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A History of Women in Alcohol

It’s International Women’s Day and we thought we’d celebrate by taking a look back at the often untold history of female-driven alcohol production.

PIONEERING BREWERS, INVENTORS & DISTILLERS

Although nowadays we tend to think of the craft spirit world as a masculine kind of place, this hasn’t always been the case. The history of women and alcohol is a long and fascinating one.

Back in the deep realms of history, around 4000 BC, beer was invented – by women. From Egypt, to Peru, to the Netherlands, women would ferment barley to make the drink, each with their own special recipes and levels of popularity. For many centuries, women were recognised as the “brewsters” – it’s only in the last 150 years that beer brewing has been taken over by men, when many women were prohibited from working in alcohol production.

By the fourth century AD, an early distilling apparatus was created – the alembic still, which is still used to create some European brandies and whiskies. Its credited inventor was an alchemist named Maria Hebraea, who lived in Alexandria between the first and third centuries, and who is considered to be the first true alchemist of the Western world. Over on the other side of the globe in China, Yi Di, wife of Yu the Great, was credited with making the first alcohol from rice grains.

A WITCH HUNT

At the start of the medieval period, women were distilling spirits across Western Europe. A halt was put to this when women were stripped of many of their basic rights: they weren’t allowed access to education, and they were forbidden from reading or writing. Along with this, they were denied access to alcohol. Around the beginning of the 13th century, women started popping up again in the history books of alcohol, running apothecaries and selling spirits, wine, and beer for medicinal use, called “aqua vitae”.

In the 1500s, the witch hunts began. Women found in possession of aqua vitae could be charged with witchcraft, and sentenced to death. The broomstick, a traditional insignia for alehouses, also became a symbol of witchery. Women fled in droves from distilling and brewing out of fear of being labelled as witches, effectively putting an end to female spirit production in Europe by the 1700s.

AMERICA – HOME-DISTILLING VS TEMPERANCE

Over in the United States, things were different – women were distilling at home. They would make whiskeys or beers, and in many man-seeking-wife advertisements of the day, this ability was a prerequisite. It didn’t take long for this to leave the realm of the domestic and become a business plan for the savvy-minded entrepreneuses of the period. By the 1850s, women were making roughly $2 million annually in alcohol sales – an enormous figure for the time. 

With the temperance movement in America, women went underground. Prostitutes would often produce and sell alcohol, and female bootleggers sustained the illicit alcohol business, as it was in many states illegal for male officers to search a woman’s person. The most famous bootlegger was Gertrude “Cleo” Lythgoe, who moved to the Bahamas at the start of Prohibition and started a wholesale whiskey business, running bootlegged spirits into the US. She died a millionaire in the 1960s, having outsmarted the authorities to such an extent that nobody ever discovered the whereabouts of her money.

WOMEN IN THE DRINKS INDUSTRY TODAY

Women have generally been discouraged from drinking alcohol, under the guise that it’s not a “ladylike” habit. It was only by the late 20th century that the practice became socially acceptable again, but alcohol and women have been entwined together throughout history. 

Nowadays, the alcohol sector is full of women. Women brewing, distilling, creating their own brands and products; famous female bartenders; and female wine and spirit experts.

The Japanese whiskey industry was almost single-handedly kicked off by a Scottish woman, Rita Taketsuru (born Jessie Roberta Cowan), and across rural Africa, most distilling operations are run by women. The numbers of female master distillers and master blenders have shot up over the last 10 years (particularly within the rum and gin communities, although whisky is starting to follow suit). 

Whilst there is still a long way to go in terms of equality within the drinks industry hierarchy, as well as the perception of drinking females, women remain deeply involved in this world and are now able to stand up and have their achievements recognised.