There’s been an uprising of fierce females over the past decade across the bourbon trade, an industry that has been seemingly male-dominated for the better part the last century. But a closer look at history reveals that women have been quietly governing the development of the industry for centuries, with roots being traced as far back as the war of 1812, when women like Catherine Carpenter and Milly Stone began taking over distilling operations while their husbands were off fighting the British. Today, women continue to take on more forward-facing leadership roles in the industry, making names for themselves as distillers and tasters and carving their own name in bourbon’s unique legacy.
Pamela Heilmann grew up thinking she’d become a school teacher, but instead found herself in male-dominated industries like agricultural machinery, steel and eventually distilling. Now the Master Distiller at Micther’s Distillery just outside Louisville, Heilmann is glad to see women competing for the spotlight in the world of bourbon. “It is wonderful that women are also getting recognition for their contributions to the industry,” she says, “Women have always played a part in the industry but in roles that were not so visible and maybe not as many leadership roles.” Bourbon fascinated Heilmann because of its blend of art and science, and she likes that her job allows her to be both creative and logical. “It’s the best of both worlds for me,” she says.
When it comes to the perfect bourbon cocktail, Master Distiller Pamela Heilmann believes simple is best.
“I enjoy our bourbon and rye neat for the most part. Simple cocktails like a Bourbon Mule made with ginger beer and lime juice is very refreshing on a warm day. They have just a couple ingredients and can be made to your taste and simply garnished.”
A dynamic mother-daughter duo leads the charge at Jeptha Creed Distillery, with Joyce Nethery at the distilling wheel and her daughter Autumn Nethery as the head of marketing. A lifetime of developing skills ranging from finance to farming have culminated in Joyce’s most impressive role yet as Master Distiller. And she’s not afraid to get innovative with her distilling process. The distillery’s now-discontinued Bloody Butcher’s Creed was made with the Bloody Butcher corn she grew herself as a part of their experimental line. In addition to whiskey, you’ll find moonshine and vodka distilling on the Shelby County property. Joyce’s distilling skills combined with Autumn’s creative marketing strategies have led to the continued success of this little distillery. You can taste their moonshine and vodka now, but their bourbon is currently aging and will be ready for release in 2019.
Then of course, there’s Marianne Eaves, the first woman Master Distiller in Kentucky, who traveled a unique path before she found her ultimate calling in the world of whiskey. Her eagerness and passion for exploration led her from chemical engineering to bourbon—and she hasn’t looked back. “I love the harmony of art and science in my work,” says Barnes, “I tend to use both sides of my brain equally, so it’s appealing to me to have the freedom to be creative but with lots of technical processes and data to analyze.”
“My favorite bourbon cocktail has to be an old fashioned, and there are a thousand ways to make them unique. My favorite style includes simple syrup, black walnut and orange bitters with an orange twist or a luxardo cocktail cherry. You’ll know if your bartender knows how to make a good old fashioned right away – if he throws the fruit in and muddles it or if you see the club soda gun come out, prepare yourself for a so-so drink.”
– Marianne Eaves
Eaves’ first internship and eventual job was at Brown Forman, whose reputation for hands-on learning experiences greatly appealed to her. Eaves admits that she did not have a taste for bourbon early in her career, but she quickly developed her palate for the amber spirit through direct and immersive learning experiences. She began training under Woodford Reserve’s Master Distiller, Chris Morris, shortly becoming Woodford’s first Master Taster and heir to the Master Distiller. News of her talent spread, however, and she was later offered a partnership at the Castle and Key Distillery, where she became the first female Master Distiller since Prohibition.
Eaves isn’t the only distilling expert to get her start at Brown-Forman. In fact, the company has been a springboard of sorts for the advancement of women within the industry. Elizabeth O’Neil McCall, for instance, landed her first job in the industry at Brown-Forman as a Quality Control Sensory, and quickly moved on to becoming Master Taster and now Assistant Master Distiller at Woodford Reserve Distillery. O’Neil’s knowledge of Woodford Reserve is second to none within the industry, and she spends each and every day on the distillery grounds ensuring the quality control procedures and measurements are in working order. She also frequently travels throughout the United States to educate people about Woodford Reserve, enthusiastically sharing her bourbon expertise with the world.
Women have been quietly part of the bourbon movement for centuries, but today their voices can be heard across the industry as more and more women continue to cultivate a rich environment for other women to shine. To quote Pam Heilmann, “It’s great that everyone can achieve recognition with hard work and dedication in their trade.”