenant of the owner, Ian Hunter. Hunter made her company secretary in 1950, with a small shareholding in D. Johnston & Co, and he left the business to her in his will in 1954 when she became Scotland’s only female distillery owner. She managed the business successfully for many years, latterly selling a stake to Long John Distillers. She continued to work as Chairman and Managing Director of the company until her retirement in 1972.
Janet and Bessie were exceptions in the twentieth century, when the management of whisky businesses remained largely in male hands. But change came, slowly at first, in the 1970s. Young scientists such as Maureen Robinson, a pharmacist (who joined Distillers Company Ltd in 1977), Caroline Martin (who followed her in 1986) and Rosemarie Cassidy (who joined James Burroughs Distillers Ltd in 1988) were recruited to jobs in company laboratories, working in sensory analysis roles and progressing to positions as blenders and whisky creators. Carol Inch, Diageo’s Barley Operations Manager, began as a lab assistant in the late 1970s.
Several of these scientists were recruited to the industry by Pentlands Scotch Whisky Research (PSWR), the forerunner of the Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI). The Sensory Scientist Sheila Burtles, for example, worked there with Jim Swan on the development of the first Scotch whisky flavour wheel in 1979. And Rachel Barrie started her career at PSWR in 1992 before moving to Macdonald & Muir (now Glenmorangie), where she became Scotch whisky’s first female Master Blender and established her reputation as one of the industry’s most innovative whisky makers.
United Distillers, another predecessor company of Diageo, encouraged the first of the new wave of female distillery managers, providing opportunities for women such as Kay Fleming (who started with Arthur Bell & Sons) to make their mark. Many women began stepping across from marketing positions in the wine industry, with Jill Preston of Chivas Brothers heading up the company’s hugely ambitious and influential visitor centre developments in the 1990s. Today, as one would expect, women are employed at every level in the whisky industry.
It has taken a little longer for women to start up their own distilling businesses once more, after a few false starts. But Annabel Thomas has led the way as founder and CEO of Nc’nean Distillery in Argyll. Nc’Nean began distilling in 2017 and is raking in plaudits for its whisky and for its approach to sustainable production methods. Meanwhile, Heather Nelson’s distillery at Toulvaddie in Easter Ross is soon to open.