Wonderful whisky women in Birmingham

by Caroline Bletso

Wonderful whisky women

I do love me some whisky, and judging by the turnout for the (fabulous) whisky festival run by the (amazing) Whisky Birmingham, women are still rather in the minority on that front. Or maybe we’re just in hiding?

The Birmingham Whisky club, itself run by two (fabulous) women is countering the gent-ification of the beverage by holding whisky women events, tastings just for women.

I was extremely lucky to attend an extra special Whisky Women, celebrating the women behind the whiskies, especially for International Women’s Day. (International men’s day is 19th November, just to get that out of the way). I joined a group of women, both whisky virgins and aficionados, to sample six whiskies and to hear the stories of the women behind them.

Fellow tasters square

Queens of the bootleggers

First up, is the tale of the women who kept whiskey flowing- the Queens of the Bootleggers. Pre, post and during prohibition, it was mostly women who evaded taxes and arrest to supply the US with the amber liquid. Thanks to a law which made it illegal for male enforcers to search a woman (and of course these lovely ladies would never dream of bootlegging), they outnumbered the men 5 to 1 in that business.

Even when caught, sentences were very mild and it was a lucrative business- some women made nearly $30,000 in a year (for comparison, the average monthly wage for a man in the UK at in 1925 was £20). Every woman caught was reported by the press as the ‘Queen of the Bootleggers’- there were a dozen or more of these Queens reported…

So we raised a class of Jim Beam Double Oaked to the bootlegging ladies who kept the bourbon business running. As a bourbon fan, I thank you.

The Jim Beam Double Oak is a rather strong-flavoured offering, having matured in two charred-oak barrels. Toasty, caramel-heavy. Not a personal favourite but it’s only about £25, so not a bad offering!

Ellen Jane Corrigan, international Irish Whiskey

Then- Ellen Jane Corrigan, the widow of the founder of Bushmills Irish Whiskey. Now why is Ellen Jane so special? Because she introduced electricity to the distillery and took Irish whiskey international.

Esquire days: “During Ellen Jane’s tenure as owner and board member, Bushmill grew in size, developing the ability to ferment in 1,200-gallon pots, and in stature, winning awards in Cork, Liverpool, and Paris…. And although she was not the distiller, Ellen Jane would have been the chief executive officer by today’s corporate hierarchy.”

A toast to Ellen Jane Corrigan, with Bushmills Original Irish whiskey – fresh, light, vanilla and spice. All the descriptions I usually avoid in whiskey, but it went down well with my fellow tasters.

Swoosh for colour and oiliness
Swoosh for colour and oiliness

Distilleries in disguise- Helen Cumming

Another tax-evading whisky saviour was one Helen Cumming, founder of Cardhu distillery in 1824: “a most remarkable character and a woman of many resources; she possessed the courage and energy of a man, and in devices and plans to evade the gaugers, no man nor woman could equal her.” (Alfred Barnard, 1893 Whisky Encyclopedia) When the gaugers (tax collectors) visited, Helen disguised the distillery as a bakery and served the collectors tea whilst raising a flag to signal their presence to the other distillers.

She passed the distillery to her daughter in law Elizabeth, who expanded capacity, selling the old stills to a new set up called Glenfiddich. She tripled production and then sold the distillery to Johnnie Walker, to whom they already sold much of the Cardhu malt, thus cementing their success.

Cardhu! (It’s amazing how quickly whisky can affect one)
A Speyside. Fruity and a little dry, a little spicy.

The mother of Japanese whisky

Next up, the romantic story of a Scottish lass who married a Japanese man and became the mother of Japanese whisky. Masataka Taketsuru came to Scotland to study the art of whisky making, and lodged in the house of the Campbells. He and Jessica formed a strong bond, married in 1920 and moved to Japan. Jessica immersed herself in the language and the culture, supporting Taketsuru to create Nikka whisky in 1940. However not without trial- as war hit Jessica fell under suspicion.

Japanese authorities searched the house, believing her to be a spy. But the distillery staff defended her and she stood firm, seeing the distillery boom with the Japanese’ increasing taste for whisky.

We raise a glass of Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt. A Speyside style with a sherryish hint, a bit of coffee, a bit of smoke.

The tastings split the room somewhat- a division between peat lovers and not. And factions of bourbon vs Irish whiskey. But really, there’s a whisky for everyone. The next two are mine.

Swedish whisky

NOW: I’d been pretty excited about this one. Because it’s not just the history of women in whisky, this whisky woman is Angela D’Orazio, the current master blender for the Swedish whisky Mackmyra. Having worked previously for Glenmorangie, then setting up a whisky bar in a Swedish restaurant, Angela also set up the Swedish Scotch Whisky Society and the first Guiness World Record whisky tasting event in Sweden. Then she found Mackmyra, a distillery in very early infancy, and the rest is (and will be) history. Most pleasingly, we could actually tweet Angela to ask if the whisky is dyed- we thought not. It often is coloured for consistency, but, as Angela confirmed, Mackmyra Svensk Rök’s colour is entirely natural.

Miss Whisky asked Angela: Do you feel more women should or could be involved in the whisky industry?

A D’O: Yes, why not? A more gender-balanced whisky world would benefit all, from the board of directors to the distilleries, brands, consumers, whisky bars and festivals!

See the rest of the interview here: http://misswhisky.com/whisky-women-old/angela-dorazio/

Mackmyra Svensk Rök This is a fabulously light and deceptively peaty whisky. Reminding me a little of Kilchoman’s Machir Bay -which has the same peat level it transpires. Highly recommended.

My favourites Mackmyra Svensk Rok bottle
My favourites Mackmyra Svensk Rok

Bessie Williamson: Laphroaig

And then, a perennial favourite of mine, Laphroaig. And something I didn’t know about it- Bessie Williamson. The only woman to own and run a Scottish distillery in the 20th century, her name will be indelibly linked to Laphroaig (and is much more pronounceable). An educated woman with an Arts degree, Bessie was earning money to pay her way through teacher training college when, visiting Islay on holiday in 1934, she found a temporary vacancy for a shorthand typist at the distillery.
Ian Hunter, owner of the company behind Laphroaig took a shine to her and she became his most trusted lieutenant. After Hunter suffered a stroke, Bessie took on more of the business management. As the distillery re-started production following the war, Hunter transferred control to her.

Laphroaig flourished, demand outstripped supply and Bessie was invited to tour the US, giving lectures on Scotch whisky production. She later acquired funds from the US Long John Distillers, taking a place on their board, to modernise and improve the distillery.

And the result is this wonderful, warm, peaty whisky. Laphroaig Quarter Cask: Oily, sweet, hot.

My favourites Laphroaig Quarter Cask
My favourites Laphroaig Quarter Cask

Find more about Whiskey Birmingham and the Birmingham Whisky Club on their website here: thebirminghamwhiskyclub.co.uk


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