Inspiring whisky women past, present and future
Women’s History Month is celebrated each year in March, with International Women’s Day, also falling on March 8th every year. During this time, we feel it is important to highlight a few of the incredible Women of Whisky. Let’s celebrate and champion the wonderful women who make the whisky industry both inspiring and incredibly fascinating, as well as opening the doors to whisky lovers of the future.
We will be exploring historical female figures, our modern history makers and the women who are, right now, carving the future of whisky.
Helen and Elizabeth Cumming – Cardhu
Cardow Distillery (rebranded Cardhu in 1981), was founded in 1811 by John and Helen Cumming, albeit an illicit distillery at that time. By 1816 John had been convicted three times for malting and distilling ‘privately’! It is widely believed that in this time Helen oversaw distilling and the running of operations. When new legislation came into force in 1823, the Cummings were one of the first to take out a licence, legitimising the distillery.
They later passed the Cardow onto their son Lewis and his wife Elizabeth, who ran the distillery until his death in 1872. After Lewis’s passing Elizabeth took on operations. Over the following two decades, before her death in 1894, she oversaw the expansion of the distillery and trademark of Car-Dhu, eventually being sold to John Walker and Sons in 1893. To this day Helen is depicted on the front of their whisky bottles, commemorating her role in the distillery’s history.
Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Williamson – Laphroaig
Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Williamson’s legacy is entwined in the history of Laphroaig as the only woman to own and run a Scotch whisky distillery in the 20th Century. Born in Glasgow, Bessie visited Islay in the summer of 1934, where she fell in love with the island and applied for a role as a typist at Laphroaig Distillery. Owner, Ian Hunter gradually handed over many responsibilities to Bessie appointing her company secretary.
After Hunter’s death in 1954, he left a generous sum of money, land, his home, and the distillery business all to Bessie. She flourished in this role and was considered to be an exceptional manager and leader, becoming a beloved member of the Islay community. In 2019 Laphroaig released a special 25 year old whisky in honour of her story.
Susan Morrison – Chief Executive at The Scotch Whisky Experience
At The Scotch Whisky Experience, we marry together the worlds of whisky and tourism with the aim to inspire the next generation of whisky lovers. Chief Executive, Susan Morrison, has been with us since our doors opened in 1988, starting as a tour guide, aged 18, she used her passion for languages, whisky, and people to advance through many roles, now leading the company.
In 2010 Susan became (at the time) one of the few female Masters of the Quaich, a title awarded to those who have shown outstanding commitment to the Scotch Whisky Industry.
Karen Somerville – Angels’ Share Glass
Angels’ Share Glass was founded in 2013 by Dad and Daughter team Tom Young MBE and Karen Somerville (Young). While watching the movie ‘The Angels’ Share’ they realised that despite being a key element in the story of whisky, there was no one making products to tell the tale. Combining their skills and love for whisky they started their company, creating beautiful, hand blown, glass objects that contain the angels’ share of whisky. Karen is also a director of the Fife Whisky Festival.
Justine Hazlehurst – Kask Whisky
Taking her expertise and experience in education and passing on fascinating facts, secondary school teacher Justine, took a leap of faith in 2015 setting up her whisky history walking tours and tastings. The secrets of Leith and Edinburgh’s past come to light through her infectious storytelling. Justine has established a strong community of Edinburgh whisky lovers and is also co-director of the Fife Whisky Festival.
Stephanie MacLeod – Director of Blending
Stephanie joined Dewars in 1998 and worked as Master Blender designate for over a decade as part of the extraordinary succession planning so often built into the most iconic of Scotland’s whiskies. As custodian of the Dewars “secret recipe”, only Stephanie and her blending assistant are privy to the closely guarded alchemy behind the brand.
Dr. Rachel Barrie – Master Blender
Rachel Barrie began her career as a research scientist for the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, this is where she developed her love for whisky and came to the realisation that it was her dream to become a Master Blender. This would be a long process and require time and patience to develop the knowledge and skills she would need. Rachel took her first role in production working for The Glenmornagie Company and by 2003 she was named Master Blender.
Since then, she has worked in several of Scotland’s leading distilleries, helping in the creation of some iconic whiskies. Today, you can find her working for BenRiach, GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh, having just celebrated 30 years in the Scotch whisky industry!
Alumni of The Scotch Whisky Experience
The Scotch Whisky Experience has, for decades, been a springboard for young women to progress their careers in the whisky industry. With Heriot Watt’s Brewing & Distilling degree on Edinburgh’s doorstep and a thriving tourism and hospitality scene in the city, it’s the perfect blend to inspire a passion in students to work in Scotch whisky.
Here are some of our female alumni, ex-team or “SWEople” as they’re affectionately known who have moved on through the world of Scotch. (We’ll make sure we celebrate the men soon too – promise!)
Vicki Grayshaw – William Grants