From the perspective of a drinker looking behind the bar at fancy bottles of Herradura tequila, GlenDronach scotch or Zacapa rum, the job of master distiller or master blender might seem glamorous. Women filling senior roles at those brands, though, might be living a less showy everyday reality of dodging forklifts in an industrial plant or evaluating glass after glass of samples in laboratory-like conditions. Given the growing power of women as spirits consumers – recent stats show women now make up 30 per cent of whisky buyers, for example – it's about time more women had a hand in producing the spirits we drink, both at international brands and in local artisanal distilleries.
Appleton Estate Rum
Visitors returning to the lush, Jamaican valley home of Appleton in January after a one-year renovation of its visitor centre were welcomed into the "house of Joy." The Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience is named for the world's first female master blender of spirits – a visionary so instrumental in promoting the country and its signature drink, she's a Commander in Jamaica's Order of Distinction. Spence, who holds a master's degree in analytical chemistry, says, "Creating rums gives me the perfect balance of art and science, where they're completely intertwined." The highlight of exploring the distillery is a sip of Joy, the exquisite $400/bottle blend she created last year: It contains rum from the 1981 vintage, the year Spence joined Appleton.
Mill Street Brewery and Distillery
Her grey coveralls have "Martha" embroidered on the iconic oval patch, and delicate gold and star-sapphire drops twinkle on her earlobes. Martha Lowry, the head distiller at Mill Street, celebrates the female presence at Mill Street (which also boasts a female master brewer, Kaitlin Vandenbosch) in other subtle ways. For the second time, they've made a special IWD beer with female co-workers: Proceeds from this year's She'll Be Right pale ale will support the Pink Boots Society's industry education for women. The Guelph horticulture graduate loves the profession because "distilling is really creative. And I can get really geeky into the science at the same time." The Mill Street Small Batch Gin she produced last year, rich with citrus and licorice notes, was a smash; she has whisky made from Prince Edward County grain aging in barrels now. When Mill Street opens its new Broadview and Queen East Cider House in Toronto on March 8, "We'll be crushing apples, then celebrating by drinking our beer," Lowry says.
"I wanted to work somewhere where every day would feel like a new science experiment," says Eboni Major, who helps create the spicy, smooth flavour of Bulleit in Shelbyville , Ky., where Canadian Charisse Woods is also part of the distilling team. Major is from Alabama, where she earned a master's degree in food science. "I don't think we can possibly understate how important it is for more and more women to pursue an education in math and science," says the whisky blender, who also credits her strong senses of curiosity, creativity and desire to innovate for her success in a traditional man's den. "Now's an exciting time for women in our industry because the perception of who should be making, selling and enjoying whisky is shifting."
Master distiller Joanne Moore has created so many of the juniper-forward, botanical-enriched spirits for venerable 250-year-old British spirits house G&J – from Berkeley Square and Greenall's London Dry gins to the floral, aromatic Bloom – she's a living legend. The extraordinary sensory talents of the trained biochemist were discovered in the quality-control department of the company 22 years ago. "Women have more taste receptors than men, so theoretically, tasting and identifying flavours should come more naturally to us," Moore says. To come up with unique products, such as the exotically Spice Route-tinged Opihr gin, Moore researches global flavour trends and considers what could work in the bottle. "I always remain true to myself."
No. 13 Distillery
When they come out within the next year, the spirits from Manitoba's first female-run craft distillery will proudly sport the name No. 13. It's the namesake of a decommissioned Winnipeg fire hall, once owned and redeveloped by the late father of Jenna Diubaldo. "My father had always been an entrepreneur," says Diubaldo, a community worker and former singer in a Winnipeg rock band, who wanted to open a business of her own. Craft cocktails were a passion, so she completed the Distillery School at small-batch B.C. distillery Sons of Vancouver, which inspired her own similarly small-scale, but creatively ambitious, operation. Gin (including one incorporating Manitoba botanicals) and spirits such as amaro and a triple-sec-style liqueur are among her planned products. With her finance manager and stepsister Kyla Wiseman, she's preparing to open one of only a handful of pioneering distilleries in a province that already has many talented female brewers. "We're hoping to be an outlet for more women to get interested in distilling in Manitoba," she says.
The Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark
It's one of the world's most popular and bestselling scotches, and only a few people in the world have ever known the recipe for the blend, first made for Queen Victoria in 1896. In 2016, Kirsteen Campbell, also master blender of Cutty Sark blended scotch, joined their ranks. A food scientist with a killer nose who was tapped by the spirits industry nearly 20 years ago, Campbell oversees a library of around 11,000 sample spirits at parent company Edrington, where her team might nose as many as 600 samples a day. With innovative new editions of the popular brands – from the overproof Cutty Sark Prohibition to the smoky punch of the Black Grouse Alpha Edition – Campbell is leaving her mark on the iconic brands.