Bourbon Women

Written by Mike Veach

On June 20 The Filson Historical Society hosted an event for the members of Bourbon Women.  The evening had about 100 women drinking Wild Turkey at the reception before moving upstairs to hear a panel discuss women in the bourbon industry. The fact that so many women came to an event to drink and learn about bourbon did not surprise me. It is a trend I have noticed for the last decade. Women like bourbon and they also tend to like their bourbon at a higher proof with a lot of flavor. There is a historical basis for this growing popularity for bourbon amongst women.

Women are not new to the bourbon industry. During the war of 1812, women were issued licenses to distill in Kentucky. These distilleries were valuable assets to the economy and with so many men off fighting the British; it was left to their wives to run the farm, including the distillation of whiskey. The Filson has the license for Millie Stone in its collection.  Another early woman distiller was Catherine Carpenter who in 1918 wrote her recipes for sweet mash and sour mash whiskey. She had inherited the distillery from her husband. These are just a couple of examples of early women in the bourbon industry.

 Distillery License for Milly Stone,  Eli Huston Brown III Collection, Special Collections

Distillery License for Milly Stone, Eli Huston Brown III Collection, Special Collections

The latter part of the 19th century saw the role of women in the industry change. As bottled bourbon became more common, the industry hired many women to work on the bottling line. This became a one of the few factory jobs that employed women. These jobs represented economic freedom for many of these women. Prohibition would bring economic hardship to many of these women, costing them their jobs and often their sole means of income.

Women on bottling line, circa 1950s

Women on bottling line, circa 1950s, United Distillers Collection, Special Collections

When prohibition did happen, one woman did not take it lightly. Mary Dowling was the owner of the Waterfield and Frasier distillery and she did not like the fact that her distillery had to close. Her solution was to hire a Beam and move the distillery to Juarez, Mexico and to continue to make Waterfield and Frasier bourbon there during prohibition.  Prohibition did have the effect of allowing women to be more open in their drinking habits. Since the saloons were closed and the social rules against women drinking in public were relaxed or non-existent in the speak-easies, women became a large part of the market for spirits. Women soon became leaders in the movement to end prohibition.

Brown Forman Distillery

Staff at the Brown-Forman Distillery, circa 1930s, Brown-Forman Distillery Photograph Album, Special Collections

The period after prohibition saw women once again working on the bottling lines at the distilleries. The Second World War saw women moving from the bottling lines into the distilleries. There was resistance from the Unions to this shift since it was feared that women would be taking jobs away from the men who were fighting the war. Despite this resistance, the shortage of workers made it necessary for the distilleries to fill positions with women. After the war the bottling lines became the largest employer of women in the industry, but it was shown that women could do the work in the distillery as well and it was just a matter of time before they found positions in the distillery and even in the warehouses, moving barrels of bourbon.

Women also became a larger part of the consumers of bourbon as well. Drinking spirits was not something you did at the saloon anymore. More people were purchasing bottles for use at the home and the “Cocktail Party” became more popular. Women were often the people who would shop for these bottles and the marketing shifted to reflect that fact.  Advertising in magazines started to include women – often serving bourbon at a cocktail party. Bottle shapes and label designs became more complex as the distillers looked to catch the eye of the shopper looking for bourbon on the shelves at liquor stores.  Women were influencing the way bourbon was sold and by the end of the 20th century the consumer saw fewer brands with the word “old” on the label and bourbons that were lower in proof as marketing people tried to attract the woman consumer.

W. L. Weller advertisement on a postcard, circa 1960s

W. L. Weller advertisement on a postcard, circa 1960s

The fact is that women bourbon drinkers are growing in spite of the marketing efforts of the distillers. The distillers have not quite figured out how to sell their product to women. In the past ten years, I have seen more women at bourbon events, drinking bourbon neat and enjoying it in an Old Fashioned or Manhattan cocktail. Women have played an important part in the heritage of bourbon and it is good to see that they are now openly enjoying that heritage with bourbon in their glasses.

I. W. Harper advertisement, circa 1950s

I. W. Harper advertisement, circa 1950s, United Distillers Collection, Special Collections

Heather Potter

Heather Potter is the Curator of Photographs and Prints at The Filson Historical Society.

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