– The Great Women of Whisky –

Bessie Williamson of Laphroaig

As we saw in the last article, the Robertson sisters were definitely icons in the world of whisky. But there have been others. Like Elizabeth “Bessie” Williamson. Born in 1910 in Glasgow, her family had no connection to the whisky business until Bessie got a summer job as a typist at the LaphroaIg Distillery on the island of Islay, at the ripe old age of 24. She quickly became office manager, and in 1938, when her boss, distillery manager Ian Hunter, suffered a stroke, Bessie took on responsibility for sales and distribution in the United States. During WW2, she took over as distillery manager, and saved the company from bankruptcy by storing 400 tons on ammunition in the distillery warehouses.
When Hunter died in 1954, he left his controlling interest in the distillery to her, believing that she was the only person to carry on the Laphraoig tradition. Bessie soon turned her attention to shifting emphasis from blended whisky to single malt sales believing that it was the future of whisky. She was right. She also became official spokesperson for the Scotch Whisky Association, touring the United States to promote Scotch whisky.
On one of her trips, she met, and eventually married Canadian radio star Wishart Campbell, the grandson of an Islay minister. He moved with her to Islay, arriving with only a suitcase and a grand piano. Despite her immense popularity in the community, the rum drinking Campbell never fit in, and was regarded as nothing more than a gold digger.
Bessie Williamson was the only woman to own and run a distillery in Scotland during the 20th century.

Looking back to the 1800’s, Helen Cummings, the wife of a whisky smuggler, is recognized as the founder of the Cardhu Distillery in 1824. She initially distilled product illegally on the family farm, selling it through the kitchen window of the farmhouse. During the regular police and tax collection raids, she would put on a flour-covered apron and pretend that she ran a bakery and a tea room, and invite them to stay and have a cup. In 1885, she passed the distillery, now fully functional and legitimate, to her widowed daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Cummings, with Helen staying on in an advisory role. In 1893 the operation was sold to Johnnie Walker and Sons, to whom most of Cardhu’s whisky had been sold for use in blends. In addition to her whisky legacy, on her death at 98, she left behind 8 children and a whopping 56 grand children.

Helen Cummings – Founder of Cardhu Distillery.

Next is a fascinating, if unlikely, story of the Mother of Japanese Whiskey – Jessie Roberta Cowan. In 1920, a young Japanese man, Masatake Taketsuru travelled to Scotland to learn how to make whisky. Against all family wishes, he met and married a young Jessie Cowan, and the couple returned to Japan to live. They built a distillery, which went on to become the founding distillery of the now famed Suntory company. Ten yers later, they built another, the Nikka Distillery, in the Japanese highlands, because the area reminded them of the Scottish Highlands. The company became successful during WW2, as the demand for whisky for the Japanese military grew.
But there were problems. The Japanese government suspected Jessie of being a spy, and their house was raided regularly looking for secret radio transmission equipment. Following the attack on Pearl Harbour, people in her neighborhood would throw rocks at her when she ventured outside. Unfortunately, she died in 1961 of complications from tuberculosis and liver disease.
In recent years, however, Jessie has been recognized worldwide, and particularly in Japan, for her significant contribution to the development of the Asian whisky industry. A road in her Japanese hometown has been named for her, and a television show about her life has recently been released in Japan, resulting in a 20% increase in sales of Nikka whiskey.

Jessie Cowan and her husband

So, who is the only woman to have a distillery in her name? For that we go to Marion County, Kentucky, in the mid-1800’s. The Blair Distillery, owned by Thomas Blair and W.T Ballard, was producing limited quantities of whisky under the Smith and Smith label. In 1907, Blair died, leaving his share of the company to his wife Mary Jane. Rather than remain a silent partner, as was expected fro a woman in those days, she promptly bought out the remaining partners in the distillery and renamed it The Mary Jane Blair Distillery, and named herself as President and CEO. The distillery prospered until Prohibition in 1919. They operated briefly under the name Old Saxon Distillery until Mary Jane’s death in 1922, eleven years before Prohibition ended. Her son, Nick, re-opened the distillery under the name Blair Distilling and operated it until the Great Depression when it was mothballed again. It was subsequently leased to Seagrams and was eventually dismantled.

Couldn’t find a pic of Mary Jane but here is one of her original whiskey bottles

A truly iconic group that helped shape the industry. Next time, we’ll take a look at the women who are currently carrying on the proud whisky tradition. So, until then, try a Cardhu or a Laphroaig or a Nikka, or a Saxon if you can find one, and celebrate. Cheers!


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